Past and present. 75 years of history
The excavations at Plaça del Rei. 1931© MUHBA ancient excavations collection
THE BACKGROUND TO THE MUSEUM
After the Universal Exposition of Barcelona in 1888, several institutional attempts were made to create a permanent exhibition and a series of collections specifically on the history of Barcelona. The most notable of these was a collection that was given a place at the Museum of Art and Archaeology. This was located in the old arsenal of the Citadel, now the seat of the Parliament of Catalonia.
However, the origins of the Museum in its earliest form can be found in the exhibition that was organised by Agustí Duran i Sanpere in the City of Barcelona Pavilion for the 1929 International Exposition. This event was not simply a collection of unique items but also an initiative created with the idea of explaining history of the city. After that first experience, Agustí Duran i Sanpere worked tirelessly during the years of Spain's Second Republic to create the Barcelona History Museum, which would initially remain in the aforementioned pavilion at the Exposition.
One crucial factor that explains the final location chosen for the city’s Museum was the decision to move Casa Padellàs, stone by stone, from Carrer Mercaders to the site of Plaça del Rei in 1931, as a result of the construction work to build Via Laietana. The works to lay the building’s foundations in its new location uncovered the remains of a major part of ancient Roman Barcino, and gave rise to an ambitious archaeological intervention that spread throughout the whole of Plaça del Rei.
In addition to these important archaeological finds, the mansion Palau Reial Major was restored when, in 1932, the Museu Provincial d’Antiguitats (the Provincial Antiquities Museum, which had been in the Chapel of Santa Àgata since 1877) was dismantled. Likewise, when the convent of Santa Clara (which had occupied part of the Palau since 1718) was abandoned by the nuns at the beginning of the civil war, and demolition work started on the church inside it, the great hall of Tinell was rediscovered. After the war, a decision had to be made over whether Casa Padellàs should be used to house Escola Massana, the collections of decorative arts, or the city Museum. The decision was made in favour of the latter.
THE HISTORY OF THE CITY MUSEUM
The Museum was formally created in April 1940 and it was originally called the Museum of the History of the City. It opened officially on 14 April 1943 as part of the Institut Municipal d’Història (Municipal History Institute), with Agustí Duran i Sanpere as the head of both the Institute and the Museum. The Museum’s initial nucleus was comprised of both the municipal collections on the history of Barcelona that had been compiled since the 19th century, and the heritage spaces at the monumental site of Plaça del Rei – Casa Padellàs, the subsoil featuring the excavations of the ancient and late ancient city, and Palau Reial Major, including Saló del Tinell and the Chapel of Santa Àgata.
Thanks to the work of the Servicio Municipal de Excavaciones Arqueológicas de la Ciudad (City Municipal Archaeological Excavation Service), the Museum already had links with the archaeological research projects being carried out in the municipal area. Apart from the Plaça del Rei excavations, the restoration work being done on the towers on the wall of Roman origin and at other sites around the city, the archaeological interventions organised by the Museum produced several important finds from the Roman city, and these were duly added to the Museum's collections. Likewise, the excavations carried out beneath the Carrer dels Comtes and under the cathedral led to the discovery of an area which experts believed to be the palaeo-Christian basilica of Barcelona.
Gradually, the Museum of History of the City began to incorporate spaces in the vicinity, such as Barcelona’s Roman temple (1956), the Roman burial path at Plaça de la Vila de Madrid (1957) and the remains of a Roman villa discovered in Plaça d’Antoni Maura (not currently open to the public). The Museum also had direct links with the institution Vil·la Joana in Vallvidrera (which the City Council turned into a space dedicated to the memory of Jacint Verdaguer in 1962, and which was later fully incorporated into the Museum), and the collection of paintings Galeria de Catalans Il·lustres (Gallery of Eminent Catalans), now in the Reial Acadèmia de Bones Lletres de Barcelona (Royal Academy of Literature of Barcelona).
In 1961, a concrete roof was built to shelter the archaeological remains at Plaça del Rei, which were linked with Casa Padellàs the following year. This meant that the archaeological subsoil could now be fully integrated into the Museum's projects. In the early 1960s, certain aspects of the permanent exhibition were modified, though without changing the basic organisational approach laid down by Duran i Sanpere. Casa Padellàs featured rooms devoted to different subjects, such as the municipal governments of ancient times, Barcelona’s guilds and associations, the Corpus Cristi procession and the popular and festive imagery of the city, the printed calico industry, 18th-century Barcelona, urban reform and the Cerdà development plan, and the construction of Via Laietana.
In 1960, the Museum published the first issue of the magazine Cuadernos de Arqueología e Historia de la Ciudad, which covered the various research projects being carried out by the Museum, supervised by the Seminari d’Arqueologia i Història de la Ciutat (Seminar on the Archaeology and History of the City). Two years later, the first issue of the magazine Miscellanea Barcinonensia (1962-1978) appeared, a municipal publication commissioned by the Museum devised as a magazine of high culture. Its main objective was to reflect the official cultural life of that time.
With the advent of the new town councils following the arrival of democracy in 1979, and amid a very broad debate on museum renovation in Barcelona and Catalonia as a whole, it became clear that the installations at the old Museum of History of the City had to be updated and its conceptual approach redesigned. This produced many different essays and projects on the subject, which in turn resulted in several initiatives. There was the project to enlarge the permanent exhibition in the building adjacent to Casa Padellàs (the block had been expropriated for the Museum in the late 1960s), and the new project to adapt the archaeological subsoil in the Tinell area. Commenced in 1982 and completed in 1991, it involved the recuperation of the Sala de les Voltes (vaulted hall). Finally, also in 1991 the final touches were made to a building in Zona Franca which would be the first structure designated as a storage space for archaeological items and for restoring the Museum's collections.
The conservation and maintenance problems at Casa Padellàs, together with the fact that the permanent exhibition (then 50 years old) was decidedly out of date, led to its closure in 1992. The following year, the Museum embarked on a new phase, following the restoration of the Institut Municipal d’Història (Municipal History Institute), and work duly began on renovating all the installations, excavations and museum spaces. At last it was decided not to renovate the permanent exhibition at Casa Padellàs, but instead to prepare it as an available space, together with the Tinell, for promoting a new programme of temporary exhibitions.
In 1993 an exhibition was held at Casa Padellàs to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Museum, an event that was used as an opportunity to take a retrospective look at the Museum’s history, the importance of Duran i Sanpere and the new projects. From 1994 to 1999, a comprehensive museum-based renovation was carried out on the entire archaeological area beneath the Museum. In 1996, this became part of a new institutional framework, following the creation of the Institut de Cultura de Barcelona (ICUB) as the body responsible for supervising all municipal actions in the area of culture.
As in other European cities at that time, a series of heritage spaces in Barcelona were linked together, in accord with the 1998 project to reorganise museums and municipal collections. The Museum incorporated the Museum of the Monastery of Pedralbes in 1999, Park Güell in 2002 (Gaudí Year) and Refugi 307 (a bomb shelter from the Civil War) in 2004, with preparations for display completed three years later. Meanwhile, new projects were implemented to showcase and incorporate the industrial heritage of Poblenou (Farinera del Clot and Can Saladrigas). Thus the Museum of History of the City could be presented as a great “museum of museums”.
Meanwhile, in 2006, a new display on the early middle ages opened in the monumental site of Plaça del Rei, in the vault beneath the Tinell. That same year, the enlargement of the Conservation and Restoration Centre in Zona Franca was also inaugurated; the centre included the city's archaeological archive and rooms for storing and restoring the Museum’s collections.
THE MUSEUM OF THE HISTORY OF BARCELONA
The museum project implemented in 2007, when the name Museu d’Història de Barcelona (Barcelona History Museum) and the acronym MUHBA were first adopted, placed emphasis on the following objectives:
a) to create coherent historical narratives in multiple formats, in order to link the collections, the Museum’s spaces and the city as a whole, by making it available to both citizens and tourists and paying special attention to education;
b) to conceptualise the museum as an R&D+i centre, to introduce innovation into history and heritage, by creating the Research and Debate Centre), to provide technical services to other heritage projects, and to research the areas of urban history and heritage, in all their different forms;
c) to get the city's universities and local research centres involved in the Museum project, and to promote citizen participation;
d) to introduce an active overall policy on collections that would take into account the systematisation of the archaeological archives and the need to create a contemporary collection;
e) to consolidate MUHBA as a portal and a mirror of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, on the European cultural map.
The recent reformulation of the heritage map of Barcelona, in its role as capital of Catalonia, and the emergence of new digital formats, have also influenced museum practices and the way in which display spaces are conceptually and institutionally organised. On one hand, the Reial Monestir de Santa Maria de Pedralbes and the Servei d’Arqueologia de Barcelona (Barcelona Archaeology Service) have acquired their own institutional profile in terms of the Heritage Management of the ICUB, while on the other, MUHBA’s goal is to build a well-organised, territorial perspective of the city's progress and history, by weaving its heritage spaces ever closer together: hence the definition of the Museum as a “portal and mirror of Barcelona”.
With respect to its heritage spaces and permanent exhibitions, the Museum is currently renovating the archaeological subsoil at Plaça del Rei as part of Pla Barcino (the Barcino Plan), especially the section devoted to late Antiquity and the first Christian city. The Museum is also enlarging the museography of the Museum at the Call (the Jewish quarter), and the new heritage spaces devoted to the metropolis in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the buildings of Fabra i Coats, Oliva Artés, Casa de l’Aigua de la Trinitat and Turó de la Rovira. Another important heritage space is Vil·la Joana, which is undergoing complete renovation to become the literary heritage centre Casa Verdaguer. Likewise, it is important to highlight the significant work the museum has carried out in Park Güell, as a scientific, cultural and museum advisory agent in the Park's new management model that is being executed by the municipal body B:SM, and the projects shared with other organisations, such as those of Casa Amatller and the Fundació de la Maquinista and La Macosa.
In view of the approaching 75th anniversary of the Museum’s opening (to be celebrated in 2018), research is being carried out on the institution’s history and its work in order to create an exhibition in Casa Padellàs with a highly innovative format: it will effectively summarise the city’s path and progress through history, and will help to present to the public a museum that has now spread throughout the whole of Barcelona, capital of Catalonia and European metropolis. The strengthening of the European perspective has also been boosted by the advent of the City History Museums and Research Network of Europe, a body created and supervised by MUHBA, and which brings together some 20 city museums and research institutions from across the continent.