Lisbon and the Memory of the Empire: Patrimony, Museums and Public Space

This book is based on a series of texts that I published on magazines and books, between 2011 and 2017, on the representations of memory regarding the Portuguese colonial empire, in the public space of the city of Lisbon. Its purpose is to analyse the several examples by which “images” related to the imperial history of Portugal are built and copied, thus being understood as a fundamental and articulating axis of the Portuguese national identity. The focus is therefore on a “image-memory” or a memory-representation, authorized by the State, by its corporation and by institutions of public culture and not so much on a memory-routine, passed on in the realm of daily social interactions, or a memory-remembrance, passed on verbally. The memory which, in this book, needs to be analysed is, therefore, a memory which is publically shed, founded not only on interpretative codes defining objects, but also including sensorial elements, enhancing its “affectionate” aspect, and considering the Portuguese imperial experience as a part of the national ethos, independently of the positions against or in favour of the empire, which may exist today at an ideological level. 

This book is focused mainly on the post-colonial period, aiming at analysing the reorganization of the imperial memory of the Portuguese nation, in the period corresponding to the democratic anchoring of the country, after decolonization. However, it also highlights the several threads of representational continuity, which are traced considering the mnemonic imagination of the history of the Portuguese Empire, extending from Liberalism and the 1st Republic to the post-colonial period, especially from the mid-1980’s on, when, in the context of negotiating Portugal’s new symbolic positioning in the European space and the Portuguese-speaking world, a memory of the empire becomes re-organised within the national public space.

Focusing on the case of Lisbon, I intend to highlight the structural aspect of these continuities, although obviously recognizing the several discontinuities which pervade all this process, and which derive from the multiple representational possibilities allowed by the democratic period. Nevertheless, like other studies on old ancient cities as London and Paris demonstrated before, we also try to take into account that the social and material perception of colonialism in the urban space goes beyond the formal ending of colonialism, continuing to shape the way old imperial centres are positioned in new arrays of global power in the post-colonial scene. The global cities of the contemporary world are successors of spatial arrays and social morphologies institutionalized by modern colonialism. The legacies of colonialism continue to exercise its influence upon cultures and social relations, not only over the countries which detained a colonial empire, as was the case of Portugal, but also upon all Europe, which was, as Benoit De L´Étoile puts it, shaped not only objectively, but also subjectively, by the colonial experience:

The colonial past is present in our world in many ways, sometimes conspicuously, other times unnoticed. In Europe, as in the countries formerly colonised worldwide, it is embedded in our material culture, in monuments, architecture, libraries, archives and collections of museums, in the dietary pattern, in the dressing codes and in music, but also in the continuous flows of commodities, images and people. In less tangible ways, mas not less crucially, it shapes politics, economics, artistic and intellectual life, linguistic practises, belonging patterns or international relations. It informs rhetoric and the categories summoned when the Europeans face migrants from other continents, it defines good government patterns and it is present during the planning of development projects, or when people outside Europe face tourists, entrepreneurs, ONG’s workers or European anthropologists.

Translating these preconditions, post-colonial studies and imperial history have increasingly come to acknowledge the fact that the existence of empires, as well as the connections by them established, affected not only the colonised as the colonists. They acknowledge that, according to Homi Bhabha, there is an interdependence regarding a construction of subjectivities common to colonised and colonists. Thus being, it is necessary, as Eric Wolf defended, to bring the empire “home”, to understand not only the complex interrelations between colonised and colonists, but, more precisely, to understand how – notwithstanding, or maybe because of its different power relations – both are created as colonial subjects. Besides that, the geopolitical speech context that we call Europe cannot be fully understood, if we do not take into consideration its imperial history. As Barbara Bush commented “European history as long been divorced of its imperial vital context”.

When we consider that the histories of the European imperial centres are inevitably connected to its colonial surroundings, we dissolve the ideal binary city/colony, placing both contexts within the same analytical structure. This is not a new problem, since academic studies have long emphasised the importance of the connections between empires, the networks established between colonies and the significance of imperial powerhouses. Such studies derive especially from the contribution of authors such as Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf, who, stressing the importance of identifying the connections between people from different parts of the world, power relations among them and the production, distribution and consumption circuits under which they live, seek to overcome the ruler/ruled dichotomy and, consequently, the domestic/imperial split. This split has also been rethought by a great number of researches, produced in the last 50 years, mainly in the fields of literary and visual representations, strongly influenced by the post-colonial and feminist theories. Frantz Fanon had a decisive influence here (emphasising the racialized systems of imperial rule and recognizing the several ways by which “Europe” was created by colonialism), but also Said (insisting on the fact that the colonial is amongst the centre of European culture) or Foulcault (who brought to light new understandings on the nature of power and governance technologies).

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The precondition of interconnectivity between the empire and the city would lead to a more striking evaluation of the importance empire representations had when creating national identities within the European imperial powerhouses. The first and more important contributions come from anglo-saxonic literature, the mandatory reference being “Studies in Imperialism”, of Manchester University Press, a collection edited by John MacKenzie and founded in 1985, with the title Propaganda and Empire, a collection which initiated debate on the impact of the empire in the metropolis. A great part of the volumes of this collection published until now addresses aspects of the imperial British culture in the city, adding to a significate change in knowledge frameworks regarding the dynamic relation between domestic and imperial realms.  It is a work corpus which supports the central argument of MacKenzie, voiced in the context of a series of debates on the metropolitan and imperial culture written for the Oxford History of the British Empire, according to which “the empire is a vital aspect of national identity and of racial consciousness, although made more complex by regional, rural, urban and class contexts”.

Similarly, Linda Colley highlights the link between a national British identity and the Empire topic, and Andrew Thompson, in a study on the impact of Imperialism in Great Britain, suggests, like MacKenzie, that, although the effects of imperialism in the city might have been slightly light, “in certain areas of the British public life, they were intimately connected to the other influences and other impulses, so they would become fully internal”.

It’s precisely this internalising dimension which should be an object of research, argue Catherine Hall and Sonya Rose, since, according to them, what really matters is not so much understanding if the empire exercised or not its influence upon the big city (assuming that it did), but trying to understand how and in what way it was internalised and experienced in daily practises, not in the sense of political affiliations in favour or against the empire, nor even as something especially valued, but as part, they say, of a trivial nationalism, as Michael Biling defines it.

We should keep in mind that empires never dye completely. As power and influence structures, which cover large geographic spaces, empires may end conventionally, but they have a “life-after death”, which expresses itself in a number of practises, subjectivities and discourses. It is thus necessary to bring the long lasting impacts of the empire to the European post-colonial landscape, in order to, from hereon, place a set of central questions: was the end of colonial domination able to dissolve the representations and practises associated to imperialism? Or, on the contrary, did these representations and practises survive the end of the empire? What changes happened in the national self-representations of the old centres of imperial power with the end of its imperial domains, and during the process of them becoming post-imperial nations? These questions are all the more necessary, since the connection between the empire and the big city cannot be thought, from hereon, according to an imperial model. A different model is necessary, one which can overarch the problem of the representations of the imperial past, together with the framework of global migrations, with the racial tensions in the old imperial metropolis, with the reaffirmation of nationalisms, or with the onset of the United States as a global empire. As such, we need to consider the impacts of decolonisation on political life and on the national identities of old metropolises. Not always self-evident, and often overlooked by academic studies, which usually conclude that these impacts were not significant, the impacts of decolonisation influence, in a powerful way, the ways by which the imperial past is remembered in post-colonial times in the old European imperial centres.

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With this conceptual framework in mind, this book aims at considering the meaning of the representations of the empire in the rhetorical constructing of what it means to be Portuguese, carrying these representations from the colonial period to the post-colonial period. The connection of Portugal with its imperial past, the survival of this past in the present, as well as its consequences regarding issues of citizenship with its old post-colonial subjects are some of the central issues in a tense, ambiguous and nostalgic field of studies, vested with a highly emotional weight, a field which on its own is an expression of the relationship of this country with its imperial past. The study of this Portuguese-speaking post-colonial realm, on a crossroad with post-colonial studies (as they are called in the Anglophone context), although not restricted to them, demands that one considers the specific nature of the Portuguese imperial experience, with it fictions, myths, practises and transits, in order to, from hereon, intersect them with the particular way by which the transition to democracy and the simultaneous decolonisation process were operated and also with the effects of globalisation and the position of immigrants (from ex-colonies or from other places) in the national arena.

This implies reconsidering the common assumption that the end of the empire didn’t have serious domestic consequences, regarding its impact in the social and cultural realms, not having caused an identity crisis worth mentioning. It is, nevertheless, necessary to highlight that most studies dealing with those impacts are focused mainly on the political options of the elites and are conducted within the scope of political science, international economy or international relations. However, on the social level, the impacts of the end of Portuguese empire unfold in less transparent ways: feeding old and new imperial fantasies, with the persistence of old colonial categories and racial classifications, influencing post-imperial ideologies and nostalgias, shaping memories and re-articulating the myths of the Portuguese national identity along a discontinuity/continuity historical line, put forward by the transition between colonial and post-colonial.

Seeking to address these continuances, at the centre of this book we find the concept of collective memory, as a social process, activated (by means of the prescription of an official narrative) and incorporated (through shared practises). Thus being, a perception of memory resulting from the intersection between the public and the private, not fixed nor monolithic, retains representations and practises from the past which are reconfigured in the light of the demands of the present. This raises the question of the continuance and/or the reconfiguration of representations and practises of imperial pasts in European ex-metropolises, within the framework of a conceptualisation of memory as an enduring past, although subject to modernisation.

As Halbwachs puts it, memory is, therefore, something of the present: a selective reconstruction of the past lived taking in account the “pictures” of remembrance of the present. It’s not about recapturing the past “just as it happened”, but about learning the several and complex social, historical and environmental “drivers” which frame the (present) memory of the past. In this sense, what we need to analyse is the context – as well as the actions which in it unfold – in which the past events are remembered – and therefore activated as memory –, as well as the “expectation horizons” onto which those memories project themselves. These are, on its turn, profoundly conditioned by the way official history frameworks, fixates and selects collective memories. Memory acts are inevitably political acts, motivated by ideological readings of the past and constantly referring to them. In this sense, memory is, as Richard Terdiman puts it, “the mechanism by which ideology comes into being”. But memory is also, and always, “called for, negotiated, but also rejected, selectively accepted, falsified or challenged”, becoming a possible object of revision and modernization, as new social actors negotiate – and dispute – new meanings for the past.

From a psychoanalytical point of view, the usage of this approach implies the identification of the several agents, practises, objects, discourses and emotional investments, as well as of the multiple courses of action, negotiations, conflicts and contradictions involved in memory activation. If, as enshrined by the literature on the subject, memory and its objects are constructed and shaped by political-ideological interests, this approach makes it possible to handle the different agents and agendas of mnemonic activation, as well as the different memory shapes which arise from this process. High levels of arbitrariness and indeterminacy become self-evident, occurring throughout these processes, since many times the courses of action are not those expected. Besides that, invention and novelty moments are also made self-evident, along with standardized actions and representational continuities.

This book also gives special focus to material aspects of memory, and the way it is performed in the public space through the usage of patrimony and museums, considering this material aspect as being especially productive from the social point of view: patrimony selects memory – through conservation and museology politics; it organizes it and makes it visible – in space and with the help of exhibiting narratives; it assembles mnemonic landscapes, it validates the interests of certain groups. Within this process, it converts knowledge about the past into common-places of the present, embodied in expressions of “trivial nationalism” which, although not giving rise to extremist political positioning, persist in the daily life of the nation as an “endemic condition”, acting as a rhetorical support to political discourses, in cultural production and popular culture. These commonplaces are also always open to revision, as the necessities of each moment start forcing its re-modernization.

These processes are especially significant and made visible in the European modern urban landscapes, landscapes which are filled with collective memory products: patrimonial places, museums, commemorative plaques, monumental places. As a modernity fétiche-place, the city becomes a retrospectively defined space based on the sanctuarised ideologies of regional and national pasts, while, at the same time, presenting itself as the avant-garde place of scientific and technological progress, of industry and consumption. Colective memory’s material shapes and officialization techniques are created there, drawn with the purpose of signifying national unity and legitimizing the State’s administrative control, as well as its inclusion in the capitalist world-system. The museum, the monument, the international exhibition are the ideal institutional technologies used when reproducing a set of ideas made of seemingly conflicting terms, such as universalism, cultural particularism or progress and historicism. The political becomes associated with the cultural, creating scenarios of national glorification and cultural usufruct, turning the past into an object-commodity with a political statement significance, within the international geopolitical framework and with an exchange value in the circuits of cultural consumption where the new subjects of political action are included.

This “history fever” was typical of the period going from the middle of the XIX century to the first half of the XX century. A correlative of the new instrumental political order statement regarding the inclusion and functioning of the Nation-states in a global capitalist nation, this “fever” wouldn’t be much different from the “nostalgia disease” marking the relationship collective entities maintain with their correspondent pasts in the present time, of which the more specific configuration should be found in the tendency initiated in Europe by the end of the 1970’s, intensified by the end of the XX century and beginning of the XXI century, moving towards a sense of renewed symbolic investment on collective pasts. When compared to the former, this period is marked by intensification: extensive patrimonialising of the several cultural signals, exponential growth of collections and public and private museums and a gradual commercial use of patrimonial assets due to its inclusion in the tourism sector and leisure circuits. This growing “objectification” of the past, rooted in organised and institutionalised cultural practises of mnemonic mediation is the result of the growth of a “nostalgia industry”, which, in turn, adds to the fact that museums, monuments and historical commemorations earn an unprecedented popularity. This feature will distinguish it from the former.

In both moments, however, the differentiation of places and its identities is frequently associated to a space topicalisation, based on references of the past. But if the purpose of the topicalisation of space based on differentiated historical narratives is the differentiation regarding contender spaces – and contender markets – ironically, this topicalisation produces a similarity of spaces, although differently located,  due to adoption of similar strategies and production techniques. The result of this is a synchronization of different time elements of space, as well as a combination of different landscape and monument components. Thus being, following Benjamin’s concept according to which Paris is made up of several accumulated levels of past “remains”, in the “collective memory city”, the new coexists with the old, the local with the global and multiple pasts and multiple presents get together, producing an ideal image made up of numerous components. 

This is the understanding which one aims to apply to the “memory complex”, just as it is done in this book: more than a linear narrative, the memory of a certain past event is a content cluster, a relatively open and dynamic set made up of parts or tendencies, which is constantly presenting and updating itself through its self-performance at all moments: a “perpetually changeable repository of presenting the past so as to serve the purposes of the present”. Its contents are put together in a more or less arbitrary way, making up malleable structures which provide ways of understanding and of experiencing life, taken as granted. Putting it differently, the “memory complexes” provide us the ideas of common-sense regarding the past, ideas which, being profoundly resistant to change, are also highly changeable and adaptable to new representational demands. In this sense, “memory complexes” sustain rather stable identities, yet its structure may be relatively loose, the elements which make them up have an emotional common tone, referring to an identity, but not to a identity.

As a “memory complex”, Lisbon reunites, in its physical space, a set of symbolic and material elements referring to a representation and a city “affection”, thus possessing a special kind of historicity associated to maritime expansion and the Portuguese empire. This historicity is engraved in the material aspect of the landscape which was built in the city, in its special organization, in the exotic mannerisms of its architecture, in the emotional language of its natural framework, in its vegetal ornaments brought by tropical species, in the daily presence of population coming from (or descendants of) the ex-colonies, in the representation provided by museums and monuments. Sometimes explicitly, sometimes in a dormant way, through mnemonic inert and/or undeclared shapes, the memory of the Portuguese colonial empire structures the imagination of the city of Lisbon as an old capital of the empire now conceived as a post-colonial global city. An imagination which, as I will try to demonstrate throughout this book, has its own genealogy and is constantly reinvented over time. In this process, the structuring myth of the city’s identity definitions go through changes, as the representational demands of each moment so determine. Sometimes colonial, sometimes overseas, the memorialised empire of the city’s space is adapted to the contingencies of history and to the agendas pertaining to cultural institutions and social actors. It is challenged, debated, assimilated and made consensual. It is combined with other elements of the erudite and popular culture in innovative and creative ways. And, in this circular process, it keeps its representational continuity, reproducing in the physical and symbolic space of the old empire’s capital the same myths and fictions of the imperial nation, in a “memory complex” which, although malleable, proves to be profoundly resistant to historical critique.

This book aims at addressing these questions, exploring a set of non-exhaustive cases which make up the “memory complex” of the empire within the public space of the city of Lisbon. However, the analysis of this complex goes beyond the presented cases and the approach here adopted. It is still necessary, among other things, to consider the reception of public culture’s products by its users and audiences, the transmission of a post-imperial subjectivity through noninstitutionalized daily practises and the role of anti-hegemonic memorialisation actions which present themselves as part of alternative cultural models, often operated by those who are themselves an object of politics’ and institutions’ representational strategies. But these are purposes which this book doesn’t aim at.

Translation:  Sara Santos

by Elsa Peralta
Cidade | 20 November 2018 | Empire, Lisbon, memory