In Belem — part of the municipality of Lisbon — we spent several hours at the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia, looking (mostly) at “Time Salvaged From The Sea”, an exhibition of underwater archaeology. I bought the guide-book and have been reading it most nights before sleep. The exhibit itself was fascinating: objects recovered from marine, river, and other wet environments all over Portugal, ranging in date from pre-Roman times to the early 20th century. What was particularly interesting to me was the quality of the written material accompanying the visual displays. The whole exhibit was designed to welcome the visitor, to ignite excitement, to communicate. I kept scribbling in my notebook and then realized I could simply buy the guide. For example, this passage decoded the remains and context of the San Pedro de Alcantara which sank in 1786 near Peniche, due to a navigational error on a winter night. It was heading to Cadiz from Peru.
Together and Alone: Crossing the Blue
As a society closed in on itself during the crossing, a ship represents an architectural structure that is destined to travel, equipped for the survival of her inhabitants who are isolated at sea for weeks or months on end.
The internal distribution of this human microcosm, confined by wooden planks, iron, the clouds and saktwater, reflects, in its own particular way, the organization and hierarchy of a society on land that drove this community to its fate.
During the crossing, for hundreds of men, and in this case, some women and children, stern and bow, decks, poop deck, topsail or hold became opposite poles of a small world saturated with divisions between social classes and geographical loneliness.
I thought of this exhibit several times over the last few days here in Bordeaux. Wonderful museums, yes, but little attempt to include non-French speaking visitors. All the cases of paleolithic tools, the films accompanying them — and no translations. I know, I know — I should work on my French, especially as I have a lovely Francophone daughter-in-law. But I don’t speak Portuguese either and in Belem it hardly mattered. The exhibits were available visually and textually.
That phrase “geographical loneliness” is good, isn’t it?