(Disponível em Português)
During the 19th century, natural history museums did more than display bits of nature. They were active sites of research and, as such, provided some of the few paid jobs for aspiring scientists. José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage, a 19th-century Portuguese scientist, founded the first natural history museum in Lisbon in order to create a space for his research. The museum allowed him to build a scientific career that ultimately brought him international recognition.
As one walks the main street of Lisbon’s fashionable Príncipe Real district, there is one building that cannot go unnoticed. The disproportionate height of its floors and central columns contrasts with every surrounding house. It makes us feel small and fragile, and that was exactly what its builders intended. It is home to the National Museum of Natural History and Science. For the most part of its history, however, the building didn’t house just a museum. Half of it was ascribed to the school that gave its name to the nearby street: the Lisbon Polytechnic. The story of how the museum came into existence is the story of how one of the Polytechnic’s professors, José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage (1823-1907), was able to assemble it almost from scratch. In fact, Bocage would never have had a scientific career and attained international recognition without it.
Lobbying for Zoology
In 1851, when Bocage was placed in charge of the zoology course of the Polytechnic at the young age of 27, the school’s situation was quite precarious. Eight years earlier, its building had suffered a fire so intense that only its thick mortar walls remained untouched. Most of the equipment was fortunately spared in an emergency rescue, but the school’s situation was severely compromised. Its teaching activities had been transferred elsewhere, to places that had neither rooms large enough for its classes nor adequate spaces to display its scientific instruments and collections.
Bocage dreamed of becoming a zoologist and devoting his life to the study of animals. But how could he do this without suitable space? More importantly, he needed to find an appropriate institutional backing. The Polytechnic couldn’t ensure it, since it was a science teaching institution and hadn’t been created for research. Moreover, the school was dominated by the military and zoology had little prestige, serving only as an introductory course for medicine students.
Bocage knew he had to present a plausible reason to get funding for zoological research, so he came up with an ingenious idea: what about creating a museum of natural history? Museums displayed collections according to scientific criteria, which required the work of specialists. Maybe that would do the trick.
Bocage knew the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon had its own museum of natural history. However, it could hardly be called a museum, since, after years of insufficient funding and mismanagement, its collections were in complete disarray. This provided a fine argument to transfer the museum to the Polytechnic, where Bocage would steer it in the right direction. As members of the Academy, he and other professors presented a formal proposal.
Unfortunately, other academicians didn’t take it so lightly, especially its vice-president! They feared for the loss of the institution’s prestige and blocked every attempt to seize their museum.
Bocage, however, did not give up. As time passed, the Polytechnic’s new and improved building was finally rising from its ruins. Its new rooms were now suited for displaying specimens, and this was a new opportunity to push for the transfer. This time, the Polytechnic’s professors chose a more drastic strategy. Since some of them were (unlike Bocage) members of Parliament, they lobbied for the case there. They were successful this time, and the deal was finally struck in 1858.
A museum for a career
Once the museum was placed within the Polytechnic’s reach, Bocage set to work. His task, however, was far from easy. Making a career in zoology in a country like Portugal, which had no scientific tradition in the field, was quite difficult. Since Bocage had no experience in museum administration, he sought advice elsewhere. Travelling across Europe, he learned the best practices of renowned institutions in Paris, London and Leiden. He also used this opportunity to introduce himself to the international community of zoologists and to obtain specimens for the Lisbon museum.
As the collections kept expanding, Bocage soon realized that without a larger budget it would be impossible to properly preserve them. He then presented his case to the government by rebranding the institution as the National Museum of Lisbon. His argument was that Portugal needed an institution capable of building a sense of national pride. This also meant a bigger budget for collecting, studying and displaying the unique and mostly unknown Portuguese fauna. The strategy worked, and by 1863 the new National Museum and its staff were settled in the Polytechnic’s new building, the same we can still see today.
At this point, only one thing separated Bocage from a career as a zoologist: having a good supply of specimens. Since he had little time left between his lectures and the museum’s administration, he tried to find collaborators that were willing to do the job for him. After a few trips across the country, he found allies that he carefully instructed. He also took advantage of the fact that Portugal was then a colonial nation, and used official colonial networks to ask for specimens from distant places.
That is how Bocage got in touch with José de Anchieta, a Portuguese man living in Angola. Anchieta became Bocage’s most dedicated partner, shipping thousands of specimens to Lisbon, where they were studied and displayed. Largely thanks to Anchieta, Bocage became a world specialist in African birds and reptiles. He described several new species and published his findings in the best journals of the field. By writing his articles in French, the lingua franca of that time, he made himself easily understood by an international audience, building a reputation and expanding the museum’s prestige.
After Bocage’s death in 1907, the National Museum continued to foster zoological research and to provide training for younger generations. In the following decades, however, its situation deteriorated. In 1978, a terrible fire destroyed most of the collections assembled by Bocage and others. Fortunately, the museum was once again reborn from its ashes, and is still housed in the same building today.
If we don’t feel too intimidated by its imposing entrance, we can enter it and walk through the spaces in which Bocage made his remarkable career. It is a precious gift the past has given us. After all, if it weren’t for Bocage, Lisbon might not have such a museum.
Daniel Gamito-Marques is a postdoctoral researcher in History of Science and a published writer based in Lisbon.
Edited by: Ana Gerschenfeld and Liad Hollender(Science Communication office). Image credit: Top: “Noviciado dos Jesuítas no sítio da Cotovia, Colégio dos Nobres, Escola Politécnica.” 1863. Archivo Pittoresco31:244-6. Center: Baltasar Osório, J. V. Barbosa du Bocage. Lisboa: Imprensa Libânio da Silva, 1915.