Lisbon’s Roaring Twenties: Insights From the Curators at Museu de Lisboa

Their advice? Go more than once. There is so much to discover that you can't do it all in one shot.

The Museu de Lisboa’s Roaring Twenties in Lisbon exhibit at Pimenta Palace in Campo Grande isn’t just a way to explore your inner Gatsby, it’s about understanding the city’s history and engaging with it, finding clues through the objects and their settings to lead you to a better understanding of where we are through exploring where we’ve been. 

Atlas caught up with two of the three curators of the exhibit, Cecília Vaz and Mário Nascimento for a chat about how the exhibit was conceived, compiled, and delivered, and how they got it all together for the opening in April. 

The Director of the Museum contacted Vaz, a self-proclaimed “newbie to this whole curation thing” based on her studies on Lisbon in the ‘20s in order to gain some context for the exhibit. “I’m too shy to say that I’m an expert, but my first Masters Degree and thesis was on the nightclubs of Lisbon between 1917 and 1927, which encompasses the Roaring Twenties decade. My approach was the social spaces as places to experience modernity and the celebrated spirit of the period and mixed Lisbon in as the urban setting of that spirit, as Lisbon could support both boho and transgressive schools.”

The project was officially set in motion roughly one year ago when Vaz joined the team, but the journey had already begun under the expertise of Paulo Almeida Fernandes, who could not join the interview, and Mário Nascimento, museum researchers. The research for the exhibition started in 2020. 

Fernandes and Nascimento both set the theme of the exhibit to give visitors an accurate perspective of the ‘20s, not just the glamor and speakeasy elements associated with the decade. Nascimento said, “It was different in the ‘20s— yes, it had an element of modernity, but it also had deep roots in tradition. We had to go up against a lot of bureaucracy when it came to getting loans, finding images, and procuring objects, so it certainly wasn’t easy, but it was worth it in the end.”

Vaz added, “The most exciting thing to me was the transition from theoretical research to actual objects. In history, we have to build stories around sources, but in a museum, it is the opposite— we started with stories and mostly filled in with objects.”

The curators all agree that the exhibit would have been a very different one if they had not worked together, and the final result is a richer, more well-rounded experience. Vaz said, “Mário wanted to allow the public to have specific moments with specific objects targeted to children that could also relate to the mature audience. In my research, I know that juveniles started playing a more important societal role in the ’20s, so for me, this collaboration worked well.” 

“You can’t make an exhibition without research and investigation.” Nascimento told Atlas. “You need references and insight from specialists in various fields to gain the right approach. Visitors will always read things differently. You can’t help how people react to a stimulus— and you have to anticipate that to defend your thesis, which has been one of the hardest parts of putting this exhibition together.” 

As those in the creative arts know, sometimes storytelling can be tricky, especially when you have your heart set on a theme that has to be edited out. Nascimento said, “There are just some objects you don’t want to let go of…with curation, you have a limited space to show a really large project and there were some heartbreaking cuts for each one of us that had to be made.” 

In Vaz’s case, she had to make a top-ten list of the most influential people of the decade and had to select from artists, engineers, sportsmen, writers, and more to settle on the final ten. “I weep for the people left behind in this process! One of them was Renaldo Ferreira (aka Reporter X), the greatest reporter in the Portuguese press who has so many associations with cinema, history, memoirs, you name it. The day I had to cut him from the list, I cried.”

“I always compare it to the menu of a restaurant,” Nascimento said, “because you can’t choose everything, you can only eat one dish! We always have to remind ourselves that we have to choose things for the block of the exhibit. The task is always difficult, but if someone goes to the space and notices the colors of the room, the spectacular wallpaper that was chosen just for the exhibit, or if someone learns one new thing that inspires them, I’m happy. If I child approaches something and has a comment, I will feel I’ve achieved something worthwhile.”

To hear more of Cecília Vaz, Mário Nascimento and Paulo Almeida Fernandes’ stories, join them on a guided tour of the exhibition on October 8 and December 10 at 16h — the day before the exhibit officially closes. For more information, please contact Marina Marques, Coordenadora de Comunicação at the Museu de Lisboa here: Tickets for the tour dates are available here.

All photos courtesy of the Museu de Lisboa.

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