Museum of the Month is a series where I share my experiences of visiting unique and often strange museums from around the world. My aim is to rebuff the notion that museums are boring!
I know what you’re probably thinking… how can there be a whole museum dedicated to tiles? Isn’t it the case that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all?
Well, no, it’s not actually.
After seeing the Tile Museum crop up on Trip Advisor as one of Lisbon’s hidden gems, I knew I had to go for myself. Also, when I say ‘crop up’ I’m being somewhat modest here; impressively the Tile Museum pulls in at #10 out of 211 things to do in Lisbon. That’s already quite surprising for somewhere that potentially sounds like a complete bore fest – come on, the ‘Tile Museum’ isn’t exactly the type of thing you hear about which instantly makes you drop everything you’re doing.
Although the idea of a Tile Museum might sound like an odd and incredibly niche museum to have in any city it makes perfect sense in Lisbon. This is because (and as you might already know) many of the buildings in Lisbon are decorated with exquisitely colourful and intricate tiles which are also known as azulejos.
The word azulejo derives from the Arabic word az-zulayj meaning “polished stone” and it showcases the influence of the Moors who occupied Lisbon and large areas of Portugal from 711 until 1179. Some of these azulejos are so beautiful they deserve to belong in a gallery, and this brings me back to the Tile Museum – see it makes perfect sense.
One of the special things about visiting the Azulejo Museum is that it’s the only one of its kind in the world, furthermore unravelling 500 years of Portuguese history and craftsmanship.
Any visitor to this museum should really try and dedicate a good 2-3 hours in order to see everything, and depending on how enthralled you get it’s very easy to spend a lot longer due to the sheer size of the place and information available. Interestingly the museum is housed in an old convent.
I would say there are three main areas to the museum, and these are:
1: The tile cafe
2: The church and weird chapel/shrine
3: The exhibition rooms
The café is such a lovely place to sit down and relax after hours of sightseeing, and fittingly there are lots of pretty tiles relating to food and cooking for you to admire. When I was sitting down sipping my hot chocolate I was thinking about how nice it would be to own a kitchen filled with the same type of narrative tiles. Clara and I sat down for a while in the café before walking around the museum but equally, it would be a nice place to finish up.
The baroque style church is a visual feast of lavish gilt, fresco and tiles depicting the life of the Virgin and Christ. And not to be out-done is the chapel on the 1st floor which contains some very peculiar shrines. As you can imagine, seeing all the gold and elaborate woodwork was quite a shock after wandering around the simple rooms of the convent.
You’ll find lots of rooms paying homage to azulejos but the most famous can be found on the second floor, it contains a huge panoramic panel beautifully capturing the city before the earthquake struck in 1755. The display also highlights prominent features of the city which can act as a handy overview if you’re still unsure of where to go and see next. The rest of the room has been left quite bare and is not located in the original convent to benefit from the interesting and original architecture so I didn’t wait around once I viewed the panoramic panel.
As well as learning about the history of azulejos, I learnt how they are created and the techniques and materials used. It was really interesting to see how their styles and fashions changed over different periods. I especially loved the tiles which depicted specific scenes, such as a young boy getting an injection in his bottom! I hunted for more tiles in the same vein but I had no luck.
However, there were still lots of funny ones….
And some incredibly pretty ones….
If you were to ask me my favourite part of the museum, I would probably say I enjoyed looking at the contemporary tiles the most. I like what they symbolise, these tiles clearly demonstrate that the azulejo tradition is very much being kept alive, and that’s certainly something to celebrate!