The Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis was the country’s first public art museum. Founded in 1833 under the aegis of Liberalism, it was created to receive the confiscated property of the dissolved monasteries both in Porto and those of S. Martinho de Tibães and Santa Cruz de Coimbra in its Episcopal See. The expoiliation occurred during the civil war in which the Liberals, led by the regent D. Pedro, Duke of Bragança, opposed the absolutism of D. Miguel.
Designated as the Museu Portuense de Pinturas e Estampas it was established in the Mosteiro de St.º António, in the eastern part of the city (Jardim de S. Lázaro), under the direction of the painter João Baptista Ribeiro. It followed an innovative cultural and educational programme, supporting the artists of the Academia Portuense de Belas Artes and promoting art through public exhibitions. Its status was confirmed by D. Maria II in 1836 within the public education reforms undertaken by her minister, Passos Manuel.
In 1839 the Museum collection passed into the hands of the Academia Portuense de Belas Artes, which led the relationship between the museum and 19th century art-teaching to be reinvigorated. The S. Lázaro gallery contributed by organizing triennial exhibitions, which brought painting and sculpture in Porto together during the 1800’s. This collection forms one of the most consistent parts of the collection, comprising portraits, daily life and naturalistic landscape.
The Museu Soares dos Reis was born in 1911 out of institutional reforms of the Republic whose decentralized museum policy tended towards specialization. It was named after the first State scholar in sculpture from the Academia Portuense de Belas Artes, António Soares dos Reis, the celebrated author of the work “The Exile”,
Heritage conservation gained greater significance under the Estado Novo and the role of the museum as guardian of the collective memory was accentuated in the interests of a strong and cohesive nation. It was for these reasons that in 1932 the century old museum acquired the status of a National Museum, providing it with the independence to pursue its academic vocation and expand its patrimony.
Its installation in the Palácio dos Carrancas in 1940, at that time under the direction of Vasco Valente, is part of the Museum’s recent history. The neoclassical building was well adapted to the trend in museums towards overhead illumination. The art galleries were fitted with conservation equipment, while the exhibition environment on the main floor evoked the style of the times. This phase coincided with the National Commemorations of 1940 whose programme envisaged exhibitions of great patriotic celebration. The inauguration of the exhibition “The Work of Soares dos Reis” marked the beginning of an important stage in the museum’s history, highlighting the culture of Porto.
Finally in 1942 the collections of the extinct Museu Municipal do Porto were deposited in the Museum, whose extremely varied sections, ranging from painting to the decorative arts and including stonework and archaeology, conferred a more diverse nature on the classical museum of Fine Arts. As the collection became structured, it promoted the study and dissemination of the collections and established new cultural practices, with prominence for temporary exhibitions and the edition of the magazine “Museu” by the Círculo Dr. José de Figueiredo.
In the 1950’s, the tendency of the Museu Nacional do Soares dos Reis was to attract new collections, orientated by the quest for a certain modernity and demonstrated by the acquisition of works by contemporary artists, followers of artistic currents still being defined. This trend was due in large part to the influence of the sculptor Salvador Barata Feyo, professor of sculpture at the Escola de Belas Artes do Porto and the Museum’s interim director between 1950 and 1961.
From the 1960’s to the present day efforts have been made to strengthen the relationship with the public. This period has been marked by the realisation of innovative experiences in the domain of the cultural diffusion, through temporary exhibitions and educational programmes.
The educational dimension was extended under the direction of Manuel de Figueiredo. The Museum’s School Outreach Service was developed with activities directed towards children who participated in guided visits and children’s workshops. The bearing of these educational programmes extended to all levels of education, translating into an increased interest in the museum on the part of teaching establishments.
The revolutionary dynamic imparted by the 25th of April, 1974 was echoed by new appeals to young artists. The historic perspective was definitively abandoned, opening the closed world of the classic museum to a new art and a new public, thereby generating vitality and dynamism. In the mid 1970’s the Museum collaborated with the Centro de Arte Contemporânea in an initiative that launched the project for a National Museum of Contemporary Art, now the Fundação de Serralves. It symbolized a time in which the conservative and traditional character of the institution was definitively discarded, revealing a certain modernising impulse, already instigated under Barrato Feyo in the 1950’s.
The last decade of the 20th century, subsequent to the creation of the Instituto Português de Museus, was marked by the project for remodelling the Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis, under the guidance of the Porto architect, Fernando Távora. It sought to improve the permanent exhibition space, enlarge the reserve areas and create temporary exhibition spaces and an auditorium, as well as leisure and service areas. The preservation and study of the collections, cultural promotion and educational programme supported by a multimedia facility, frame the new configuration for safeguarding the Museum’s heritage and providing an educational service.