Independence Museum reopens, greatly expanded and with full accessibility | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

Independence Museum reopens, greatly expanded and with full accessibility As Brazil commemorates the two-hundredth anniversary of its independence, Museu Paulista reopens after a thorough renovation and internal restructuring of the historical building, built in the nineteenth century as a monument to the colony’s liberation. A new floor has been added and integrated with the French-style gardens to house temporary exhibitions and welcome visitors (photo: Daniel Antonio/Agência FAPESP)

Independence Museum reopens, greatly expanded and with full accessibility

September 14, 2022

By José Tadeu Arantes  |  Agência FAPESP* – A decade after its doors were closed to the public, Museu Paulista, popularly known as the Ipiranga Museum, reopened last week (09/08). From the outside, it looks more or less unchanged, but a complete internal restructuring has modernized the nineteenth-century building, originally planned as a monument to Brazil’s independence, and made it fully accessible to the disabled and all other kinds of visitors.

The new entrance facing the central pond affords access to a new floor that integrates the museum with the revitalized French-style gardens. This floor has a 200-seat auditorium, a space for temporary exhibitions, and a lobby to welcome visitors with a 30-meter curved panoramic window overlooking Independence Park.

The architectural design, which includes escalators and elevators, enables visitors, even those with limited mobility, to enter the lobby and ascend all four floors to a lookout deck on the roof. The new museum is also accessible to the visually, cognitively and hearing-impaired. The collections permanently on display are full of interactive objects made of stone, porcelain, wood, resin, fabric and other materials and equipped with multi-sensory resources, such as information in Brazilian Sign Language (LIBRAS) and Braille. 

After a process of renovation that began effectively in 2019, with preparatory work dating from 2014, the reopening coincided with the two-hundredth anniversary of Brazil’s independence, declared on September 7, 1822. The celebrations lasted for three days, starting with a commemorative ceremony for authorities and sponsors on September 6. The new museum was symbolically unveiled on September 7 before an invited audience of students from municipal and state-run public schools, and professionals who worked on the renovation project, with their families. Its doors opened to the public on September 8, although visits must be booked in advance via its website.

Museu Paulista is one of four museums run by the University of São Paulo (USP). Restoration, modernization and expansion of the gallery space involved a partnership between USP and several public bodies and private sponsors, as Carlos Gilberto Carlotti Junior, USP’s current rector, explained in an interview given to Agência FAPESP. “Completing one of the largest cultural undertakings Brazil has seen in recent times was a heroic saga. The Ipiranga Museum is part of our national identity. Its imagery is dear to many Brazilians,” he said. “Now that we have delivered the restored, modernized and accessible museum to the people, we also want it to be an active and living part of the cultural and social scene in São Paulo and Brazil.”

Twelve exhibitions opened at the same time as the museum, “marking a new curatorial phase that will have a social and cultural impact commensurate with the importance of its collections and the building it occupies,” he said.

In addition to restoration and modernization of the historic building, the project added 6,800 square meters of new structures, doubling the floor space available for exhibitions. 

“Directly accessible through the gardens, the new annex also houses classrooms, workshops for educational activities, a cafeteria, a store, and a new exhibition space with an area of about 800 square meters,” said Rosária Ono, Director of Museu Paulista and a professor at the School of Architecture and Urbanism (FAU-USP).

The extra space is actually an underground floor built after excavations carried out with great care to avoid impairing the structural stability of the historic building. “It was a daunting technical challenge, surmounted thanks to the collaboration of engineers who are professors at Escola Politécnica,” Ono said, referring to USP’s School of Engineering. 

Professor Marco Antonio Zago, current President of FAPESP, was Rector of USP when the decision to renovate the museum was made. He recalled how the process began. “In 2013, a year before I became Rector of USP, the museum shut its doors because the building was a major hazard for visitors. Shortly after I took office in 2014, I visit it with Vahan Agopyan, then Vice Rector. He later succeeded me as Rector. The building was in a dreadful state, with leaks, broken floors, roofing shored up with timbers, and so on,” he said. “Our first concern was whether there was an immediate risk of collapse. There wasn’t, but nor were there conditions for repairs because the university was undergoing a major financial crisis and had been forced to suspend several construction projects already.”

At a meeting of the Friends of Museu Paulista, entrepreneurs offered to help. “More funding was needed, however,” Zago recalled. “I spoke with Geraldo Alckmin, then São Paulo State Governor, and he was very interested but stressed that most of the money would have to come from private enterprise. I took charge of raising these funds.”

A call was issued for companies to submit renovation and refurbishment proposals. The winning project was eventually implemented. “It was a highly innovative proposal,” Zago said. “As well as judicious restoration of the historic building, the proponents planned to double the available floor space with a number of modern additions, as several of the world’s leading museums have done. USP alone couldn’t have paid for a project of this size, or even managed it without outside help. When I stepped down as Rector, the architectural design had been approved and the museum’s collections were being moved out of the old building so that work could begin. The new state governor attracted substantial funding from private enterprise. I was deeply moved recently when I visited the renovation site and saw the results of all this.”

Iconic painting

As well as renovation and modernization of the building, with construction of the extra exhibition space, another important part of the project was restoration of the historically and symbolically valuable painting Independência ou Morte by Pedro Américo (1843-1905). With its highly idealized figures and scenery, the painting portrays Dom Pedro’s eponymous shout (“Independence or Death!”) as a far more epic and glorious event than is likely to have been the case judging from the accounts of eyewitnesses and later historiographical research. Nevertheless, it has been reproduced in so many textbooks that it has become a sort of official portrait of the birth of a nation in the minds of more than one generation of Brazilians.

“We had to repair the damage done to the painting by the passage of time. We also tried to restore the original colors by removing accumulated dirt and infilling losses to the original pictorial layer, and removed remains of former restorations such as an improper yellow in part of the sky,” said Márcia Rizzutto, a professor at the Institute of Physics (IF-USP). She acted as a scientific advisor on the restoration team, with FAPESP’s support as part of the Thematic Project Collect, identify, describe, exhibit: the curatorial cycle and the production of knowledge, led by Ana Magalhães

But renovation of the historic building, the addition of a new lobby and exhibition space, and restoration of Pedro Américo’s painting are only the most visible aspects of a much larger process. Carlotti’s emphasis on the curatorial dimension is appropriate because the reopened museum is not only a totally renovated space compatible with those of the world’s leading museums and capable of receiving more than 500,000 visitors a year, but also represents a novel approach to the concept of a collection. More than an ensemble of luxury items bequeathed by past economic and political elites, this concept takes a museum collection to be a highly diversified group of holdings that embody or portray Brazilian social life across the centuries and in all classes or segments.

“People tend to think of museums as exhibition spaces, but they’re much more than that. Among other things, a museum is a unit of scientific knowledge production, and a center for multidisciplinary research, innovation and dissemination. Over 80% of the work done by the professionals involved takes place in the storage part of the collection, where they do prospecting, cataloguing and conservation, and in initiatives to communicate the results of their work to society,” said historian Solange Ferraz de Lima, who was the Director of Museu Paulista from 2016 to 2020 and played a very active part in all phases of the restoration, modernization and expansion process.

The museum has more than 450,000 items in storage. Of these, some 3,800 are on display in the exhibitions planned for the reopening, giving the public a general idea of the museum and the work done by its staff while broadening its social representativeness. 

“These items are organized into three major areas: ‘the world of work’, with tools, molds, benches, printing types, and so on; ‘daily life and society’, with domestic objects, kitchen utensils, furniture, decor and fittings; and ‘a history of imagery', with portraits, landscapes, postcards, labels, etc.,” Ferraz de Lima explained.

The museum’s holdings also include ephemera that are usually thrown away but furnish a vivid picture of society and its dynamics when assembled in sequence, she added, citing the example of a collection of sweet wrappers.

The preparations for renovation and modernization of the building included moving all these items. Via funding for the project Material culture and management of collections, led by Ferraz de Lima, FAPESP invested heavily to assure proper packing and safe shipping of the objects, which had to be stored in environmentally controlled conditions, with laboratories and suitable storage furnishings (shelving, flat files, etc.), in five buildings specially retrofitted for this purpose. “The grant was absolutely fundamental. Without it we wouldn’t even have been able to begin the renovation,” Ono said.

The collections and back offices will stay in the five adapted buildings until the museum has a single building equipped to function as a material culture workshop and visitable storage facility. 

“The historic building will never again be used to store the collections. The greatly expanded space will be used entirely for displays, exhibitions and other attractions for the public to enjoy,” Ferraz de Lima said.

An interesting example of the kind of research that is being done on the collections is the project “Food processing in the home, São Paulo, 1860-1960”, with historian Vânia Carneiro de Carvalho leading a team known as the Domestic Space, Body and Materialities Research Group (GEMA). The main output of the project will be an e-book entitled Repertório Histórico Ilustrado de Equipamentos e Ferramentas de Cozinha (“Illustrated Historical Repertoire of Kitchen Utensils and Equipment”), describing and illustrating more than 150 kitchen objects as a resource for other museums and for historiographical researchers.

“This study says a great deal about the dynamics of Brazilian society,” Carneiro de Carvalho said. “In the United States, domestic servants all but disappeared as electrical kitchen appliances were rolled out at high speed and families consumed ever more canned food. The situation in Brazil was very different. Domestic servants still exist here, and not only for wealthy families. We consume much less canned food, and kitchen appliances have coexisted for a long time with manual and mechanical tools. Artisanal know-how has withstood the onslaught of modernity.”

The research is supported by FAPESP via a Thematic Project led by Magalhães, and by a Master’s scholarship and a Research Internship Abroad scholarship awarded to Laura Stocco Felicio, who is supervised by Carneiro de Carvalho. Kitchen objects have a dedicated exhibition room in the reopened museum.

Timelines of the museum’s history and renovation (in Portuguese) are at:

* With information from Karina Toledo


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