Museum madness among the gin and Jags

Dabbler roving correspondent Toby Ash makes an unexpected and bizarre discovery amongst the golf courses and white washed villas of Portugal’s sunny Algarve.

The Algarve is not on most people’s cultural map. Lazing about in the sun, a round of golf, Cliff Richard-spotting perhaps, but it’s not a great place for museums or galleries.

Well, that’s almost true. One day, while seeking something interesting to see in the small hill top town of Alte, I found one of the most extraordinary museums I have ever visited. Declaring itself to be a ‘regional museum’, it was owned and run by Jose Saturnino da Palma, a former shoemaker, and his wife. They looked very unremarkable, much the same as other conservatively dressed pensioners in the town, and neither spoke a word of English. Not that this mattered. Their museum was inexplicable in any language.

After decamping into a back room of their two-storey home, this resourceful couple transformed the rest of it into a visitor attraction. There was no particular theme, just lots and lots of stuff, most of it broken and all of it worthless, carefully arranged and meticulously dusted by the Senhora (see Gallery above; click to enlarge). Some of the items were dated, but almost always incorrectly. And not just by a few years, they were often out by decades and occasionally centuries.

But within this shrine to eccentricity, there was a careful attention to detail. For example, the magazine cut outs sellotaped to the plates that helped you imagine what a plate might be used for if you happened to be unfamiliar with such an object. And why the caged dinosaurs, I pondered. A bold and incisive statement on the predicament of modern man surely. Then there was the juxtaposition of Lady Diana and Madeleine McCann, and the magical collage of saints, lusty ladies and a sodomising hare that first confronted me as I stepped in from the street. It was all very thought provoking. What did it mean? What are you trying to say Jose?

Despite its obvious and multitudinous failings as a museum, Alte’s ‘regional museum’ is worthy of celebration. Jose and his wife are true dabblers in the art of museum curating. It was surprising, funny and left one slightly reeling with bewilderment. How many museums make you feel like that eh? And I’m not sure who Joao da Costa Bernardino is, but I think he might be onto something.

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About Author Profile: Toby Ash

A former journalist, Toby now works a consultant in the private and humanitarian sectors. When not in deepest Cornwall or darkest London, he trots the globe taking stunning photos which you can see on his Instagram account - @toby_ash

14 thoughts on “Museum madness among the gin and Jags

  1. Worm
    March 15, 2011 at 08:41

    awesome! This post contains the distilled essence of Dabbling – going on holiday somewhere hot and instead of going to the beach, ending up in a bonkers amateur museum containing wonky dinosaurs in cages and paper fish sellotaped to a plate! My kind of place

    ian russell
    March 15, 2011 at 08:41

    ”Their museum was inexplicable in any language.”


    At what stage should a collector start thinking of being a curator? I mean, we’re all collectors in our way. I’m sure most Englishmen, if they could be persuaded to spend a weekend sorting out their garage, could, by Monday, give the Saturnino da Palmas a run for their money.

    john halliwell
    March 15, 2011 at 09:41

    Wonderful post. But two disturbing images: one not seen – Cliff Richard, and one seen – a sodomising hare.

    March 15, 2011 at 10:37

    If Rauschenberg had opened a museum, that would be it, plus the odd car bumper or two. Beats wandering around Vincent the map readers fort at the extreme left hand end of the Algarve. Used to be a fascinating place, circa 1975, an extensive villa plus Merc in the garage all for the princely sum of two grand, one gall of Dao..eighty pence, them was the days, pre the arrival of two thirds of the population of Bromley.

  5. Gaw
    March 15, 2011 at 10:43

    Inspiring in a way – not just a singular vision but having the courage to make it a reality. I think the whole museum should be copied and entered for the next Turner Prize. Or at least be featured on Blue Peter (with some careful editing).

    Ian Buxton
    March 15, 2011 at 11:03

    Are we sure it’s a hare? Those pesky meerkats get everywhere these days.
    If only one didn’t have to go to the Algarve to see this.

    The Stromness Town Museum on Orkney has a peculiar charm, though not quite in this league.

    March 15, 2011 at 11:29

    Super-lovely contribution.

    Gaw slightly pipped me to the post on this one, but here’s my variant anyway: get these people to the Portugese Pavilion at the Venice Bienale, asap! Those fish on the plate are pure genius. As is the juxtaposition of the two tragic and doe-eyed recipients of so much media attention, so many conspiracy theories, so many two-dimensional images at the price of so little genuine context. But then at the same time, how brilliant to position this all as something other than ‘art’, so that we actually bother to look at it properly.

    (I used to love the King’s Lynn local history museum, at least before it was dragged into the mid-20th century in c 2000 – well, now I still love it, but in a different way.)

  8. Worm
    March 15, 2011 at 11:34

    This whole museum is surely worthy of the tag ‘outsider art’

  9. Brit
    March 15, 2011 at 21:29

    Sounds like a rival to the Guernsey Tomato Museum.

    And I concur with Ian R above – ”Their museum was inexplicable in any language” is a keeper.

  10. Brit
    March 15, 2011 at 21:30

    “The Sheppard Dies
    The herd dies
    It is a pity.”

    ‘Found poetry’ of the highest calibre.

    jonathan law
    March 16, 2011 at 09:23

    It can’t really compete, but if you can’t get to Algarve there’s a slightly crazy little museum of pop-culture memorabilia in Montacute, South Som. – all the more of an oddity because of the incongruous setting, this being a strangely feudal, time-warped little place of Hamstone cottages and cottage gardens, dreaming through the centuries under its own wooded, legend-haunted hill. The stuff is more or less piled up in the back room of someone’s house – fairly obviously a private collection that just got out of hand. You can enjoy a short video tour here (it gets truly weird at about 3.13).

    March 16, 2011 at 12:06

    Glorious. And there was I thinking that the gin and jag belt stopped at Weybridge,

    March 16, 2011 at 16:28

    Wonderful! Looks like Peter Blake was the curator.

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