From Minho to Macau: The Portuguese Canadian Historical Museum

[Do Minho para Macau: O Canadian Portuguese Historical Museum]

Written by Daniela Costa

Located in Etobicoke, The Canadian Portuguese Historical Museum is a remarkable place where history meets art, and where the chronology of the Portuguese, from the homeland to Canada, is on display. Since 2009, this museum has been located at the Ferma Food Products building, the site of a local, Portuguese-owned and operated business that has provided a space for the museum’s rare and fascinating collection of materials. The museum’s aim is to preserve the cultural spirit and historical memories of the Portuguese community in Canada. In doing so, it might be an inspiration for others to work to preserve their history.

Antonio Alves, Founder of Portuguese Canadian Historical Museum. Portuguese Canadian Historical Museum

The Canadian Portuguese Historical Museum provides a vivid representation of Portugal’s history. A walk through the halls of the museum ensures that no visitor can be ignorant to Portugal’s contributions to the world at large. More importantly, the museum also highlights the Portuguese Canadian experience. From a statue representing the first Portuguese person to step onto Canadian soil, to a copy of a friendship agreement between the cities of Toronto and Lisbon, the museum seems to have it all. Along with its collection of art, posters and other collectibles, the museum also has two storage rooms that are filled with books, newspapers, videos and a variety of other materials about Portuguese heritage. Due to limited space, this location is reaching its capacity to hang artwork and store its ever-growing collection. Every little piece of history seeks to build a Portuguese sense of identity. The museum works to introduce youth, in particular, to their Portuguese heritage so they might fully embrace it as their own.

Indeed, Toronto’s Portuguese community should be very proud of this little gem, which has overcome many challenges to keep its doors open to everyone. Children visit the museum throughout the school year and members of the general public pass through it occasionally. The museum also sponsors youth essay writing competitions.

The museum has come a long way since Antonio Alves, its founder, started the project with a small assortment of items that barely resembled a collection. Originally from Lisbon, Mr. Alves arrived in Canada in 1959 and pursued his interests in history and heritage by volunteering at the First Portuguese Canadian Cultural Center. In 1986, the Amigos de Lisboa (Friends of Lisbon) donated the museum’s first piece, a Portuguese flag. The museum’s materials were first stored in the working space of agricultural equipment manufacturer Massey Ferguson. Then, without a permanent home, the collection moved through a number of locations. A number of Portuguese clubs and associations offered Mr. Alves space if the collection focused on their particular region of Portugal. Mr. Alves refused, for his goal was to promote the history and heritage of all Portuguese people, at home and here in the city. He wanted the collection to represent the entire community; not just their experience back home in Portugal, but also their experience in Canada.

Antonio Alves and Daniel Lourenco in the Museum. Portuguese Canadian Historical Museum.

A year ago, Mr. Alves found a partner for his project in Daniel Lourenço, who came to Canada in 1967. Although he has a background in electrical engineering, Mr. Lourenço’s real passions are history, culture and philosophy. He has teamed up with Mr. Alves to help keep the museum moving forward, especially by taking it digital. The duo want to expand, as the museum’s current location is beginning to overflow. Archiving and public access to their extensive records have become increasing problems. Given the importance of proper storage for printed materials like newspapers, time is also a factor. Furthermore, the Museum’s present location is far away from the primary Portuguese areas of Toronto, and public transportation is limited. The museum also lacks staff and volunteers.

Funding has always been a challenge for the museum. It receives no government support and has not been able to obtain charitable status. Mr. Alves feels strongly that all cultural museums should receive a charity number, as more people would be inclined to make donations if they were getting receipts for doing so.

That said, the museum’s success serves as an example to other cultural groups. Despite limited resources, it continuously meets its goals of keeping the spirit and heritage of the Portuguese community alive. By catering to youth, the museum has taken necessary steps to guarantee a bright future. In fact, Mr. Alves and Mr. Lourenço dream that all of the city’s cultural groups will one day work together to form the basis of a City of Toronto museum. Such a development, they argue, could show Toronto at its best, past and present.

One visit to the Portuguese Canadian Historical Museum makes it clear that it is a work of passion and commitment. Its collection is one of a kind and speaks loudly to the hard work of Mr. Alves, Mr. Lourenço and all of those who helped them along the way. They consider the museum more essential now than ever, as the Portuguese community in Toronto becomes increasingly assimilated into the mainstream, and as the dream of a City of Toronto Museum inches closer to a reality.

Interview of Antonio Alves and Daniel Lourenço, August 28, 2012.

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

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