Number 12, year 2022
Revista Catalana de Museologia

New times and new museography

#NouMuseuPortTarragona (New Tarragona Port Museum)

Publication date: 27/07/2022


Publication date: 27/07/2022



Comprehensive renovation of a port museum created in 2000. The passage of time translated into the need to intervene both in the adaptation of the building (an old goods warehouse) and in a new museography to achieve a more exciting, active and modern experience. Interactivity and immersion are present in the #NouMuseuPortTarragona.

The Romans arrived in our city more than two thousand years ago and thus began a joint history between present-day Tarragona and its port. The events experienced since then have been the unifying thread for the maritime and port heritage to be transmitted to new generations thanks to the opening of the Tarragona Port Museum on 13 May 2000.

That was more than twenty years ago, and like any other thing, it needed renovation. For this reason, in 2020, a year that will be marked in the world’s collective memory, after the tender for the rehabilitation project and the new museography of the Tarragona Port Museum was held in February, remodeling works started on a port museum that during its two decades of existence had made the maritime and port heritage of Tarragona known to more than half a million people. Students from all over Catalonia, Aragon, the Valencian Community, the Community of Madrid and, above all, French students were its most frequent users. Their educational levels ranged from early childhood education to professional training courses, as much as elementary school and high school. All of them incorporated the port and its daily life into their learning process.

The museum tour that until then was carried out in Refuge 2 of the Moll de Costa Dock of the Port of Tarragona, which is home to the museum, showed the port’s history from the Romans to the present day, and it also explained the different types of ports related to trade, fishing and sport, fundamentally.

The building, a 2600-square-meters, open-plan, single-story building constructed in the early 1930s to store goods from port trade, allows large objects to be displayed, given the frequently large dimensions of maritime heritage elements.

The architectural intervention of this remodeling project has given more prominence to the old commercial building, to which a general cleaning of the concrete structures has been applied, giving them more relevance. A new staircase-viewpoint was built too with the idea of communicating with the upper floor, built only twenty-two years ago to install new spaces such as the classroom of pedagogical activities of (272 square meters), the auditorium and the modeling and restoration workshop, as well as the management area. This new staircase replaces the two previous wooden ones, located on the sides. The staircase-viewpoint is now on the left side, and it is made of concrete. The pillar and balcony of the viewpoint have been made in the traditional manner of formwork. The result has been remarkable, considering the comments of specialists and professionals in construction and architecture. Basically, the staircase has been integrated into a building in which concrete had always been the main element since its very construction almost a century ago.

We have mentioned the cleaning of the pillars, but not their restoration in specific parts that were broken. This damage occurred shortly after the building’s construction in the 1930s as a result of the bombings of the Spanish Civil War, which affected port facilities as a main target and, at the same time, as a secondary objective due to their proximity to the railway station and the Campsa fuel depots next to the Francolí river, and therefore very close to the port and the Moll de Costa Dock. Therefore, the building and its own history have been preserved, and it always continued to be used to conserve and disseminate the maritime and port heritage of Tarragona.

As we have already mentioned, in 2000 the Port of Tarragona, within its cultural brand Moll de Costa Dock, put the Tarragona Port Museum into operation. The passage of time called for the renovation and adaptation of the building to new technologies, as well as an update of its security. So, the roof was replaced to incorporate 585 photovoltaic panels, which will generate 389 mWh per year for self-consumption; insulation was improved; air conditioning was installed; the exhibition space was expanded to more than 600 square meters, as well as the storage room, given the increase in the collections of industrial port heritage that have been expanding over the years thanks to donations, with objects linked to the fishing and the marina ports, as well as to the maritime world in general.

This architectural intervention was not an isolated initiative since it was conceived to be combined with a museographic renovation in order to adapt the exhibition space to new demands and needs.

The architectural firm Despatx Milà, in Tarragona, and set designer Ignasi Cristià with Iago Blasi have designed the architectural rehabilitation and the new museography, respectively, which was executed by Expomon in terms of structures and furniture and by Wasabi in terms of audiovisuals and graphics. The project has been supervised by the Infrastructure Directorates regarding the equipment, and by the Port of Tarragona regarding the museographic contents, in collaboration with the museum. The intervention was carried out from February 2020 to July 2021, and was partially funded through the Cultural 1.5%, according to a collaboration agreement between the Ministries of Culture and Development. The Tarragona Port Authority, owner of the Port Museum, depends on the latter. Thus, the museographic proposal was born at the same time as the implementation of the reform of the space for the exhibition. Both of them have been able to optimize resources by applying the most efficient solutions and anticipating all the uses of their space. The architecture considered the subsequent museographic intervention and the museography has been molded into said architecture.

At the New Museum of the Port of Tarragona, we aim for everyone to find an answer, from the most initiated to the most novice. For this reason, we propose an exhibition in different layers, offering a lot of autonomy to the visitor when opting for one type of resource or another. The idea of structuring the narrative by topics makes it easier for the viewer to plan their visit and get to the bottom of each area.

We believe that it is an exhibition designed as an experience, with interactive and immersive elements. The very nature of some of its pieces already highlights this. Standing in front of a large boat is an unforgettable experience by itself. From there, a number of resources have been made available to transmit knowledge in an experiential way. We can, for example, govern a sailboat in the middle of the Mediterranean from ports that have had a historical link with Tarragona; or live a fishing day from the same boat, in the first person, discovering life at sea in the fishing world of Serrallo in an immersive space with different fishing grounds; or learn about the operation of the chemical port through an interactive experience.

The contents of the museum have been structured thematically, between areas and islands of knowledge.

Area 1.

“Between the sea and the land.” An introductory area to get acquainted with the nature of ports as a link between two of the basic elements of nature—water and land—by watching a video with a non-traditional format that enhances the verticality of the building and its industrial structures, which act as containers for objects simulating the vertical load on the docks. The use of wood as part of the structures brings warmth to this exhibition space with an industrial flair and feeling, while the port itself remains as the main protagonist, together with its people.

Area 2.

“Setting sail.” The history and evolution of navigation with special emphasis on ships through models either created in the very museum or acquired through donations, as well as two original boats linked to the city: a sloop boat under a patent from Tarragona and a fishing boat built by one of the most renowned lineages of masters of the city, the Rochs. Moreover, the latter was previously owned by politician, writer and publisher Carlos Barral, who wrote the book “Catalonia from the sea” from this very ship.

Area 3.

“Working at the port.” This area tells us about all the economic activity recorded throughout history in the Port of Tarragona—the port administration system understood as a small town, the port trades from the most traditional to the most recent, the practice of fishing as an important activity, and other economic sectors, like commerce and tourism or the chemical industry. The human and professional side of these activities stands out thanks to the heritage objects donated by the protagonists of a life lived at sea or by the sea in the two neighborhoods connected to the port—the Serrallo (or fishing village full of fishermen, net patchers, carpenters and caulkers) and the Port district (or Marina district, depending on the period), where boatmen, sailboats and merchants made it possible for merchant ships to use the containers of each period to transport goods. We should never forget port professions, and now, thanks to the donations of our colleagues, we can show them to everyone who visits us.

Area 4.

Enjoying the port. A collection of the uses of the port beyond professional activities. The port is a place of leisure and culture too. The Moll de Costa Dock acts as a boulevard for culture and documental, material and intangible heritage preservation. Temporary exhibitions and leisure activities are also programmed there from the City Port Directorate, the Teatret del Serrallo and the Port of Tarragona. Besides, it also has the first nautical club in the whole country, born of the so-called by fishermen “Grup dels Xiflats” (group of madmen) in 1878, when they went to row in the sea precisely on Sundays, while fishermen rested from their job of rowing.

Area 5.

Port and territory. Dedicated to presenting the influence of the port in the territory throughout history, emphasizing sustainable growth that marks the line of development of the present and the future, as well as the economic driver that the port has always been within its area of influence.

Area 6. Epilogue.

The final part of the tour has been reserved for the most personal views of the port in the form of a mosaic of images, a collection of photographs taken at different times and given to the museum by former port workers, fishermen and seafarers. The images have been selected by the museum expressly for the general public and are very significant. For this reason, they are exhibited over all areas. The images taken by professionals do not stand out, because donors are intended to have a privileged presence and all the prominence through the reproduction of part of our intangible heritage.

Finally, there are three autonomous islands of knowledge distributed throughout the exhibition space, where three historical moments of great influence are explained, both locally and globally. The first island is dedicated to Miquel Ballester, from Tarragona, the introducer of the cultivation of sugar cane overseas. The second one is dedicated to explaining one of the most striking historical episodes of the city of Tarragona—the siege following the Peninsular War. And the third island explains the impact of the Civil War on the lower part of the city and the port.

We will soon be celebrating the first anniversary of the comprehensive renovation on 17 July. We hope that this new journey will allow the twenty-five thousand visitors who have already come to our facilities—in these twelve months marked by public restrictions—to grow and to extend their trust in us, so that this ship continues to navigate through the life of the Port of Tarragona. We want to continue divulging the heritage of the port of Tarragona through the dissemination and research by the #NouMuseuPortTarragona, a witness to the DNA of seafarers linked to the commercial, fishing and sports ports of the Port of Tarragona.