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Francisco Romão Pereira / Time OutARMAZÉMLETREIROGALERIA_FRP, 26/07/2022

Letreiro Galeria. Waiting for a museum

The Letreiro Galeria project has been rescuing commercial memories of Lisbon. But lacks the space to exhibit the signs and neon lights that have been collected. We visited the provisional warehouse to record the emergence of a museum.

Renata Lima Lobo
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Renata Lima Lobo
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This article was published on Lisbon by Time Out newspaper, January 2023 edition.

Since 2014, graphic designers (and couple) Paulo Barata and Rita Múrias have dedicated themselves to rescue missions: they collect old signs from commercial establishments that close down, signs whose destination would normally be the rubbish tip or scrap yard. But their aim is not to carry the neon lights on their back from one temporary exhibition to another. It is the creation of a permanent museum in Lisbon or, failing at that, in one of the surrounding municipalities. This has not been an easy task. 

"Our goal is to create a museum with the signs we have been rescuing, where everyone can enjoy a graphic memory of things that have been disappearing," says Letreiro Galeria on their social media. A quick visit to their Instagram account (@letreirogaleria) is enough to understand the scale of this luminous project, with more than 250 items stored in a borrowed warehouse in Oeiras - without water, light and, in some areas, without a roof.

And it is precisely a roof that the couple wants to find, ideally a museum, that won’t just be decorated in neon.

There’s light in Oeiras

The project masterminds ask that the exact location of the warehouse where they have kept their treasures since 2017 be kept secret, but we can say that it covers about 1,500 square metres, although lacking a roof in places, which forces Paulo and Rita to move the items about to keep them dry on rainy days. While it is not open to the public, the collection is organised by type. For example, in the area closest to the entrance you will find the "glassery", such as storm doors and glass signs, some with gold leaf lettering. These include the exterior sign of the Casa dos Carimbos, which opened in 1914 and closed in 2015.

While more than 90% of the collection comes from Lisbon, there are also pieces from farther afield, often thanks to the growing community of Letreiro Galeria fans, who let the couple know about signs in need of rescue all over the country. Either because they are closing or because they've been replaced by more modern signs, as was the case with the Charcutaria Riviera, in Alvalade. The couple can be contacted at any time: "We just need a photo and the address. I take a grinder and ladders on holiday with me," says Paulo, in case he has to climb up, as he has become accustomed to, to save a bit of history. The expenses are paid out of the pockets of these two image professionals who protect an unclassified heritage.

The pieces only come out of the warehouse for exhibitions. Or for a Netflix film. That's right: some of the signs were used to "help recreate the 60s and 70s atmosphere" for the movie Heart of Stone, Rita says. "We aren't profitable and Netflix helped to pay the bills. But we don't rent for parties or event decorations," adds Paulo.

Not all the pieces are that old. For example, they have a Hard Rock Cafe Lisboa sign from 2003. "One day it will be a part of history," says Paulo, demonstrating that he has not yet lost hope in the future of this project. There are other memories of Lisbon: the signs from century-old outlets like Pastelaria Suíça, Casa Pereira, Retrosaria Arquichique and Casa Frazão. One of the company's stars is a giant Ritz Carlton hotel sign, one of the highlights of the "Brilha Rio" exhibition, which at the end of 2021 occupied the car park of the Prata Riverside Village, in Marvila. Just one of their many exhibitions in recent years.

The public interest is clear. The "Brilha Rio" exhibition alone welcomed more than 16,000 visitors, even though it was only open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. "But we had to be the ones there every weekend, watching over it, taking care," says Paulo, who also noted the emotions of some passers-by. "Some people cried because it brought back some special memories."

Size matters

Finding a space that is big enough for so many signs is not easy - and a solution is needed urgently. "What will we do when they send us away? It’s not exactly a matchbox. It's clearly a way of telling the story of the city - the legislation of the time, the politics and economics, the spelling agreement, censorship, memory and traditions," says Rita, who is working on a PhD at the Lisbon Faculty of Architecture, with a focus on licensing processes. 

The designers have already had discussions with the Lisbon City Council in an attempt to get help finding a space for a museum in the city where most of the pieces in the collection came from, but so far to no avail. Time Out Lisboa also contacted the council through an e-mail to councillor Diogo Moura, who is responsible for culture; however, the response from the Brand and Communication Department was vague: "CML has met the people responsible for Letreiro Galeria in order to help them find a solution, as we understand the collection is mostly from Lisbon and it is of interest in terms of the city's history, memory and cultural and commercial identity." 

Rita and Paulo have approached other local authorities, but so far there has not been much interest.

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More than design

Letreiro Galeria's first exhibition took place at Convento da Trindade in 2016, within the scope of an art program by MUDE - Museum of Fashion and Design. It was called "Graphic City. Lisbon signs and advertisements in the 20th century”, welcomed more than 14,000 visitors, and was associated with a survey carried out by the Lisbon Municipal Archive and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation to contextualise the pieces in the graphic and historical development of Lisbon's commercial establishments. 

Bárbara Coutinho, director and founder of MUDE, which closed for renovation in 2016, recognises the importance of creating a museum in Letreiro Galeria's own name. "It's not just this side of rescue and conservation that I think is important to mention in the work done by Rita and Paulo. It's also what they keep doing, which is photographing the process: where the sign was, how it was removed, what condition it was in. This photographic record is very important from a documentary point of view," she says. The director of MUDE stresses another component: recording the stories of the people who gave life to these establishments. "This oral testimony in contemporary history is extremely important. The fact that they are concerned about conducting the rescue and that they support it with this documentary work is what can ensure the possibility of having a museum with a permanent exhibition that functions in a number of dimensions: pedagogical, cultural, socio-economic, technical..." The exhibition six years ago facilitated this research, with access to the municipal archives to contextualise each piece. "For me, the added value of this collection goes beyond graphic design."

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