Science Museum at the University of Coimbra

Pedro Casaleiro

member of the Executive Direction Board

The Science Museum at the University of Coimbra (Coimba, Portugal)

Science Museum, Laboratorio Chimico, University of Coimbra Largo Marques de Pombal 3000-272 Coimbra Portugal

Laboratorio Chimico, before and after the Micheletti Award

Coimbra University holds one of the most important scientific collections in Portugal originating in the University reform of 1772 by the Prime Minister, Marquis of Pombal. This enlightened reform is deeply rooted on European tradition, as it follows the model of the Vienna medical school, itself inherited from the Leiden school of Borehaave, the founder of clinical teaching. Specialized structures and buildings were created specifically for science teaching in the eighteenth century: anatomical theatre, pharmaceutical dispensary, botanical garden, astronomical observatory, cabinet of physics, museum of natural sciences, and laboratory of chemistry. The collections, with about 250.000 accessioned objects, acquire added value and relevance when viewed together with the original buildings. This number increases to one million items when considering the rich specimens of the Coimbra Herbarium. One of the best examples is the well preserved and internationally known Cabinet of Physics, displayed in its two rooms and amphitheater, the objects placed in the original cabinets and furniture, one room with the eighteenth century machines and models and the other for the nineteenth century instruments collection. Symmetrically, in identical rooms, is the Cabinet of Natural History that embodies the enlightenment spirit of exploring new worlds and discovering new species during the philosophical journeys throughout tropical Brazil, Africa and India. Anthropology holds collections that cover unique ancient material culture from Amazonian tribes, some already extinct, collected in the eighteenth century and also very significant African collections from Angola and Mozambique. The Herbarium has a world collection of plants with major relevance to Portuguese and African flora from the Zambezi region to Angola. Other important collections include botany, mineralogy, geology, palaeontology, zoology, astronomy, medicine and pharmacy.
The project rationale relies on the conservation and preservation of these great science collections bringing them together into a unique Science Museum project for the XXI century, engaging the community, Europeans and the world, to explore and learn about Portuguese science and history. This implies the preservation of two major historical university buildings to install the "Museu da Ciecirc;ncia", that symbolize the Pombal reform: the Laboratorio Chimico (Fig.1) and the College of Jesus. The project is part of a wider policy to candidate the Coimbra historical University campus to UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.
Phase I, implied the intervention in the Laboratorio Chimico, a unique independant purpose built laboratory and a beautiful neoclassical building from 1773-1777 with 1.000 m2. It was used until 1999 as Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Department, the refurbishment for the first phase of the project took place after 2004 and the Museum opened on 5 December 2006.

The back laboratory room, permanent exhibition, Laboratorio Chimico, Science Museum, Coimbra University. / Photo by Fernando Guerra

Phase II, consists of the recovery of the College of Jesus, one of the first Jesuit university colleges founded in 1542, that integrates the "new" (sixteenth century) Coimbra Cathedral. It is one of the largest colleges of Coimbra Alta, with 13.000 m2 in three levels. Jesuits were expelled in 1759 and the eastern part of the building was transformed and adapted to install the newly created Faculty of Philosophy and the Museum by Pombal in 1772. It is the first public building purposely built in Portugal to house a Museum. This building was occupied by three departmental museums in the twentieth century, the Museum of Physics, Museum of Mineralogy and Geology, Museum of Zoology and the departments of Earth Sciences, Zoology and a Pharmacy section. Pharmacy has already moved to newly built premises, and the other departments will be relocated in other buildings. The College faccedil;ades are already being refurbished and the museum plan is under development until 2010.

Laboratorio Chimico, the house for the chemistry collection, was developed as a preview project of the Museum of Science. It includes a permanent exhibition, a temporary exhibition with amphitheater (Fig.2), a small objects storage room, offices and a cafeteria located in a warehouse nearby the Laboratory. The architectural project adapted the building to become a museum space preserving the laboratory memory with its large rooms and high ceilings (12 m), keeping relevant elements from various interventions over time: sixteenth century pulpit and windows, eighteenth century remains of old furnace and chimneys, arched ceilings, ventilation features, nineteenth century amphitheatre, fume cupboards and laboratory furniture. The ancient large back laboratory space was recovered as in the eighteenth century plan, in its full grandeur (260 m2), and now is used as the more substantial permanent exhibition area.
The permanent exhibition, "Secrets of Light and Matter", starts in the first laboratory room (Fig.3) and includes aspects of the building interpretation and of experimental science in the Enlightenment showing the chemistry treasures of the collection in original chemical benches. The exhibition continues in the large back laboratory room (Fig.4), in a more contemporary approach, with a layout of five exhibit islands on themes related to light and matter: Light, Light and Matter, Light of the Sun, Vision and Colour. The exhibition philosophy is cross disciplinary integrating objects from the University collections of physics, chemistry, astronomy and natural sciences. Objects and instruments are the essential discourse starters, thoughtfully and aesthetically presented in large glass showcases designed together with iconography organized in simple and attractive stories of science. The showcases are complemented with interactive exhibits, models and multimedia kiosks made with the same materials (glass and iron).
The particular qualities and innovation of the project that deserved the 2008 Micheletti Award were the careful restoration and design of the neoclassical building of the Laboratorio Chimico. The cross disciplinary approach of the permanent exhibition, Secrets of Light and Matter, that integrates successfully several scientific disciplines with the historical building, the museum collections, experiments, interactive exhibits, and multimedia. The diverse activities programme and the high level publications contribute to create an excellent experience for the visitor.
The 2008 Micheletti Award was an incredibly stimulating moment for the museum team that used it to develop the open museum project to the same standard of excellence. The Museum became very successful throughout the year and had a tremendous coverage by the press. The public became increasingly interested originating a positive image of an active museum with a very qualified science offer. The number of visitors had a boost of 70%, from 2007 to 2008. Educational activities have more than doubled in 2008-09 and the museum achieved a very good level of feedback from the public through its website ( Scientists are now very keen to collaborate with the Museum, which is a real key for success.


Browse by year

Browse by category

Browse by country

View all