When choosing where to go in a new destination, I always look first for something that speaks of the place, either of its history or the life of the people who live there now. On a recent stop in the coastal city of Santos, Brazil, I found a place that does both: it strongly reflects the history of the country as well as the daily lives of Brazilians today. It is the Bolsa de Café, or Coffee Exchange Palace, which now houses the Museu do Café (Coffee Museum).
As part of my application to attend the Florens 2012 Cultural and Environmental Heritage Week, I have approached this past month in Brazil with a more critical eye. Since learning about the mission of the Fondazione Florens, which is to promote cultural and environmental heritage as a source of economy, I have been thinking carefully about tourism in Brazil, specifically how the rich cultural heritage of Brazil is promoted. After experiencing many attractions in Brazil that have left me underwhelmed, I was curious to see how the Museu do Café would interpret the historical and modern-day importance of coffee in Brazilian culture to the benefit of tourism and thereby the local economy.
Coffee has long held an important position in the history of Brazil and greatly affected the country’s infrastructure, population, and culture. It was brought to Brazil in 1727 and later became one of the country’s main sources of wealth. The need for ways to transport coffee from the inland plantations, through the thick forests and mountains, and down to the ports resulted in the construction of railways and other infrastructure. The need for people to work the coffee industry shaped the population and therefore the culture of Brazil. Slaves were brought from Africa to work the coffee plantations until slavery was finally abolished in 1888; then a huge number of immigrants, especially from Italy and Japan, came to Brazil to fill the need for labor. The coffee industry was also responsible for the growth of São Paulo, now one of the largest cities in the world. Clearly coffee has played a pivotal role in the history of Brazil, but one needn’t look far to notice the place coffee also holds in the daily lives of Brazilians today.
Most people don’t realize that Brazil is and has long been the world’s largest producer of coffee. Coffee is an integral part of Brazilian life. Brazilians enjoy their strong coffee in the morning with a simple breakfast of bread with cheese or jam, in the afternoon with cake, and after meals, even at night with an espresso after a long, slow dinner. Espresso machines are always busy at the neighborhood padarias (bakeries) and cafés and, as in Italy, coffee is always served strong in small ceramic cups.
Coffee has been especially important to the southern state of São Paulo, where the coffee industry boomed and foreign trade was centered. It is fitting then that the main attraction in the southern port city of Santos is the Coffee Museum (Museu do Café).
The Museu do Café opened in 1922 and functioned as the official site of the coffee trade until 1957, when it was moved to the city of São Paulo. It was renovated and reopened as the Museu do Café in 1998 in order to preserve and showcase the history of coffee in Brazil and now is protected as one of the state’s historical monuments. My main questions upon visiting were these: if coffee has had such an important role in the cultural heritage of Brazil, how effectively does the museum reflect that, and how might the museum fit in the bigger scheme of the city’s tourism and therefore benefit the local economy?
Let’s consider the former question: how well does the Museu do Café reflect the role of coffee in Brazil’s culture and history? The building itself is beautiful and in good condition, which is unfortunately unusual in the historic center of Santos. The interior of the Coffee Exchange Building is opulent and demonstrates the wealth that coffee generated. At the center of the museum is the large Trading Room, decorated with a stained glass ceiling showing the history of the state São Paulo, ornate marble floors, and a triptych of panels representing the founding of Santos. The ceiling and panels are by the famous Brazilian artist Benedicto Calixto.
The room is bordered by a circle of 81 wooden chairs where coffee barons gathered to negotiate the daily price of coffee.
The rest of the museum consists of a small but interesting collection of photographs and objects that show the evolution of coffee in Brazil, from the growth of coffee plantations and infrastructure needed to transport coffee across the mountainous landscape of southern Brazil, to the development of cities as a result of coffee exports and the use of slaves and immigrants to work in all parts of the huge industry. According to the museum, more than 2 million immigrants, almost half from Italy, arrived in São Paulo state between 1875 and 1930 to grow and transport coffee. The photographs are supplemented with concise but informative explanations.
English translations explain the exhibits and supplement the beautiful informational pamphlet given to visitors, which is available in 5 languages. Though the translations are filled with grammatical errors and other problems, they are a big improvement over the surprising and frustrating lack of translations in most museums in São Paulo. This is a real shame for São Paulo because, despite the fact that it is the largest city in South America and home to a number of important museums, tourism will not develop as quickly as it would with more consideration to the needs of foreign visitors.
The building also houses the beautiful Museum Café, which allows visitors to experience coffee as it is today in Brazilian society. Select varieties of regional coffee beans are available for purchase and are toasted right there.
In addition to coffee beans, many delicious coffee drinks are served by the friendly staff, and typical Brazilian pastries, coffee candies, coffee ice cream, and sandwiches are also available.
One of the most common Brazilian snacks is the pastel, and the café serves three types: one filled with chicken, one with ground beef, and the other with a typical mix of palm hearts, peas, and green olives.
Enjoying coffee, pastries, pastel, and another common snack, pao de queijo (warm bread filled with cheese) is a great way to experience a slice of Brazilian café culture after learning about coffee at the museum. Returning to my consideration of how the museum reflects the place of coffee in Brazil’s cultural heritage, I found the museum and its café to be successful. The small but effective museum relates the history, while the café encourages visitors to experience coffee and, in the interest of both the museum and the community, spend money…which leads to my second question raised earlier: how does the Coffee Museum fit into the city’s tourism and therefore benefit the local economy?
The Coffee Museum is known as the city’s best tourist attraction and is conveniently located in the historic center. It has on average 4000 visitors per month and consequently generates money and jobs for the local economy. Clearly, the decision to renovate the Coffee Exchange Building was a very smart one for Santos. As such, it should act as an inspiration to renovate the rest of the historical center. Please look for more on this in my upcoming post on the development of tourism in Brazil.
And you? Have you been to a similar museum? Would you like to learn about the history and culture of Brazil at the Coffee Museum in Santos?