Manuel João Silveira Sousa Melo

The world of work is changing. If it hadn’t, my family and I would not have been able to move to the Azores. Almost every esoteric book that I needed to read for my Phd is now digitised and available to me, incredibly, at a few clicks of a button. My husband Filipe’s business is completely online – he manages a team of workers who live in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, all from the small town of Capelas in São Miguel. This enormous change in lifestyle couldn’t be more apparent in this small traditional farming and fishing town. Milk is still taken to the dairy by horse, cows and pigs are still kept in people’s backyards, the local bar is still a great place to hear gossip. This slow lifestyle feels all the more precious for continuing in such a quickly changing world and locals are proud of their quiet town. There is one man, however, who saw the value in the everyday before almost anyone else here. 83-year-old Manuel João Silveira Sousa Melo came to Capelas from Ponta Delgada over half a decade ago and despite this still thinks of himself as an outsider. He has, however, quite a position in town, having amassed an enormous collection of local memorabilia, gathered in the town’s museum of which he is founder. It’s an astonishing testament to the history of Capelas, the islands and, I realised as we sat down in the museum tavern to talk, all of us who live now on this cusp of the new and old worlds of work. 


Interviewer: Please tell me your name, your birthdate, and where you were born?

Manuel: My name is Manuel João Silveira Sousa Melo. I was born 31st May 1939 in São Pedro, Ponta Delgada. I am 83 years old.

Interviewer: Please tell me how you came to have the idea to start a museum?

Manuel: It was like this: I came here to work as a teacher, and I worked here for 14 years and then I left. I thought ‘I was there for so many years and I did not leave anything’. The years were going by and I said, ‘I have to go back to do something’. When I came back, I had different ideas, not to do a museum. My first thought was music because music is so important to life. But then my attention was caught by the construction of new buildings replacing the old ones completely. The old windows were gone, the doors were completely new and different from the old ones, so, well, everything was missing, I thought there should be a place to preserve the old ways and identities and I started this work.

Interviewer: It’s incredible to see everything that you have gathered here. How did you go about collecting it all and thinking about what is important to collect?

Manuel: What we try to do is collect thinking about an object like a person. When we first look at a person, we don’t know everything, we don’t see their history, or their feelings, we don’t see the important things inside, we can only see the outside. So, in our work we are doing the same thing, as well as we can, according to our capacity.

Interviewer: Very interesting. What are the reactions of people who visit this museum, what do they think about it?

Manuel: There are different types of comments! For example, some German people who arrived here said ‘when the Berlin Wall came down, things on the other side were like this’. Then some Russians came and said ‘a hundred years ago in our land it was like this, these types of stores’.  Therefore, we can see things changing all over the world. Still, there are in places in the world native tribes, some who are still naked, others dressed, so nothing changes uniformly. Things change according to the spirits of people and the influences they have.

Interviewer: There is a good book in England that starts like this ‘the past is a foreign country’, which is what this looks like for us now, in this era. It appears to me that for you and for many of the people who visit the museum, the past has a lot of value. What are the lessons that the past can teach us?

Interviewer: One of the most interesting lessons is that all the pieces that are here speak to people.  For example, in a family where everyone will not have the same profession, one can be a doctor, another bricklayer, another blacksmith, or another carpenter, all the tools, each one, have the voice of that person. When people pass by, they feel the voice of the uncle or friend who worked with those tools. Those pieces speak for themselves, that’s what happens here. People enter and identify themselves with these objects. I had a gentleman here who saw an electricity piece and told me ‘I worked with it, a long time ago, and I had never seen one again! He had already forgotten about it but when he came here he remembered!’ Everything speaks to people.

Interviewer: I agree, many of these pieces remind me of my grandparents or parts of the countryside of England. It makes me homesick! There is great value in remembering how we used to be and the values too that we can forget very fast. It’s my perception that the Azores and Capelas have changed very fast in these last years. What do you think are the most important ways in which Capelas has changed since you had started this museum?  In the world of work, for example?

Manuel: This is very hard to answer. Change we can only see in generations. I was a teacher and I saw different generations come through the school – they thought they were different from the ones that went before them, but they were not really. It takes several generations to change. And governments need to help each generation to be able to change because changes are very difficult. If there is no support, there is a tendency to do as the father and grandfather did and there is resistance because as I said, changes are difficult.

Interviewer: Change is difficult, I agree I have 4 children and the world seems very different for them now and sometimes it frightens me. 

Manuel: Yes, now it’s harder because we’re bombarded from the outside in. We have to update ourselves and integrate new arrivals, otherwise we get behind. Science always evolves, it doesn’t stop.

Interviewer: We have many new arrivals here now on the island. Are all the people who visit the museum tourists or some of them living here?

Manuel: Some of them live here, and others have come for holidays. This museum has a lot of publicity in Germany. Germans came here and filmed the museum and then showed it on German television which was great publicity!

Interviewer: So, you’re quite a well-known person in Germany!

Manuel: Yes, some of them arrived here with my picture and were looking forward to talking with me. Also, we have many French people, and more recently people from countries that I never heard about before have been arriving. It makes me think ‘how on earth did these people come here?’ There are many people from Israel for example, every week we get Israelis. 

Interviewer: Do you think that having more foreign people living here has changed the island’s identity a lot?

Manuel: It is difficult to answer this because for there to be change there must be absorption on the part of the people who receive the changes, and I am not sure that is easy or has happened. If there have been changes, they have been slight. 

Interviewer: My family and I like that Capelas has not changed much. We think it is a very special village.

Manuel: Capelas was the location chosen by English people to do a sanatorium. It is the place with the best weather on the island and the purest air. It is the neighbourhood called Maranhão to be exact.

Interviewer: You yourself moved from Ponta Delgada to Capelas. What is it that you like so much about Capelas?

Manuel: It has been the place that has provided a home for me! I used to live in Ponta Delgada, and I had built a house there and my children lived there too. But there came a day when I said ‘It is time to go up Capelas’. My son was looking for a new house in Ponta Delgada so I told him he could buy my house for himself and his brothers and I would move to Capelas. He liked the idea and so I moved. It costs more to think about it than to do it!

Interviewer: Today we have so many more chances to choose where we want to live. We work online and so we can have a job in London and live here. I feel a lot of people are asking themselves where they can live. Is not as easy as in the past to choose.

Manuel: But I think, for me, this is a transitory situation. It reminds me of the nomad people, who need to be shrewd and are used to moving around to find where there has to grass. There’s nothing like a place where we can put our feet on the ground, make life, and cultivate, is there?

Interviewer: It’s true. It’s so good for me to hear you say that! Finally, do you have something to say about the past or the future of the islands?

Manuel: The future of the islands is complicated because the Azores should be a unified block but there are 9 islands, and the people of the different islands all defend their corners. It becomes difficult to make a unit of 9 bits, and it is hard to make it work. Pleasing the latter without displeasing the former becomes very difficult.

Everything is possible, but people need to adjust, and also understand that everything has its limits. The island of Corvo, for example, thinks it has all the rights of a larger island or even Lisbon. It cannot be, we have to fit ourselves to our site and, therefore, I should know that on a small island with 300 people, I cannot have the same theatre or the same shows that Lisbon has.

Interviewer: Unless you watch them on Netflix! Thank you Manuel, this has been so interesting.

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