No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. Tomar, in central Portugal, is home not just to a museum full of matchboxes, the Museu dos Fosforos, but what must count as one of the most extraordinary collections of all things match anywhere on the planet. I’d never thought of them in this light before (or at all before), but matchboxes are attractive things and a vast collection of over 43,000 of them has a remarkable visual effect.
People come to Tomar to visit the Convento de Cristo, the heavily fortified former headquarters of the Knights Templar, but if you’re in Tomar I’d strongly suggest a visit to the Museu dos Fosforos. When we first arrived at the museum it was closed; because the weather was so hot and humid we almost decided to skip visiting and head out of town. I’m glad we didn’t, it was a brilliant and very human experience…and it’s free. Even the Templars can’t top that.
It’s a magnificent collection, bringing together matchboxes from just about every country on the planet – including several that no longer exist. It’s absurd and fascinating in equal measure. Part social history, part full-on kitsch, this is a monument to obsessive, ridiculous human nature and the determination of one man to leave something behind in the world.
The late Aquiles Da Mota Lima is that man. His achievement, the stuff of legend (at least in my household). If my years on this planet have taught me anything, it is that without men and women like Aquiles the world would be a far less interesting and liveable place.
The museum houses more than 43,000 match boxes from 127 countries and dating from the 1820s. It is estimated that there are approximately 2 million matches inside the museum, which must make their annual discussion with the fire insurance people pretty interesting. As we were the only people there, the museum attendant gave us a wonderful potted history of the museum and its patron.
It all started in 1953 while Lima was traveling to England to attend the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. On the boat over an American woman who collected matchboxes asked him to send her some from the coronation. This he did, but Lima also kept some for himself, marking the start of a life-long fascination with collecting matchboxes.
His first ever matchbox, decorated with the head of Elizabeth II, has pride of place in the museum. The rest is filled with matchboxes depicting just about everything and anything: flags, traditional dances, star signs, sports, animals, science, famous art and artists, film stars, politicians, cars and fairytales to name just a few. There are several matchbox collections featuring the alphabet. I’m all for learning but did people really think giving children matchboxes was a good idea?
There is a large subset of matchboxes that would probably best be described as erotica. If this was just from one country I wouldn’t have given it a second thought, but matchbox erotica is widespread. The museum houses examples from Europe, North America, Latin America, Japan and China amongst others…and yes, they do all feature semi-naked women.