Like all the museums in Madrid, ours also closed during the Civil War. Its display cabinets were sealed and the collections packed away, with many of them being sent to the warehouses administered by the Board of Seizure, Protection and Salvage of the Artistic Treasure at the Palace of Libraries and Museums (today’s National Library and National Archaeological Museum). The building was relatively unscathed, apart from the paintings done on the fence and the minor damage caused by a small bomb that fell on the outside staircase.
However, nothing would be the same in the museum after the war, not even the building, although its transformation did not have an impact on its external appearance, apart from the repairs to the staircase and porch and the covering of the side roofs. The new authorities of the Ministry of Public Instruction, to which it also answered through the recently-created Higher Council for Scientific Research (Spanish acronym CSIC), took advantage of the need to put it back into operation following the traumatic interruption of the war, to completely readjust its identity and the architectural distribution of its interior by constructing galleries in the central area and setting up a new permanent exhibition [link to the building]. In fact, this could be considered the most decisive turning point in the museum’s history.
The transformation began with a change of name - in 1940 the museum was re-christened the National Museum of Ethnology - and continued with its now-exclusive devotion to displaying the material culture of other peoples of the planet, especially those who had had a colonial link to the Spanish empire - whose cultural assets therefore formed the majority of the museum’s collections - for the purpose of, in the words of its new director Pérez de Barradas, “bearing witness to our exploratory, colonising and missionary actions throughout the globe.” To back up this intention, the Fray Bernardino de Sahagún Institute for ethnological research was created under the same management. Its purpose was to use its studies to emphasise that “it was Hispanic keels which expanded the known geography and conquered countries and continents for Christianity, increasing Man’s knowledge in space and time.” In line with this vision of the world, the exotic cultures to which the museum was now exclusively devoted were spread over the three new floors, classifying them respectively as exponents of savagery, barbarity and civilisation.
Other national museums were not exempt from this, having been placed at the service of legitimising the new political regime and its idea of how history and the identity values which had brought about the Spanish nation should be. This occurred, among others, with the new Museum of America and the Museum of the Spanish People, whose purpose, considered complementary to that of the NME, was precisely to extol the values of Spanish culture and its “regional variants”. In fact, the changes to the two museums were to end up crossing over later on. This also occurred with the Institute of African Studies and the Museum of Africa, created in 1945 as annexes of the General Directorate of Morocco and Colonies, in the building on Paseo de la Castellana which is today’s Ministry of the interior, and whose collections ended up being integrated into those of the National Museum of Ethnology in 1973.
On the other hand, the fact that the themed museum was then monographically and definitively circumscribed, even in such a particular way, to the field of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, and therefore was clearly far removed from any relationship with the Natural Sciences, meant that in 1962 it was decided to change it from administrative secondment to forming part of the General Directorate of Fine Arts, a link which has never altered to this day. At that time, the building and its collections were also declared a Historic-Artistic Monument. The institution, under the management of Esteva (1965-1968), Gil Farrés (1970-1982) and Romero de Tejada (1983-2013) also gradually abandoned its colonialist bias to become a universalist-oriented museum in which the different cultures began to receive equal treatment. This was when the permanent exhibition changed to being organised by geographical area, an arrangement which is still in place today.