Italian autonomous national museums and digital: an imperfect alliance as yet. By Marta Paraventi

Marta Paraventi – art historian, journalist, academic

This journal has recently hosted a number of important contributions, like that from Christian Greco, the Director of the Egyptian Museum of Turin, on the relationship between museums and digital. Our intention is to continue to focus on what has become a subject of strategic importance by following up on the article on the use of digital in autonomous museums, published in the May 2021 issue of “Il Giornale dell’arte”, and providing supplementary data and assessments.

As a result of the Prime Ministerial Decree no. 171 and subsequent additions, there are now forty museums, archeological sites and places of major cultural interest which have been granted special autonomy. They differ from other state-owned museums in enjoying scientific, financial, budgetary and organizational autonomy. The launch of the autonomous museums in 2014 was hailed as a groundbreaking move, in terms both of the overall independence conferred and the fact that each director was appointed from an international field. From the very outset, this procedure has at times aroused a disproportionate amount of interest and occasionally failed to fulfil the good intentions set out in the call for applicants, as emerges from a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the digital innovations carried out by the various directors.

Seven years on from the launch of autonomous museums, in the midst of a pandemic, the need arose for the Digital Observatory to monitor, not the overall performance of the museums and their directors – clearly the responsibility of the MIC’s National Museums Directorate – but the extent and quality of their digital ventures: i.e. the degree to which these institutions are equipped with a digital programme capable of developing projects and relations which are not merely an extension of “ordinary” business transferred online, but conceived in and for an ecosystem which is totally digital. The Digital Observatory’s task also arose as a result of MIC (the Italian Culture Ministry, formerly Mibact) adopting a three-year plan for the Digitalization and Innovation of Museums (2019) and commissioning a survey on museum visitors during the lockdown which makes it clear that the visitors themselves appreciate the museums’ digital dimension. A dimension which is not to be confused with online information about events and social media marketing.

Monitoring both the social media activity and the online services available through the autonomous museums’ websites (online shop, newsletter, translations, app, catalogues of the collections), but focusing mainly on specifically digital enterprises, the results are alarming. With the exception of the occasional example of excellence and good management, the museums are demonstrably lagging behind the times and failing to fulfil their roles (or to justify the directors’ monthly salaries which are considerably higher now than they were before 2014 when they averaged about 1,700 euros net – as the then Director of the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Anna Coliva, told the “Voce di New York” in 2015

Only 40% of museums have dedicated digital services and platforms.

According to published data, the museums which adopt digital educational services and dedicated platforms in a fully integrated way account for less than 40% of the total: a little over half have a translation, in English only, of their website; if 80% of autonomous museums offer online ticket sales, only 6% are equipped to sell publications, gifts and accessories via the web. Where the collections are concerned, it is true that in the case of 63% of museums they can be consulted digitally, but the situation is far from homogeneous; virtual tours are rare and apps are few and under-exploited.

At the same time, in June 2021, the Osservatorio Innovazione Digitale nei Beni e Attività Culturali (Digital Innovation Observatory for Cultural Heritage and Enterprises) of the Politecnico of Milan published a report on Innovation in Italian Museums (irrespective of ownership). In it, the Observatory’s director, Eleonora Lorenzini, argued that while a certain degree of approximation in producing digital content was acceptable in the early stages of the pandemic, it was now essential to invest in ad hoc products and in the expertise necessary to create, manage and promote them – all of which presupposes a logical strategy, at least in the mid-term. Unfortunately, the institutions which have devised a plan which includes digital innovation are still in the minority: just 24%, exactly the same as a year ago.

Our intention is now to concentrate on the forty museums for two reasons: precisely because the autonomy granted to their directors allows them a free hand in pursuing policies aimed at change and improvement, and because they are the focus of media attention inasmuch as they protect a heritage of global importance and represent a major turning point in national museum policy, brought about by the Italian Culture Minister, Dario Franceschini.

A goal still to be achieved: from informative site to digital access

An analysis of their websites shows that few autonomous museums have devised sites to operate alongside the site which provides information: a website, in other words, dedicated exclusively to accessing the museum digitally, with a complex and fully articulated  schedule intended to showcase the museums’ contents and collections by means of formats and languages which are intrinsically digital, thus encouraging a broader, more inclusive and better inforrmed appreciation of the museum entirely in online mode. Museums which have devised such websites are the Musei reali di Torino (Royal Museums of Turin) with their channel “E’ reale”; the Pinacoteca di Brera (Brera Gallery) with “Brera Plus”, which ranges from the digitalization of the artworks to the streaming of concerts and other events held at the museum; the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo (Colosseum Archeological Park) which has opened a section on its website entirely devoted to digital and called “Parco on line”, offering a report on digital and social media ventures and a video window on the restoration of the Arch of Septimius Severus; the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Firenze (the Accademia Galleries in Florence) which have opened a dedicated section on their site, full of digital content including podcast-focus on masterpieces (Radio Accademia), virtual tours and online training courses.

Overall, only 37% of museums have made specific provision for online educational services and activities, and a closer analysis reveals clear differences from museum to museum. The range spans from the Uffizi in Florence – which has devised a fully-fledged, complex digital presentation, diversified in terms of contents, aims and tools – to museums which have implemented relatively few means of digital interaction with the public, like serial video narratives, “il museo si racconta” (“Getting to know the museum”) of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche di Urbino (National Gallery of the Marche Region in Urbino), or the classic video tours of the museum accompanied by the director, such as the Castello di Miramare in Trieste. And only rarely do these projects aim to involve the public in digital activities: notable exceptions are the venture by the Gallerie dell’Accademia di Venezia (the Accademia Galleries in Venice), “Mi porto a casa il museo” (“I’ll take the museum home”), and, among the wealth of activities on offer on the Uffizi site, “Aspettando Primavera: un girotondo agli Uffizi” (“Waiting for Spring: a merry-go-round at the Uffizi”), a virtual tour in various languages – Italian, English, French, Spanish, and Lis, the Italian sign language – which needs to be booked in advance, and “Fabbriche di Storie” (“Factories of Stories”) in which twelve of the Uffizi’s masterpieces are recounted, also by foreigners resident in Italy, who interweave their experiences with the history of the works in a way that touches on universal themes (the audio files are in Italian and in the mother tongue of the various contributors, including Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, French and Spanish). As regards the Italian sign language, Lis, both Muciv (the Museum of Civilizations) in Rome and the Uffizi in Florence have made a series of videos which are available online. 

50% of the museums are equipped with APPS, but only half of these museums (8 out of 18) provide instructions on downloading the app from the website. The app of the Museo Real Bosco di Capodimonte is well produced and particulary useful: it enhances the beautiful exhibition “Napoli, Napoli…di lava, porcellana e musica” by allowing the visitor to listen to the music specific to each section in the background.

Few museums (just over 20%) avail themselves of this tool and in some cases make (good) use of Google Arts and Culture, such as the National Archeological Museum of Naples, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome and the Museo Real Bosco di Capodimonte. Noteworthy among the virtual tours is the one devised by the Musei Reali di Torino, while the Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica di Roma offers virtual tours of ongoing exhibitions. The Gallerie Estensi di Modena provide, not a virtual tour, but a thematic exhibition, enabling the user to choose artworks freely in the museum’s online database and group them together in an itinerary to be followed through in person.

A few weeks ago, news arrived that the Ministery of Culture has put out an internationaal call for applicants for the post of Director of the Museum of Digital Art (MAD), not yet in existence but to be based in Milan. It is still not known what form it will take, but press reports describe a museum whose function will be to promote the best digital projects of Italian museums.