The Museum: current ventures and the future

Luigi Gallo, Director, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche/ Regional Directorate Marche Museums
Interview by Gabriella Papini

  • In recent months, as never before, the real role and effectiveness of museums has been the subject of intense inquiry and discussion at a scientific and journalistic level. Do you think now would be a good time, a profitable time, to broaden the debate further and examine the issues in greater depth?

    The debate surrounding museums and, more generally, the role of art in people’s lives is always topical. It is helpful to bear in mind that the foundation of modern museums – first with the Vatican Museums in eighteenth century Rome, then in post-revolutionary Paris with the Louvre – inevitably goes hand in hand with a profound reflection on civil society and its aesthetic expectations, on political creeds, cultural roots and ethical matters. Take, for example, the Della Rovere pope, Sixtus IV’s donation to the people of Rome of the bronze statues which used to be housed in the Lateran and were transferred to the Capitol, marking the creation of the earliest public museum in the world: it was a deliberate move, proceeding from a vision, at once profound and practical, of the role of art as the symbol of the community, as the common root, and, at the same time time, an assertion that the pontiff was the guarantor of history, in continuity (and also in subtle contrast) with the Roman Senate. A museum is always a “social” place, and should be interpreted as such, responding to the needs of the community but also proffering new visions conducive to its cultural development.
    I attach great importance to the recently updated definition of museum, approved in Prague on 24 August 2022, within the framework of the ICOM Extraordinary General Assembly, the culmination of a long participatory process involving 126 National Committees from all over the world. Art. 3 of the ICOM statute was amended in order to recognize the institution’s role in society: “the museum is a permanent, non-profit institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangibile heritage. Open to the public, accessibile and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability”. As this substantial amendment makes clear, we are living at a time in which considerable attention is devoted to the question of cultural heritage, seen not merely as artefacts bearing witness to a historical period and its taste, but as the principal means of communication and transmission of knowledge. So the present time is a real turning point in the history of Italian museums, offering a great opportunity to rethink ways of communicating between art and the public.
    I feel it is important to stress that when the well-known restictions associated with Covid were finally lifted, museums welcomed flocks of visitors returning to their halls in search not only of the beauty which had been denied them during the long period of lockdown, but, also, symbolically, of their cultural roots: works of art are an important part of our past as individuals and of the future of our society. I still remember the queues outside the Scuderie del Quirinale to see the works of Raphael: because art is an answer.
  • In the light of your considerable professional experience prior to arriving in the Marche, would you say that the museum system and the cultural system associated with it are growing and evolving qualitatively? Both at a national level and a more strictly regional one?

    I think the museums that I have the honour and responsibility of directing – and, more generally, the many excellent diocesan, civic and private museums, together with the foundations which all contribute to make up the cultural wealth of the Marche Region – are responding to the multiple demands arriving from society at large and offering new, innovative interpretations. For our part we have been successfully carrying forward a number of ventures, including exhibitions and the inauguration of new museum spaces. For instance, in Ascoli Piceno in April, after a ten-year wait, we opened a whole section related to the Roman city. Fully accessibile and inclusive, it proved a huge public success and was warmly welcomed by the citizens. I should also like to mention the second floor of the Ducal Palace of Urbino which we opened fully to the public in mid-July, exhibiting over one hundred works which trace the history of art in the region between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries; many are the result of donations, like that made by Senator Paolo Volponi, or works held in storage, like the extraordinary collection of the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Pesaro.
    The setting up of the rooms on the second floor, arranged by the museum staff from both a scholarly and exhibition viewpoint, is varied in accordance with the architectural character of the settings and the materials to be displayed. The introduction to the artworks has also been redone thanks to a major panel writing project involving students from the School of Specialization in Art History in Rome. The opening of the new rooms on the second floor – never before used as an exhibition area – completes that process of designating the entire building to cultural purposes which began with the establishment of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in 1912, under the direction of a very young Lionello Venturi. As well as increasing the exhibition areas, and therefore the number of works on display, the extension includes very important parts of the palace not previously visible to the public, such as the slender southern tower and the loggia and Gallo terrace.
    I would also cite the big exhibition, Urbino Crocevia delle Arti, (Urbino: Crossroad of the Arts), open until 9 October, which has provided an opportunity to take stock of the artistic production of the court of Federico da Montefeltro. Our various projects are proving really successful with public and critics alike: in August alone we counted 31,000 visitors, which, together with the numbers for the previous months, confirms the central role of the Ducal Palace within the Italian museum system. We have also been active in refurbishing the archeological museum in Cingoli, and several major projects are getting off the ground in Arcevia, Senigallia, Ancona and Gradara, helping to overhaul the style and accessibility of museums in the Marche Region in line with what is happening in Italy and abroad. In Ancona, for example, a key project is about to get under way on the storage areas of the National Archeological Museum; it will make the archeological remains there more accessibile as well as opening up the prospect of their being studied and more suitably exhibited.
  • Would you like to see an increase in study and research activities, together with new and original opportunities for experiencing art? Perhaps going beyond the traditional aesthetic pleasure?

    I would certainly be in favour, and this is precisely the direction we are moving in. I have already mentioned our association with the School of Specialization in Rome for the introductory panels, but there are several other projects under way: first and foremost, the work in progress involving the four universities of the Marche region who have joined forces and are conducting an impressive in-depth study of the history of the fortresses in Senigallia and Gradara so as to produce a state-of-the-art interpretation of their building strata. I am also thinking of the excellent work carried out on Palazzo Ferretti in Ancona by the School of Specialization in Architectural Restoration of Naples University, which has uncovered a number of interesting new facts and helped to draw up the guidelines for the restoration of this magnificent sixteenth building which will begin shortly. A number of arrangements have also been put in place involving the universities of Urbino, Chieti, the School of Specialization in Art History in Gubbio, and the IMT in Lucca where a doctorate course is being set up specifically in museum studies, all helping to make our institutes centres of excellence in education and training.
    Alongside these collaborative ventures we have strengthened the role of museums in the life of the city, hosting prestigious international festivals, like the Early Music Festival in Urbino, so as to offer the public a varied and multi-layered experience… without in any way detracting from the aesthetic pleasure which is indispensable to a thorough and intimate understanding of art.
  • How can you extract the most from a museum, make it more “inhabited” and not just visited? More lived in, both by specialists and professionals and by the inappopriately names visitors? A forum for further and alternative forms of artistic expression, also at times and in ways that are different from the usual?

    Whoever works in a museum lives there, too! Because the work is intense and demands great dedication and passion. As regards time-tables, over the summer we tended to focus on the evenings, staying open until 23.00, as well as on live shows. We hope to be able to carry on in this way, besides introducing opening times which are convenient to workers and public alike. Meanwhile, we look forward to welcoming you in droves, especially on our free Sundays!
  • Should the business community contribute more to the organization of art at a national level, as it already does to some extent? Might this give greater impetus to the planning and realization of cultural projects?

    I believe that the partnership between public and private is of vital importance, and not just from a financial angle as might at first seem. As I mentioned earlier, the culture of an area is provided with a voice and a powerful sounding board through the museum; the museum recounts its history, highlighting all that is specific to it, weaving a tale which is necessary in order to piece together and hand down the identity of the society it represents – an identity which, in being specific, is also universal. The support given by the Confederation of Industry, for example, to the restoration of the Della Robbia lunette in Urbino is evidence of just how strongly the business world feels about conservation matters, not merely because of a legitimate interest in the visibility that sponsorship confers, but from a real sense of belonging to the area and its artistic masterpieces, One could say the same about the restoration work sponsored by the General Confederationof Italian Artisans and other regional associations. It is really important that the debate on art and the management of art should remain an integral part of present-day life, bringing together all the main actors, the businessmen and those responsible for protecting and promoting the artworks, so as to offer the best possible future for our heritage.
  • What is your view of the transition to digitalization and the ever greater accessibility of the whole cultural heritage system? Urbino and the wonderful Gallery of which you are the director must surely afford a privileged viewpoint. Can all this improve our daily lives?

    Over the past thirty years digital technologies have been a driving force for change, affecting progressively both the social sphere and the cultural. Where museums are concerned, digitalization touches on every area of activity: from administration to the cataloguing and conservation of the collections, from organizing exhibitions and mediating down to communication and marketing. Since the task involves all sectors, across the board, the different areas are called upon to work together to address it. Digital tools can be used to enhance the exhibition experience and provide further specific information. The Internet is not merely the initial source of information and amusement; it is also the network where shared knowledge is generated, a shared and creative cultural heritage is developed, and issues of social importance are addressed. The website and the different digital platforms make their content available irrespective of time and place, and in turn have an impact on the museum. Digitalization offers museums a vast range of opportunities for carrying out their mission as places of knowledge, conservation and communication, in ways that are diversified, wide-ranging, connected, International, inclusive and participatory. The digitalization of the cultural heritage is therefore a fundamental issue: it comes down to ensuring new prospects for our cultural heritage, in terms not just of accessibility but of conservation and protection, too. It is an indispensabile process which all museums are carrying forward in order to make their collections fully available, and one which we, too, are working at in the form of a number of PNRR-funded projects involving the National Gallery of the Marche and the Regional Directorate.
    7.So, living with and for culture means securing, as far as possible, a bit of happiness for oneself?
    Let me borrow a remark of Tolstoy’s to answer that question: “The secret of happiness is not always to do what you want, but always to want what you do”.