29 Dec 2010

Can you imagine if we could actually touch stuff?!

Why can’t Italian museums be as cool as Canadian ones?

I am always amazed at how much cooler Canadian museums are compared to Italian ones. We have visited two on this trip: The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. The first one is certainly more “traditional” in the Italian sense, but still enormously less boring. The second one is pure entertainment.

Canadian museums are places where you go to have a recreational experience while you learn some stuff. The artifacts of the various cultures are displayed with a wealth of additional information, such as models of the settings in which they would be found, pictures, videos, etc. which gives to the individual pieces a whole different appeal. They are collocated in an installation, and not just on a wall or shelf as it happens in Italy.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization has four floors on which entire bits and pieces of towns of different epochs have been recreated. And that becomes the “stage” for the individual objects. It’s true experiential learning: you go back in time, you are brought to different places and you can literally touch reproductions of the precious objects that you are looking at.

In Italy, most museums and exhibits are essentially a collection of objects placed in some sort of order. Boring as hell.

Here in Canada, you can buy a family subscription to the largest museums and go as many times as you want with your kids. They make for a perfect day out with the family. Can you imagine doing that at the Uffizi?! Kids are bored to death after the line to get in… and the first two or three rooms are enough to produce crying, sleeve-pulling and endless “how long before we can go” types of questions.

I think the most serious consideration to make here is the different attitude that Italy and (in general) the English-speaking world have when it comes to culture. First of all, in the English-speaking world everything is worth being considered as culture, whereas in Italy, certain things that here feature prominently in museums would be dismissed with a snobbish laugh (and maybe a horrified look).

Second, culture is democratic, it belongs to everybody and it is still what it was originally supposed to be: entertainment. And it shows in any corner of every museum and gallery. In Italy, culture and art are for the cultivated, for the educated. We are huge snobs when it comes to this kind stuff. And in so doing we essentially kill everything. We make everything heavy, boring and élitarian.

Here going to the museum means doing something special. In Italy it means going to look at something special. But how long can you look at something without doing anything?! I get bored in less than 30 minutes.

Here curators have their audience in mind and the design of the informational material, of the paths, of the installations are meant to be useful and captivating. In Italy, the underlying principle seems to be that a masterpiece should speak for itself, and if you are so thick that you need more than that to be entertained and interested, than you should maybe just go hang out at the bar at the end of the street and forget about art. Leave it to the true intellectuals. A totally different attitude towards education, towards culture and towards people, which is reflected at all levels of society, even in museums.

Wouldn’t it fabulous if we Italians could start renovating our society by starting from our obsolete, painfully boring museums?


  1. We have great galleries and museums here in Australia. I did a post recently about our GoMA, which has just begun an exhibition of 21st Century Art. It is child friendly and encourages participation. http://bagnidilucca.wordpress.com The posts are called 21st Century Art in the First Decade and 21st Century Art – the fun bit. You may also be interested in some of my travel posts.

  2. Man, those museums are boring. Sometimes I feel like I’m walking through the pages of a 1970s encyclopedia collection. Yawn.

  3. Before we can even start doing that, we need to take power conflicts, boredom and self-contempt out of the insitutions. I really think the key issues are changing staff recruiting policies and establishing new performance assessment methods inside the museums. Unfortunately, this can’t be done because in Italy the left is frozen in time (1954 right now) and the right could not care less about culture.
    Oh, being paid like a tomato picker for a job that requires post graduate skills, fluency in 2 or 3 languages and continuing education does not help, too. I wonder what the young curators’ wages are in Toronto?

  4. italy vacations

    For me, all I can say is that I love each time I enjoy my Italy vacations even if some would consider their museums to be boring. The way I look at it, their museums displays the remnants of history that we can view in our own time

  5. Ciao! The next time you are in Toronto, you should go to the Art Gallery of Ontario and see the rather astonishing Galleria d’Italia–which is very beautiful and very unCanadian (basically a high-style gesture of presenzialismo on the part of two dozen local families of Italian origin.)


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