The Fourth Meeting of the Small Museum National Association

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The APM (Associazione Piccoli Musei – Small Museum Association) is an organization with a colorful logo, which aims to promote and establish a targeted culture management for small museums. As stated by Caterina Pisu, Research and Communication Coordinator for APM, in the official blog “Piccoli Musei”, “small museums are different from large museums, and not only for their dimensions, physical spaces and economic resources. The issue is much more extensive, as it concerns the relationship of these museums with the local communities and the territory, as well as management and professional profiling, services offered to the public, display of the collection and the role of the museum itself.”

Since 2010, APM organizes annual national meetings with the intent of drawing attention to these issues and to discuss them with the professionals in the field. This year, the meeting took place a week ago and #svegliamuseo staff – for geographical, health and working reasons – could not be there. Luckily for us, though, we have a very active  contributor – online and offline –who made it to Assisi on November 11th and 12th to follow the interventions by Caterina, Prof. Giancarlo Dall’Ara, and all the speakers who attended (here the official program).

@ThePorden

 

The Review by Alessandro

Praised be my Lord for brother wind and for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather, […].

Praised be my Lord for sister water, She which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.

[Saint Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun – translation by P. Robinson]

I would never have thought that the words of one of the most prominent sons of Assisi would be so highly disregarded by the actual weather conditions.

On November 11th and 12th, on the occasion of the Fourth Meeting of the Small Museum Association, it seemed more like we were re-living the powerful verses of the Sienese Cecco [Angiolieri] : s’i’ fosse vento, lo tempestarei / s’i’ fosse acqua, i’ l’annegherei.

[If I were wind, then I would blow it down;/ If I were water, I would make it drown – translation by S. J. Evnine]

I had a long way to go: 185 km, around 2 hours and 20 minutes, during which I resolved to get to Assisi stripped of all preconceptions and mental foreclosures, equipped, on the other hand, of the most open mind and refined hearing. I would listen and I would get myself contaminated. It is my opinion, in fact, that the consequences of a “solid” contamination can never be fully predicted.

Two Worlds, One Problem

According to official data, the number of small museums in Italy reaches 4,000 – although, according to Prof. Dall’Ara’s estimate, they may be almost the double. And you know what the worst thing is? That there isn’t any law, norm or State regulation to institutionalize or officially recognize them.

Does that ring any bell? Remind you of any professional category in particular? Yes, exactly, the situation of small museums resembles a lot that one of the archaeologists (you have one right here).

As for archaeologists, there are thousands of small museums operating in local territories, on the territory, with the territory and for the territory, and they haven’t received any official recognition by the Italian state. These “operating divisions” of culture – made of people and places – are often praised in words but mistreated in practice.

The point here is that a small museum is not a minor museum. The fact that the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice calls itself a small museum says a lot on what it really entails to be one. A small museum is the base unit of culture, one that might not be included in the national museum circuit but that maintains, however, the social, cultural and moral duty to penetrate in its territory, allowing it to live and breathe, while instilling cultural and social responsibility in its growing generations.

The economic resources, however, are very limited, and stand in the way of small museums ever being able to reach their scopes.

Innovation as the Key to Surviving

Far from giving up and getting caught up in despair, small museums have taken action under the slogan: “Innovate or die”. They refused to end up like many larger museums by making their same mistakes. They looked around for inspiration and turned to the most powerful (and free) tool at their disposable, one till then largely overlooked: the web.

On one side, Dr. Lucrezia Ungaro, Development Coordinator for the Capitoline Museums, presented us with an upsetting report on the museum circuit: almost 70% of its visitors gets there by pure chance only. On the other side, Giorgio Gallavotti, Director of the Button Museum in Santarcangelo di Romagna, informed us proudly of his 200,000 visitors over a period of five years. This small museum has a Facebook page, its own blog, and many, articulated educational services.

On the same page, while the Centrale Montemartini – part of the Capitoline Museums – was denied of the opportunity to advertise its venue and set direction signs on the road as a possible “cause of distraction to drivers”, the Biddas Museum was established, installed and promoted with a budget of 10,000 euros, winning the Riccardo Francovich Award for the Best Museum or Archaeological Site regarding the Middle Ages.

These are but a few examples that made me realize how the “basis” of our cultural system is much more open, ready and “awaken” than its “top”. Or how the larger cultural entities are not aware of the risk of implosion hanging on their head, and how urgent and necessary a revision of the economic and management system of the Italian cultural world is – from the institutions to the professionals working in them.

A ‘Small’ Critical Remark

As there hasn’t really been a chance for open discussion and questions from the audience at the APM meeting, forgive me if I take this opportunity to advance some  personal observations.

Volunteering has been frequently cited, frequently praised.

And before anyone starts objecting, it must be said that volunteer work – in its genuine meaning – deserves support and sponsorship. Yet, it should not be regarded as the ultimate solution. Going back to the abovementioned communication issue of the Capitoline Museums, Dr. Ungaro suggested the creation of info-points – both internal and external to the museums of the Capitoline circuit – in which “involve voluntary organizations”.

Now – to be fair – those providing such service are called Museum Assistants and should be in the museum organization chart of the museum.

I would also like to add that investing everything on volunteer work leads to certain death. I don’t want to sound judgmental – my allegation comes from observing existing examples. I have tried to recount them in the past, with a disheartening result.

Since 2009, most British museums (of any size) have significantly reduced their staff. In some cases, with the exception of the Administration Officer – frequently, a municipal employee –, museums are run entirely by volunteer workers. But volunteers cannot remain volunteers open-endedly: old people retire; the young ones end their studies and look for real jobs; parents might decide to commit full time to their families.

The outcome is that, eventually, those museums have all shut down. And the same will happen to all those institutions that – having removed their museum professionals to limit expenses – are now desperately looking for qualified and experienced curators to work as volunteers. It is clear to me that this would only trigger a dead-end short circuit. And what a shame this would be.

Then again, a revolution is still possible, and it could well start from the small institutions – as  I  auspiciously declared in my opening tweet for the 2013 APM  meeting.

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The Author

Hi there, I’m Alessandro, and I am an archaeologist.

I studied Roman and Late Antique roads and way stations.

I always thought digging was cathartic and doing research a tremendous opportunity, then I realized that transmitting one’s passion was even better. Hence, I attended a master and opened a blog, in which I debate on cultural communication, new media, museums and methodology. You can contact me here or have a look at my CV here.

Translated by @RoryInLA