Museums, interview with Minister Bonisoli. We will solve the problem of scripted volunteering. And we will still increase free admission

A long interview with the minister of cultural heritage, Alberto Bonisoli, on the subject of museums. With important perspectives for the future: increasing free admissions and solving the problem of the unwise use of volunteers as a substitute for professional work.

How are Italy’s museums doing? What is the future of the recently introduced free admission plan? What are the main problems on which the next reform of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage will intervene? On the problem of volunteerism used as a substitute for work, what measures are being studied? In this interview, Minister Alberto Bonisoli talks to us about the near future of Italian museums, outlining some of the actions the Ministry would like to take to resolve urgent issues. Interview by Federico Giannini, editor in chief of Finestre sullArte.

Il ministro dei beni culturali Alberto Bonisoli
Minister of Cultural Heritage Alberto Bonisoli

FG. Let’s start with the positive results: the plan for free admission. After Museum Week we collected the opinions of all the main state museums, and all of them were favorable towards the initiative. The question then is, will the free admission plan remain as such?
AB. One of the reasons why we made an evolution from free Sundays tout court was to give some oxygen to the sites that had overcrowding problems (the big ones: Colosseum, Uffizi and others), especially in the summertime. My goal is to go to at least 30 free openings, then add a third more than we have. Most likely we will use a scheme similar to what we have now: one part could be centrally designated (basically another week, maybe in the fall period, to enhance the museum of proximity, the museum of proximity, to give the opportunity for citizens, during a large span of time, to be able to freely visit what they have around the corner), and then additional free days that each museum director will decide how to use, including evening slots.

Probably a good start, but there is a lot more to be done to bring our museums in line with the rest of Europe, where freebies are better distributed. I’m thinking, for example, of the fact that there are free or reduced rates for those who don’t have jobs, for the over-65s, there are time slots where free admission is always guaranteed, and then in many European museums there are structural evening openings, something that has never been done here. Will we finally have a way to implement policies on ticketing and openings similar to other European countries?
Why do you want to align with other European countries? When you talk about European countries you put together situations that are very different, and that follow completely different economic cycles. In my opinion we should have a model that serves us. I like your stimulus, in the sense that we should not be content with what we have, but we should have a very high ambition and go and compare ourselves according to the various situations with what are the most interesting realities from the museum point of view at the international level, depending however (and this I would like to say) on the potential and characteristics that these museums have. On what concerns facilities overall, keep in mind that we now have facilities that go to interface with almost half of the visitors: today half get in for free and half pay a ticket. If we can afford something more in the future, gladly: it’s just a matter of dosing resources.

I referred to what happens in the rest of the European countries because, while it is true that each country has different policies, certain presides that we do not have (such as facilities for those who do not have a job) subsist just about everywhere.
Of course, but consider that anyway, even abroad they copy us. Because, for example, as my French counterpart told me in a recent meeting, the Louvre gave up free Sundays and proposed free admissions on Saturday evenings because, given the overcrowding on Sundays, people could no longer access the museum in a proper way. This is a good signal.

Taking a cue from the topic of entrances and tickets, you have been pushing hard on the fact that, with the new plan, now the under-25s can enter state museums by paying as little as two euros. But statistics say that in fact the main barrier for young people is not the ticket price, which disincentivizes only 8 out of 100 young people for the vast majority of others (we are at a percentage close to 50 percent), the problem is disinterest. What could we do to rekindle the interest of young people, and more generally of all Italians, in our heritage?
There is certainly to get young people’s appetite for cultural consumption: there is no point in hiding this, all the data tell us so. We for example have just finished a survey on publishing which shows that half of young people do not read, they are not interested in consuming books, they are not interested in buying them, they have other forms of consumption of cultural content. Young people have not been sensitized enough toward what are the benefits, including personal and gratification benefits, of cultural consumption. We need to find ways to do this: there are at least two. The first is all forms of revisiting the museum experience that can help the young person from a cognitive point of view as well. One thing to think about today is that much of the information found in a museum young people have already found elsewhere. I give an example: the first time I went to the Uffizi I was on a school trip, I must have been fourteen or fifteen years old. I remember being struck by the colors of Botticelli’s Venus: I recognized the drawing, it was an image I knew, but I had never seen it in real colors. Today my daughter, who is nineteen years old, does not need to go to the Uffizi to have this kind of experience, so I have to give her one more reason, and that is the reason why in my opinion museums have to think about experience. This is the real frontier. And in Italy we have very different situations. I give another example: the Violin Museum in Cremona, a museum where the violins are in the last rooms, and the rest is a path leading to the violins. When I visited it, I confessed to the director that even if there were no violins, I would already be happy: there was a narrative within the museum that gave a message and guaranteed a different experience. This is a challenge that can help us overcome the fact that there is really a detachment, almost a value detachment, on the part of certain generations, from museums. The second aspect instead is, perhaps, to change the way museums are offered. I give an example, let’s talk about the Museum of Design: we on Milan are thinking about finally promoting something that is representative of the history, the tradition, the cultural heritage of Italian design. On Milan there are other situations related to design, such as the Compasso d’Oro and the Triennale, which will be linked to dimpresa museums: but it is one thing if I tell that there is a set of dimpresa museums and point out that that museum is part of this narrative. It’s one thing if we go, for example, to Omegna, and visit the Bialetti museum: it’s exactly the same thing in terms of physical location and experience, but the narrative is completely different. The same is true, for example, for the important and valuable experience of Magna Graecia, which in my opinion is not yet valued enough: if we think of Taranto, of Crotone, of Sybaris, there is something that goes beyond just the museum or just the archaeological site, because it is part of a larger narrative. To sum up: on the one hand the experience inside the museum, on the other hand how we communicate it.

So, experience and narrative to incentivize. But to improve on these aspects we assume that we know the audience we want to address. And we often hear from professionals in the field that the audiences of Italian state museums are not studied that thoroughly: so it would be interesting to know if there are any initiatives under consideration to get to know the audiences better, to get an idea of their expectations, to know who they are made up of...
There are audience profiling projects but there is no central direction yet. There is something that has been set up by the General Directorate of Museums and where these experiences are coming together. To be fair though, the ones that are a little bit more advanced that I know of are not just from the state but are from the civic museums. However, if I may say so, the issue is a bit more general: we don’t only have the problem of museum audiences.... we don’t even know opera audiences. Absurdly, if I compare museums and opera, the museums have a fever of 37 and a half, but opera is at 38: there, in many situations, we rely on who we know (the subscribers, who moreover have a very high average age and very routine cultural consumption), but we do not pose the problem of those who might be interested in opera. So certainly profiling is a key. Not only that. We need to give a greater incentive to follow the performances. I have proposed, and I am happy to have had the endorsement of the foundations, to give 100 free tickets per production to 18- to 25-year-olds to bring them closer to opera.

Museums are also suffering from one of the thorniest issues, that of labor: You have repeatedly remarked on the importance of the issue, and as is well known, you have pledged to have 3,600 new people hired by 2021 at MiBAC. The questions that minteress would like to explore are two: where will you find the coverages for the hires, and if and how have you evaluated the eventual impact of quota 100 on these hires.
The coverages are already there: we have 1,500 people that are already provided for in the budget as additional needs, so the money is already allocated. We have about 2,000 people that come from the advancement of the hiring faculties (the intelligent use of the turn over that Funzione Pubblica allows us), and a quota of 560 people that will be hired through the overall competition that Funzione Pubblica will make for the roles of computer scientist, economist and jurist (administrative roles) for the entire public administration: a competition for thousands of positions, our quota is 560. From this point of view, the numbers are more or less already settled. As for quota 100, we have already started these days to receive the first applications, but we will have a real idea about quota 100 towards the beginning of the summer. Quota 100 will have a minimal impact this year anyway, it will start to be felt next year, and the real stumbling block will be in 2021-2022. And we have another contest in mind for that date-I’m already ready to launch a contest (we’ll see what size) between the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, which will fall on 2022-2023. So our horizon is a bit broader.

Another major problem on the labor issue, which plagues many museums, is the reckless reliance on volunteerism as a substitute for work. Indeed, according to a recent Istat report, there is even one volunteer for every 4 workers in Italian museums. How will the Ministry solve this problem, if it intends to do so?
This is a problem that needs to be solved. It is not anoption. Let’s start from the origin: volunteering in itself is good. And Italy has a very rich tradition of volunteering. I then, coming from the Milan area, can say that there volunteering is very rooted, it is almost part of the genius loci. What has happened in the past, however, is that volunteering has been used to fill in the blanks. And this is not good, because it means that we use an instrument designed for other purposes (and I would say the same thing as the civil service) to go and fill what should be called by its name: personnel needs. In the immediate, in the emergency, one can also reason along these lines, but it cannot and should not be a solution. It is intolerable. Nellimmediate, in the emergency, one can also reason along these lines, but it cannot be a solution.

So what is needed to solve the problem?
At least two actions. The first is to avoid staff shortages, and the solution is to hire staff. The second is more coordination, centrally, of rules, standards, processes and practices that are sometimes, in my opinion somewhat negligently by the state, accepted to solve contingent problems. So, there are some rules that we want to go and tweak within the Cultural Heritage Code, particularly in what concerns the relationship between the public and the private sector: next week the proxy on the reform of the Cultural Heritage Code should go to Parliament, and there are measures in there that will help overcome this problem. In the overall reform of the organization of the Ministry, we are thinking of providing central roles that will help from the point of view of advice, from the point of view of guidance and from the point of view of control, to manage these local situations. What has unfortunately happened too many times in the past is that the superintendent, the director of the museum center, or the official in charge of the individual situation, have found themselves alone. And the moment they find themselves alone, without help, without resources, and without even a modicum of attention from the center, how can I censure certain choices? And in any case, let’s remember that direct control over management and enhancement by the state is limited to a piece of the heritage-there is so much heritage that is out there and where there are situations that should at least be discouraged when used inappropriately.

You mentioned reforming the organization of the Ministry: I ask if you can anticipate anything.
I think that complex organizations (and the Ministry is definitely a complex organization) every few years have the need to do a review, a checkup of the organizational structure. There are many critical issues, but I would talk about two in particular. The first is that of role confusion. There are situations where it is as if the different pieces of the administration are brought into conflict. Because some aspects are not clear: for example, who is responsible for the storage, who should be in charge of the protection, whether my pertinence ends at that end or extends beyond, whether the wall is included or not... these are trivial things, but they are no longer trivial the moment they generate widespread conflict. What I have noticed within the ministry is that often this conflictuality does not emerge because there is goodwill and good cooperation on the part of the officials. These are technical and organizational issues, but they lead to problems. The second aspect is that of motivation: an organization like ours cannot live without managing the motivation of the people who work there. The vulgate in the past has been that within the state there are assignments that are not motivating, which in my opinion is ideologically wrong. There must be exactly the same opportunities in the state to do motivating work that there are elsewhere. Otherwise, what do we do with the state? Motivation can come from so many aspects: certainly the salary aspect, certainly promotions and whatnot, but there is one aspect that I think has been underestimated, and that is the career prospects that people within the organization see, in the future, for themselves. When there was the reorganization, some career path chains were broken: trivially, if I am an archaeologist today, I am hired by the Ministry, and I start working in any Superintendency, when faced with the question what am I going to be doing in ten years?, there is a great risk that I will give myself the only possible answer, which is that I will still be here doing the same things I am doing today. And if I ask myself that question again in ten years there is a risk that I will give myself the same answer-that kills any kind of motivation. And it is sacrilege, because we go to work with people who are naturally fanatical about what they are doing. That is, they come in with crazy passion, and if we don’t give direction to that passion, it automatically turns into bitterness in their mouths about going to work. We are very careful about this aspect, and it will be our care to rebuild these supply chains.

You mentioned two infrequently attended aspects (role confusion and motivation), but I would also like to add a third that is very much attended instead. In the program of the 5 Star Movement, it was pointed out that the recent reform of the ministry has made it difficult to carry out the functions of protection and enhancement: in particular, there would be a lack of coordination because the reform has divided competencies between superintendencies (which deal with protection) and museums (which deal with enhancement). In this sense, how do you plan to intervene?
In the government contract there is something slightly different written: it talks more generally about the value of valorization.

Yes. I was referring to your program.
We can discuss this issue from a conceptual point of view, or we can put it in the context of an organizational machine. This lack of coordination, as you say, is one of the causes of this latent conflict that we were talking about earlier. I would keep within the discourse of protection, for example, the management of some archaeological sites and, trivially, the places where there is actual archaeological activity, because I find it difficult to separate them from a protection optics. Conversely, there are situations where it is relatively easier: when we think about a museum situation of a certain kind, it is one thing if the concept of enhancement is translated into number of tickets or amount of economic revenue. Money is good for everyone, but giving too much importance to this aspect is excessive. There is something that is much more powerful: the issue of research. The big international museums have a strong research part. In ours, in my opinion, the balance needs to be brought back to this level. When it comes to confirming or choosing directors I would like to evaluate this aspect as well. That is, I would like someone who is capable of being able to get lots of visitors and whatnot, but also capable of growing or maintaining the reputation of the museum at the level of what it deserves.

That’s it. And this is an important issue. Because in Italy we talk very little about research, and our museums do very little research, or at least do less research than foreign museums. And many Italian professionals, when choosing where to work, often look more favorably abroad because of the fact that outsideItaly research probably enjoys more attention.
Here we come back to the original point. And my time horizon is not the end of the year. In the meantime, my time horizon is the legislature -- and even beyond it. When we make interventions of this kind, we have to have as far a vision as possible; the machine cannot be turned around in a few months. And we have to avoid simple solutions: fixed-term, voluntarities--let’s use as few of them as possible, not least because they are addictive. I don’t like this system. Instead, let’s work very heavily on the high road. That is public competitions with large numbers. In the next three years, in fact, we want to announce competitions for at least three thousand positions. I think this is the first time in a long time that we have not done such a major intervention. And the reason is this: to get people in through the front door.

Let’s talk about management models. You recently said that our museums need more modern management modes than in the past. What exactly did you mean by that?
There are at least two things that can be done that I care about: the first is friends of museums. The fact of having as large and diverse a number of subjects as possible that helps the museum to get a direct hold and become rooted in a community, in my opinion is good: clearly with rules, but I don’t find anything wrong with that if a museum has its own fan club, someone who lends a hand... this is a volunteer optic that I personally don’t mind. The other aspect is that of differentiated autonomy. It is one thing to have, as in France, about thirty museums that belong to the state; it is another to have five hundred. I don’t find anything wrong if, at the level of agreement with a region, it is decided that we work together and, at that point, that museum will have greater attention than we can ensure. It is not a devolution, but a pact between equals, an aid to management. Italy will still need a number of state museums, which will remain at the state level, which will continue to be managed directly by the state.

So can we assure, given the rumors about private entrances that have been chasing each other lately, that state museums will remain public in the future?
Every now and then I find myself having to answer for things I don’t think, never said, and never even imagined. However, it is right that I have been pointed out loss. It is fair to point out. One of the first things I asked myself when I started doing this job was what it meant to be a minister, that is, what it meant to be the head of a state structure dealing with cultural heritage. The decision I made also from a personal point of view is that I, for the time that I am doing this job, I will be a civil servant and I will think as a civil servant. For me the first thing is that what is a public function is carried out by the state, in a direct way, in the best possible way. My goal is to work so that these steps are possible. Therefore, I say that state museums absolutely remain within the public boundary, that they be directed by people paid by the state and where people paid by the state work, and that in those cases where it is deemed right it is evaluated. I don’t see anything wrong if a specialized company is in charge of the bookshop or the bar because maybe we are not the best at that job, but on other things I am a bit more conservative and first they have to prove to me that the state can’t do certain things that you would like to outsource to others. That is my starting point.

A brief mention of digital culture. A survey by theObservatory for Digital Innovation in Cultural Heritage and Activities, conducted on 476 museums, found that only 57 percent of them have a website and only 52 percent have a social account. What could be done to improve the situation?
Two things. The first: if a director or official in charge of a museum has problems nellaprirlo and goes crazy to find someone who is still there at 2 p.m., in all sincerity the priority is this aspect rather than the museum website. The second: to take care of these aspects you need resources and skills that are either made available by the center, or the risk is that you ask people who have no skills to do a site in a hurry. This is what has happened, too much volunteerism even in this area. We need more resources, which then we already have in part, although we have some problems spending them (but we are already dealing with that). And then strong coordination, which is what we are introducing in the new organization, where we will have a central structure that does the coordination of all the interventions on digital.

Let’s close with a question that is a little bit outside the topics of the interview but is of close relevance. On the Venice Biennale. Only two Italians were the artists invited to the international exhibition. In your opinion, what more could be done to support contemporary art in Italy?
The signal is there. But, forgive my frankness, I would like to avoid forcing, from the public point of view, that there be more space for Italians.

We would miss it, I did not want to put the question in those terms.
I know, but I want to point it out anyway. Because the ministry doesn’t have to work on the outflow, it has to work on the inflow. So we have to pose the problem. And we are at fault: our main fault is that in the distribution of weights within the Ministry we do not give enough importance to one fact, and that is that the art is still in production. Of course, we have a huge, fantastic historical heritage that we are proud of. But there are also artists who are still producing, and we need to be reminded of that. We have already started working on this front, and in particular on at least three lines. The first one is that of theItalian Council: the world of contemporary art is an international world, and if the artist is not international, it does not exist. And so we have to help our young artists reach a level of international visibility as soon as possible. After that if they make it well, they will go on by themselves, but at the beginning they need a hand. And we are doing well on that. The second theme is that of museality, but it actually goes beyond that (I’m thinking of fairs, events, performances): I would keep thinking about a vision of the system that must necessarily be multipolar. That is, contemporary art is too important to be focused only in certain places. We must try to enhance experiences and sensibilities that are as distributed as possible. The third aspect is the normative one: we have room for improvement on how we treat contemporary art from the point of view of protection, of contractualism, of the norms that regulate it. In my opinion we can and must do more.