Nadia Righi (Diocesan Museum of Milan), "This is how our guides also work online."

The Diocesan Museum of Milan has invented special models of online guided tours via Zoom platform: we talked about it with the director, Nadia Righi.

In these days of enforced closure, the Diocesan Museum of Milan (which was attended by35,000 visitorsin 2019 ) has created an unprecedented and original online guided tour model, replicating on the web the experience that the institute has been successfully experimenting with live for some time: free guided tours with the director and paid tours with museum guides. Even on the online, then, the Diocesan Museum of Milan has successfully experimented with a model that allows for the delivery of quality content. All through the Zoom platform, which was also chosen to encourage dialogue (because with this tool all people can see each other and interact as themselves participating in a real visit). About this, and what the museum is doing and will do, we talked precisely with the director, Nadia Righi. The interview is by Federico Giannini, editor in chief of Windows on Art.

Nadia Righi
Nadia Righi

FG. Dr. Righi, how are the museum’s activities going at this time of closure? The museums in Lombardy were the first to close.

NR. For the moment they are proceeding as per the provisions of the dpcm: we are closed physically, there are the custodians and security guards who go to the premises for checks, and then we have activated various activities remotely. The offices as a result are empty. Controls for the security of the building and works remain active, but activities are at a standstill. On February 23, therefore, we had to close, moreover a few days after the opening of the exhibition Gauguin Matisse Chagall. French Art from the Vatican Museums, Then in Milan there was a reopening a week later, which lasted for five days and was quite interesting for us, because although all the relevant security provisions had already been activated (i.e., the quota of entrances and the spacing inside: it was quite easy for us because we don’t have numbers from big European museums or even big Italian museums), we saw that the public, in those few days, came back with great enthusiasm, even though they were weekdays and even though they were all already a bit worried. So the museum is at a standstill as far as the on-site activity is concerned, but we wanted to find ways to keep our visitors’ attention up, active, hoping to reopen soon. And so we started doing online activities, first with a series of small, very home made initiatives, because the museum’s financial resources do not allow for other means (small video pills on social media, posts with images, for example of the smart working and back stage of the exhibition). Then at some point we found that this was not enough for us: when it became clear that the closure was not going to be short, we started to ask ourselves what we could do, and at that moment the challenge of online was born and started.

Online on which you are very active. And what struck me was this dual schedule of appointments on the Zoom video-conferencing platform: on the one hand “in-depth”visits with the director, and on the other hand visits offered by the museum guides, with the former delivered free of charge and the latter for a fee. Sort of a virtual replica of what you already do live. Can you tell us more about the model and the reasons for this choice?

The reflection started by comparing among ourselves: we said to each other that among the things we were really missing was precisely the contact with our public, which in recent times we had been trying to have on a continuous basis, both through the paid visits that have always been there with us, and with the lunchtime guided tours offered free of charge by the Director and the Conservatories for a fee, which represented an additional offer compared to the paid ones. So we thought it might be worthwhile to take up this idea again, and since we were using the Zoom platform internally for meetings, we tried to launch this proposal, born on the one hand out of our desire to maintain relationships, and on the other hand out of a question that we asked ourselves. That is, starting from the consideration of the real function of the museum, which is a center of cultural production and dissemination to serve the community. In fact, museums are also a “necessary good” in that they are indispensable for the spirit, for the soul, for lifting the gaze, for being well. Moreover, in Lombardy, this need was even more evident, because we felt the circle tightening, with acquaintances and parents of seriously ill friends, and consequently we wondered what we could do at this time to bring some beauty and serenity. After all, we are the museum of the diocese and we have always cultivated with great intensity the relationship with the territory, and all the more so in this situation we felt that this was also part of our mission . Therefore, we launched an initiative that perhaps we would never have thought of, and we worked to put it in place and make our presence felt. We started with free visits from the director and the response was amazing: there was a sense of gratitude from those who received the newsletter, the feedback emails were wonderful (we even got some from those who were at work in the hospital, we were told that this proposal was felt as a personal gift because it was able to bring beauty in the midst of tragedy, there were those who were glad to have company as they were alone at home, those who were simply happy to see each other again, and so on), and that is why we decided to make it a permanent fixture. Of course, always with the certainty that this initiative can never replace the museum visit and the uniqueness of the experience in front of a work of art: on this point I am not changing my mind. But compared to other types of virtual visits (such as Facebook , Instagram or Youtube live streams), these that we do on Zoom have the advantage of maintaining some of the fundamental criteria of a museum visit, at least the duration in time, the experience, the unexpected, the dialogue (because at the end it is possible to ask questions), the relationship with people (since a visit of this type is not just putting yourself in front of the screen and watching a video). Besides, already during the first week it was the people themselves who asked us to organize other guided tours on other topics, and in collaboration with our educational services, which in our museum are entrusted to two associations and therefore to freelancers. That is why, after long reflection, we also proposed paid initiatives, for which people sign up and pay the educational services directly. This also seems to us a nice way to support the guides who are now out of work. This proposal has also been very well received, admittedly with different numbers: for the Director’s free guided tours five hundred people sign up per week, for the paid ones we have limited it to 40 person per proposal, to give the idea of the group. And even these are selling out and we are being asked for new appointments. It’s as if visitors really feel part of the museum

I would be interested in understanding some aspects of this proposal, let’s go step by step: the first question I ask you is a question that is also asked for live visitation, in the sense that when free openings are proposed so many people say that the response of the public visiting a museum for free is very different from that of the paying visitor (we imagine the latter more attentive and more focused, and the free one more distracted). I myself think that, at least for live visits, this is the case. For online in your opinion is it the same?

Let me preface this by saying that at our place, the museum visit is never completely free: when there are free visits you still pay the ticket. We are a private museum and we do not adhere to free Sundays: in the past we offered them, but then we decided to remove them. On the online, at this stage, I notice a different attitude (however, I think it is also a particular historical moment, with the public really needing these initiatives): of course, unforeseen events can happen, which on the online basically involve the impossibility of participating in the event for which one had booked, but I must say there is a low defection rate, it is never more than 10 percent of those registered. But that does not mean that there is a different focus. On the contrary: even for free visits (and I can see it from the comments, the comments, the desire with which users immediately ask for the next one) I do not notice a lack of attention. I think this is due to the fact that in my opinion a very established audience is being created, which is eager to come back (and almost everyone says so). We have been amazed that some virtual visitors have made small donations of their own free will to the museum after participating in the visit, and Musei Lombardia season ticket holders have offered to pay the ticket again when you can visit the museum again. I think this happens because our free visits are perceived by the public as a personal gift, and being a personal gift it is a very participatory thing. The theme, therefore, is really very different and very far from that of free Sundays.

A further aspect that I would like to explore is related precisely to the public, in the sense that, from what I think I have understood partly from visiting the museum and following its initiatives, and partly from your answer, I think that the public of the Diocesan Museum of Milan is very loyal and very attached to the institution. Do you think this model works precisely because of the composition of your audience, or do you think it can be replicated, for example, in museums that are more linked to tourist flows?

Obviously, ours is not a museum that thrives on tourism, so what I can imagine is an ideal scenario. What I’m noticing is that as the news of these initiatives has been spread through newsletters, through our social media (which, moreover, in this period have increased followers with very high percentages, because in this moment people use social a lot) and also through the press, the public that follows these visits is a very heterogeneous public, it’s not just the museum’s loyal public. In front of the computers I see families, college kids, people who during normal opening hours work and cannot visit the museum. In the screen I see basically a much more diverse audience than there normally is in our daytime and weekday opening hours. We have even had in online visits people from other parts of Italy but also from abroad: for example, we have had participants from the United States, Ireland, the Czech Republic, who have told us that they heard about our initiatives from Italian colleagues or relatives. Having said that, I don’t know if it is a model that can be replicated everywhere in the same way, but I believe that it is a viable experience: in my opinion it is something that we are now called upon to think about. I really believe that every crisis can be an opportunity. So, since visitors won’t be able to return to museums for so long (or they can return in very small groups, with physical distancing), and since the guided tour experience as we have it in mind will return who knows when (but in any case it will take so long), this could be a formula that works: you listen to a guided tour or an in-depth study in front of a screen and then you decide, when the museum reopens, to go and see the exhibition in person, alone or with friends. I think this is a new mode of enjoyment that can be useful for a long time for sure. Then we will figure out whether this mode can take different forms, free or paid. I am not yet in a position to evaluate it well precisely because in these months the situation is so evolving that I believe we will be constantly forced to do new thinking. Suffice it to say that this mode of online visitation until not so long ago was unthinkable: when the museum was still open, there were those who asked us if there were ways for our lectures to be enjoyed for a fee even remotely, but I thought at the time that this was something very difficult to even imagine. But then we had to come to terms with a reality that led us to try and discover these modes, and to conclude that it could also be an initiative aimed at those who just don’t have the possibility to visit the museum, because they live far away or cannot move. Of course, there is also to consider that listening to an hour-and-a-half lecture in front of a speaker speaking is different than listening to it in front of a screen, and that is also why I believe that it will never totally replace the live experience. It will become an aid, though, and it certainly will be in this long transition phase that we have ahead of us.

Assuming that we return in a more or less long time to normality, how do you envision making this model sustainable? That is, in the event that museums return to the same routes as before, could this model continue in the same forms?

This model could continue, it could be free on some major occasions, and it could be sustainable if it becomes preparatory to visiting and not a substitute. Then I want to emphasize that there is also to think about cultural professionals, and that working on the online also implies alternative methodologies, because it is one thing to have a guided tour done on site, and another to prepare all the materials for the online. We will have to think for a long time about how to adapt and improve the model more and more: of course it certainly has to be sustainable, because right now we are in a really special moment, and we can also afford, for example, a director who does five or six replications online and prepares the visits, but it is clear that when we come back to full capacity this mode will become an important time choice in our activities. On the other hand, the proposal of visits made online by the teaching service may continue, we will have to see how and under what terms.

Speaking of work: has there been anyone from you who has lost their jobs?

No, no one here has lost their job. The Diocesan Museum of Milan has few employees, at this stage for now we are mainly in smart working with vacation recovery like most of the realities in Italy, and for some we have activated the redundancy fund. One of the reasons why we came up with this online proposal is also, as mentioned, to make the external collaborators who are struggling right now work.

Moving toward the conclusion, let’s go back to the “physical” museum. With the exhibitions you have been particularly unlucky, because the review of French art from the Vatican Museums was only open for a few days. Will there be an extension?

We asked for it. We were supposed to close the exhibition on May 17, and I understand from conversations with the management of the Vatican Museums that there is a lot of openness. At this time it is clear that all of us museums (and even we as the Diocesan Museum of Milan have loaned works) do not demand back the works we have loaned. The Diocesan Museum of Milan is being very open about the exhibitions to which it has lent. I am reminded, for example, of the exhibition on Taddeo di Bartolo at the National Gallery of Umbria, which practically did not open: it opened and then closed. There we have a ’work on loan, but in the moment they had to keep the work we lent longer, we would respond favorably. There is then to consider that anyway the moment is difficult also because for now we have no indication of when we can reopen.

One last question on this very topic. The public, despite the closure, has had an outstanding response toward culture and museums, and it is the public itself that is demanding that museums do something to show closeness to people. The same, however, does not seem to come from politics, in the sense that at least at these stages culture, and especially museums, seem to be excluded from public debate. Do you also have this feeling?

The feeling is that museums are talked about very little at this stage. These days, however, interviews and contributions are coming out in which people are starting to speculate again about their reopening. Actually, it would be appropriate to remember that it is one thing to talk about the reopening of large museums, while the situation of all the others, where normally there are no gatherings and for which it is therefore easier to reopen while respecting the directives of the decrees, is very different. However, we expect the directions soon. After all, in this period the Museum has continued to plan and imagine future initiatives (the masterpiece for Milan, photography exhibitions, other initiatives), so that we will be ready when the public returns to our halls.

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