Free admission week, a winning bet? Here's how it went at major Italian museums

How did Museum Week go at major Italian museums? The results, directors and spokesmen let us know, were satisfactory.

The first "Museum Week," the seven-day totally free admission in all state museums strongly desired by Minister Alberto Bonisoli, ended on Sunday. One of the most frequently asked questions on the eve of the event was what impact the free week would have in the big museums, those usually most crowded and targeted by tourists. The minister expressed his satisfaction on Twitter: “I am very pleased,” he said, “with the first data coming to us on the turnouts in Museum Week: it was a success. Attendances at state-owned cultural sites have significantly increased, a sign that we have succeeded in stimulating a hunger for culture.” But net of the attendance figures, how did the week actually go? Were the benefits or inconveniences more? This is what we asked ourselves and the museums.

In general, the minister’s satisfaction is echoed in the words of museum directors: we reached directors and spokespeople from major Italian museums and the prevailing view is that the free week was a positive event. As far as the Uffizi Gallery is concerned, the week was a way to experiment with the new queue-cutting system based on timed coupons, with the result that the more than 7,000 daily visitors who crowded the halls of the Florentine museum during the week (for a total of 40,314 admissions) waited an average of only seven minutes to enter (as a result, there were no critical issues, or at least no more than on normal attendance days). Also in Florence, but on the front of the Accademia Gallery, Museum Week was met with positive feedback from director Cecilie Hollberg: “It went very well at our place,” she told us, “it went very well. We are used to a lot of visitors and very high numbers. To support this ministry project as well, we also distributed comic books to children and young people under the age of 14, and we managed to distribute 800 from Friday to Sunday, we consider that a good result. We were pleased to support the request from the ministry-it was a nice success and a very positive thing for the visitors. We will still do another full week in November: this was my choice for the days to be offered to the public” (as it is known, in fact, the Bonisoli plan grants eight free days to directors, who can distribute them during the year in the period they prefer).

La coda per entrare alla Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze durante la Settimana dei Musei, giovedì 7 marzo nel primo pomeriggio. Ph. Credit Finestre sull'Arte
The queue to enter the Accademia Gallery in Florence during Museum Week, Thursday, March 7 in the early afternoon. Ph. Credit Windows on Art

Satisfaction in Genoa, too, at the Palazzo Reale museum, in its venues in the Via Balbi residence and the National Gallery in Palazzo Spinola. “The experience,” said Elisabetta Piccioni, director of the Genoese institute, "was undoubtedly positive. We welcomed 5852 people to the Royal Palace, between the museum (3454) and the Maragliano exhibition (2398) accessible for all at a reduced price, and 1385 visitors to the National Gallery of Palazzo Spinola. We did not record any particular criticality, thanks to a steady and well cadenced flow. For our part, we hope that the experience can be repeated." In Milan, the Pinacoteca di Brera recorded 15,131 visitors, with an average of 2,522 per day. “Flow management has obviously entailed a greater commitment and special attention,” Catia Tommasin, from the communications department, told us, recalling how the free week was also an opportunity for meetings: "during Museum Week, the Pinacoteca organized a scientific in-depth conference on the problematic restoration of a large altarpiece exhibited in the museum in Room XV; the meeting was attended by important professionals in the field who in synergy faced a difficult conservation challenge. The meeting on Gaudenzio Ferrari. The Martyrdom of St. Catherine and its restoration took place on the morning of March 5 in the Passion Room."

Going down to Rome, there was a boom in visitors at the Colosseum Archaeological Park: with more than 182,000 visitors, the Colosseum was by far the most visited site of Museums Week (this is double the figure for the same period in 2018, when there were 82,374 visitors). “Museums Week,” they let the communications department know, “was also an opportunity for the Park to further enrich visitation with a wide range of events in collaboration with Electa and Coopculture, which sold out and fostered greater involvement from the Italian and foreign public.” Words of appreciation also came from the Borghese Gallery: “from Tuesday 5 to Sunday 10,” a museum spokesperson told us, “we recorded sold out admissions, both ordinary tickets with reservations and last minute tickets, that is, without reservations.” Success also for the initiative promoted as part of Museum Week, Masterpieces from the Depots: the Borghese Gallery Tells, that is, the reopening of the deposits with a guided tour by Gallery staff, which “also had a great response from the public, registering, especially on Saturday and Sunday, the exhaustion of available seats.” On the results of the experience, “Free Museum Week certainly had the merit of intercepting and satisfying the latent demand for culture and thus bringing the public to visit museums and places of culture that otherwise, in the absence of such an initiative, they would not visit in such a concentrated way in March. It is like saying that such an initiative ’anticipated’ the season of greatest attendance. It is obvious that this, in general terms, can create some inconveniences, however, in our case, the security staff is quite accustomed to this kind of situation, the Borghese Gallery being one of the most visited museums, and therefore able to cope with situations of great affluence.”

At the Reggia di Caserta, on the other hand, there were 16,509 visitors (including 6,390 on Sunday, March 10 alone). The influx of the public, they let the museum know, was regular, and there was a peak only on Sunday, a day when, however, the influx to the museum was lower than on the previous Sunday (in fact, on March 3, admission was still free). No inconveniences or criticalities are reported: finally, the Reggia staff reiterates how it is advisable that “free admissions to major museums, such as the Reggia di Caserta, be scheduled exclusively in the low season (November to February) because in the other months of the year the influx is already significant and increasing it with free admissions would cause organizational and management difficulties.” Great success also at the National Museum of Capodimonte: “from March 5 to 10, 2019,” says Luisa Maradei, the museum’s communications manager, “we recorded 9,694 visitors, tripling those of the same period in 2018. The educational visits to the Mario De Ciccio collection were highly appreciated, with 291 people participating in the free focuses and 146 primary and secondary school students in the 11 educational workshops. Among the many side activities we have planned are the yoga classes that will continue every Tuesday afternoon in the Tapestry Hall and the events in the Forest: on Sunday, March 10, we closed the week with the Cycling Randonné and headphone rides.”

A positive opinion, finally, also came from Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Paestum Archaeological Park. “We have doubled the numbers and thanks to the recently introduced dynamic ticket we have not suffered decreases in receipts. So we have given away culture without losing anything: I think that is a very positive thing. Certainly, to develop the full potential of the initiative, Museum Week will have to become a regular event in Italian museums. This was the first year, and in our sector it usually takes three or four years for a cultural initiative or offer to develop its full potential.”

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