Massimo Bray is a gentleman. But the call for 500 young people is still a missed opportunity.

Reflection on Minister Massimo Bray and the call for 500 young people for culture: in our opinion, a wasted opportunity.

I watched a few days late the interview with Massimo Bray conducted by Fabio Fazio on last Sunday’s episode of Che tempo che fa. I do not want to say that I would have done better to have spent these 18 minutes and 28 seconds on other activities, given the banality of Fazio’s questions (which he himself admitted in the first seconds of the interview): and in fact I say that this interview was useful in making us understand how Massimo Bray is a figure more suitable than ever for the role he plays. Around the famous 500 young people for culture affair, Bray was able to maintain a humble profile (a rarity in politics these days), was able to admit the ministry’s mistakes, and was able to get the text of the call for proposals changed, thus demonstrating a capacity for dialogue that is not inconsiderable (most of his colleagues should take example). A true gentleman.

What is certain is that, even with all good will, the flaws in the notice are far from being resolved: as someone suggested, it might have been better never to have issued such a notice in the first place. Among the dozens of articles that have been written on the subject in the last few days, and navigating by sight in the sea of comments and articles berciant now against the ministry, now against the minister, now against the institutions all, I found, among those intelligently written, one by Tomaso Montanari in the Fatto Quotidiano and one, linked moreover in Montanari’s article, by Paolo Giovine posted on the site of scholar Claudio Giunta. Both Montanari and Giovine posed the question that needed to be asked before any other, before even thinking about whether the pay is right, whether the amount of hours is right, whether demanding excel requirements is right, namely: but what exactly will the 500 young people for culture be in charge of?

One might find an answer to that question inAnnex 1 to the call for applications, titled 500 Youth for Culture Program: Article 3 says that the program envisages “the implementation of integrated knowledge systems through the production of digital resources based on the digitization of images and reproductions of the same heritage in its different components, aimed at the drafting of virtual exhibitions and thematic routes with a strong local and tourist-cultural vocation that enhance, also in an integrated way, the resources located in the territory - including through central systems - allowing access to a multi-target audience.” Summing up and paraphrasing bureaucratic language (the adjective “same” should be abolished from every dictionary), it is conceivable that the final product that will result from the work (pardon me, training) of these five hundred young people will be digital resources aimed at promoting Italy’s cultural heritage. There will be three macro-projects, one dedicated to “cultural tourist itineraries with a strong territorial vocation,” one to the memory of the Great War, and the last one is like the first, only instead of examining visual works, it will examine ritual and social traditions, food culture, and anything that can be considered “intangible cultural heritage.”

The first consideration is: who will train the young people? Ministerial digital resources often do not shine in terms of innovativeness, ease of use, intuitiveness. They are often confusing and insufficiently explanatory. They often disregard their own claims of accessibility. Have you ever tried browsing through MuseiD-Italia? Undoubtedly quality content, but the problem is everything else: the menu is a simple news aggregator (and many entries are empty: to date nothing appears under “Castles and Fortifications” and “Historic Buildings and Specialized Museums,” for example), it is virtually impossible to access a single museum card without going through the internal search engine (I tried but gave up after twenty minutes of fruitless attempts), the help page is more confusing than beneficial (it mentions “four access points,” each of which has a title, but in defiance of every rule of good usability, the titles of the “four access points” are not listed in their respective sections, and even mentions nonexistent menu items, such as “Places of Culture.” “Places of Culture” the user is invited to click on, but there is no link by that name... !), baroque terms are used (“is referred to by,” an ungainly and improbable translation of the technical English “referred to,” instead of a more comprehensible “is linked from,” or, if one wants to safeguard the italic idiom, a Wikipedia-style “They point here” ... or even a simple “is cited in”), and often content is duplicated. For example, Pinturicchio’s Santa Maria dei Fossi Altarpiece: same card (with very slight differences) in MuseiD-Italia and in the Cultura Italia portal. Or again, a far more bizarre example: the Vigoroso da Siena Dossal, with no less than six cards all the same, but with different titles (each title is dedicated to a different compartment of the dossal, but if the cards are identical, what’s the point?). Why so much waste of precious bytes? Not to mention URLs that are a manifesto of anti-intuitiveness and very heavy pages: the Pinturicchio altarpiece card on MuseiD-Italia even weighs 2.9 MB, so much for accessibility! Those with slow connections are pretty much doomed.

So a first question, albeit a rather rhetorical one, is: who will do the training? If it will be the same people who have put in place inefficient and highly questionable (from a technical point of view) resources, the result will be only one, that is, 500 young people will be trained (or 500 desperate ones, as they have been renamed: a definition I fully agree with) who will bring with them the same flaws, the same inefficient practices, the same technically sloppy approach as their “masters.” A second question might be: why does the Ministry of Cultural Heritage always have to think in terms of short-term or very short-term projects? The call for proposals lasts one year. The MuseiD-Italia site itself, which would have all the potential to be an excellent resource, “provides for a duration of 12 months,” as stated in the project summary summary. Or, for a change of example, we could cite the virtually useless e-Mouseion project, which lasted from 2010 to 2012, and which today looks like a meager search engine, incomplete to the point of embarrassment (searching for “Genoa” in the free-text search engine brings up six museums, of which only one is Genoese, the National Gallery of Palazzo Spinola, although there are other state museums in the province of Genoa, and by searching for “Florence” even the Uffizi is missing, but on the other hand the Royal Palace of Turin appears) and where all the museum information sheets return error 500. The third question: why go and create unnecessary duplication? Take for example the topic of the Great War: there is an endless amount of sites on the web dedicated to the topic, some of them even with institutional sponsorship. Wouldn’t it therefore be more logical to promote what already exists and allocate this 2.5 million euros to the creation and strengthening of a cultural network on the web, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture?

This is not dissimilar to the proposal that Paolo Giovine makes in his article, which proposes to divide the funding among “99 start-ups + one super start-up, which overhauls lesistente and where they give some of their time to those who can lend a hand.” And why, I say, even 99 startups? Half of them would be enough, but with a fair consideration: a funding of 50,000 euros gross per year would allow a cultural startup to hire a specialist on a permanent basis and also pay him well, or to hire a decently paid full-time employee, and another decently paid but part-time employee.

Suggestions? Take, the Italian museum portal: intuitive, easy, clean, light. A good and complete alternative to the Ministry’s projects! Let’s take mostreINmostra, which could become the most important specialized portal on exhibitions, with a trained and impartial observatory. Let’s take the girls of #sveglimuseo, who could do (real and useful!) training in social networking, a subject on which there is much to learn at the institutional level. Let’s take, without false modesty, our own Windows on Art and make it a complete art history course, with multimedia but also textual content (we have almost completed the transcription of all episodes). Let’s take all the various projects digitizing images of Italy’s artistic heritage (I’m thinking of, and the like), learn their ease of reference and navigation, and fund them to apply their usability criteria to the vast heritage of Cultura Italia and maintain it over the years. Dear Ministry of Cultural Heritage, for the promotion and enhancement of heritage, grant funding to these and many other worthy projects, thinking on the long term or, why not, with no expiry date, and more resources be sought so that there are no more 500 derelicts willing to waste a year doing data-entry, and that their professionalism be recognized and rewarded. Let the art historians be art historians. After all, when art historians improvise as popularizers (or “heritage digitizers”), you see the results. Of course, there is no shortage of exceptions (just limiting myself to the circle of friends I could mention two art historians who also know how to communicate exceptionally well, Grazia Agostini and Fabrizio Federici): but they are still the minority, and Italy right now needs art historians, archaeologists, archivists and whatever else in their place, and that is to deal with works of art, finds, archives. Not in front of a computer accomplishing (pardon: training on) a job they decide to do only for lack of other opportunities. Are we personally interested? Of course we are, I don’t see why we should hide it. And anyway, the problem is not the scarcity of funds: there is no shortage of money in Italy. It is that it is being blatantly squandered and wasted.