Calenda's One Museum, the aspect no one talks about: the management model he has in mind

On Carlo Calenda's proposal for a Single Museum to merge all of Rome's ancient Roman art collections, no one has dwelt on the proposed management model: a participatory foundation. Which is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his proposal: here's why.

When Carlo Calenda posted a 4-minute video on his socials on August 20 in which he explained his idea of a “Unique Museum” for Rome, clearing out the Capitol and bringing there all the collections of the main museums that tell the story of ancient Rome in the capital, many had thought it was an idea destined to die quickly: deconstructing and moving collections with even many centuries of history, dismantling museums with just as much history, or true jewels of contemporary museology such as the Centrale Montemartini, to create a museum of ancient, Roman-only art, “49 thousand square meters” large (almost as large as the Louvre, but with much less variety in collections), might have seemed like a proposal born out of little knowledge of Roman museums and trends in contemporary museology, useful at best to create a debate on an issue so far on the fringes of the election campaign (which actually happened).

Instead, this was not the case. Not only did Calenda continue obsessively, in the days that followed, to talk about the idea of the “One Museum” on his social pages, going so far as to announce that he wanted to organize an online debate on the issue. More importantly, though in a clear minority, some newspapers and prominent figures wrote that they supported the idea of “bringing together” Rome’s museums. On closer inspection, however, they support it only in theory. Vittorio Sgarbi, in particular, says in his speech that he approves of Calenda’s idea, but in fact supports something else, saying it should be “interpreted and amended.” Sgarbi does not advocate any Museo Unico (which is, instead, explicitly Carlo Calenda’s proposal), but “a single ticket” that must “offer the keys to Rome, must give the right, in one week, to open every door.” Francesco Bonami, the only one who at the moment seems to support the idea of physically amalgamating the collections, considers it “rational” to “put under one hat, at the Capitol, a group of the city’s collections now spread out in various locations” because “an administrator and a mayor in particular has to protect the cultural heritage of the city he or she is going to govern, but also has to protect the quality of time of their clients, citizens and temporary visitors.”

Carlo Calenda al Campidoglio
Carlo Calenda on Capitol Hill

These are isolated and astonishingpositions: not only would Calenda’s proposal create a museum that would tire even the most daring of visitors by disassembling unique collections, but it completely ignores the existence of the EUR museum hub, which would receive great harm from splitting the museums of the center, united into a single institution, and the periphery. And it ignores the fact that for slow tourism, which would push visitors to stay as long as possible in Rome, the exact opposite of a “megapolis” is needed. And to have a unified ticketing system does not require revolutions: it is enough to push the various institutions to create it. It should be reiterated that the positions open to Calenda’s proposal are very isolated, however, they are sharp, if poorly argued. Why support a proposal no matter what? Why so much interest in unifying museums in the center, and so much disinterest in all the other museums in Rome? The answer can perhaps be found in one word: foundation.

Although in fact in the launch video Calenda is very unfocused on the issue of the management of the new museum (“the collections belong to the state, there is no fight over whose collections are whose, it is a stupid way of thinking...”, he says), in the proposal published on the site it is actually explicitly stated: “Our proposal is to create a foundation participated by the City and MiC, to which we will entrust the management of the new cultural route.” So much for “of the state”: a management delegated to a third party, to a foundation under private law. It would, moreover, be the only way, with current legislation, to have a single management of state and civic collections, a model already experimented, for example, in Aquileia or Cabras (a case in which the creation of the foundation triggered a harsh institutional clash).

It is a booming management model, because it allows, using the words of the Corte dei Conti in a December 22, 2020 resolution, “a more agile management of allocated resources” than the public administration but, notes the CoC, “certainly less regulated and accountable, despite the fact that these entities base their activities on a totalizing use of public resources.” It also allows managers and administrators to be appointed without going through an open competition: although it has come into much crisis with the lockdown, due to the collapse of tourism and ticketing revenues, it does not cease to be the favored model for a certain part of the ruling class, which prefers to have direct control over local museums by participating in the Foundation.

But Rome’s largest museums are not run by foundations. Unlike, for example, in Venice, where the Musei Civici have been managed by a foundation since 2007. But even in Turin or Milan the city’s most important cultural entities (the Egyptian Museum and the Triennale) have been foundations for a while. In Rome they are not. MAXXI, the largest museum foundation in Rome, stood at 429,000 visitors in 2019, less than the Capitoline Museums. The most important museums are public, state (the Colosseum), civic (the Capitoline Museums) or ecclesiastical (the Vatican Museums). The existing foundations are rather marginal on the national scene (the MAXXI and the Teatro dell’Opera) in terms of turnover.

A single “museum of ancient Rome,” cannibalizing the Capitolini, Civiltà Romana, Crypta Balbi, Centrale Montemartini, Palazzo Braschi, Palazzo Altemps, and Palazzo Massimo, on the other hand, would be far more competitive in terms of turnover and possible movement of money, and thus the possibility of well-paid executive appointments: not surprisingly, a museum of ancient art is proposed, not a museum telling the history of Rome, from prehistory to the contemporary age, which would be much less “sellable” to tourists. Even more so if we add to this the collections of the picture galleries, barely mentioned in the proposal but which it is clear would be part of the proposed new arrangement. Little does it matter if the Court of Auditors, in the aforementioned resolution, explained that “the creation of a foundation (including a participatory one) should be subject to thorough evaluation, and weighing by the local authority” because unlike the contribution of public assets to a corporation, it provides for “a ’tendentially perpetual’ contribution of assets,” and thus should things go wrong, the withdrawal of state and local government from the foundation does not provide for the return of the contributed assets. Exactly the opposite of Calenda’s reasoning, which says since we want to put all the collections together, let’s make a foundation-not exactly thorough evaluation and thoughtfulness.

Explain then the isolated positions in support of the idea? Sgarbi invites center-right candidates to support the proposal: but which one? The rambling one of a new single museum, or that of a new private entity managing Rome’s museum heritage, or simply that of a single ticket for all of Rome’s museums? We are talking about a city where interests over the economic management of the cultural heritage are uncounted, with a tender for the Colosseum’s services that has not come to a conclusion for 21 years, state museum operators put to work for less than 5 euros an hour, and the civic museums managed by a huge investee company, Zétema, which billed 54 million euros annually in 2019.

The feeling is that, in the coming years, the issue of private management of cultural heritage will forcefully enter Rome as well, with several city councilors raising the question. In the days when Venice is lamenting the three-day-a-week closure of its museums at the behest of the foundation that manages them, it is good that Roman citizens and non-Roman citizens alike are keeping their attention high. If we are talking about exhibits, we are talking about one thing. If we are talking about management, museums and revenues, we are talking about another.