Covid-19 erased culture from the public debate agenda

How the prolonged closure of museums and cultural venues is likely to affect culture itself, what realities will emerge, the case of Istituzione Bologna Musei: discussed in this contribution.

Only the juxtaposition of the word culture (in all its meanings and disciplines) with the word digital has met with some success, without leading to reflections beyond the emergent contingency.

In a country where culture is still enjoyed by narrow audiences, the closure of cultural spaces in generalized indifference risks confirming, especially to non-publics, the irrelevance of the cultural experience and resetting the belief that it is central to the balanced development not only of the individual, but of the wider community. This marginality risks penalizing cultural institutions and especially those museums that strive to act as reference institutions within their communities, as Federico Giannini also mentioned in this newspaper, fulfilling the public and civic mission that characterizes their identity.

In recent days, the wait for measures in the upcoming Dpcm has fortunately brought out a discussion of opinions on whether or not to reopen the museums, starting with the observation that their opening in the summer months has shown that the sanitization measures and the quota through reservation of entrances has made these spaces the safest for visitors. Moving beyond concerns about the security conditions offered, considerations emerged about the cost-effectiveness or otherwise of openings that touch on the central issue of museums today (as ICOM’s internal debate on the definition of a museum also underscores): their identity and consequently their audiences, management model, and forms of accountability to society, at least on the part of civic and state museums.

To be less abstract, I refer to the reality of the Istituzione Bologna Musei to which 13 museums belong (from the Civic Archaeological Museum to MAMbo - Museo dArte Moderna di Bologna, via the International Museum and Library of Music and the Museum of Industrial Heritage) with more than 600,000 annual admissions in the period before the pandemic crisis and a revenue budget divided 50/50 between contributions from the City Administration and its own income, through tickets and other ancillary commercial activities.

This period has increased our awareness of the responsibility museums have to five types of audiences.

First, the residents. Museums need to engage in actions, including outside their walls, that help overcome the cultural, social and economic thresholds that still keep many citizens away from museums. With inclusive and participatory proposals in a cultural welfare unoptics that can make museums familiar places to live. The professionals of great expertise and passion that within museums, also using digital, carry out activities of preservation, research, documentation, promotion, always creating new paths and narratives are flanked, in our museums, by the new professionalism of 18 young cultural mediators, prepared with a 600-hour training funded with the funds of the Operational Program Metropolitan Cities 2014-2020 (PON Metro), to work towards the weaker audiences and distant from museum experiences. LEuropa is increasingly allocating resources for culture to inclusive cultural welfare projects toward new audiences, and we need to be ready to acquire them and put them to value. Another audience broadening action: the achievement of the spread of 40,000 Culture Card cards that allow free access to museums.

The second audience is tourists, domestic and international. At least for a few years there will be a change in the cultural tourism market. The New Cultural Tourist will be less interested in blockbuster exhibitions and will seek a less frenetic, more thoughtful and conscious museum experience capable of conveying authenticity and uniqueness. The permanent collections of Italian museums, with unique and distinctive works of art, are able to offer the museum itineraries and experience that the New Cultural Tourist seeks. Exhibitions will be less expensive, more manageable and more attentive to curatorial quality. Museums, on the other hand, also have a cultural responsibility to help shape visitors’ tastes, making quality increasingly attractive and engaging.

The third audience is the world of education and training to which we dedicate workshop activities, integrated with school activities, as an opportunity, through the stimuli of art, for further growth for new generations. Many major museums in the world decided last March to suspend, for economic reasons, these activities, laying off those who carried them on. We, on the other hand, responded by expanding the proposal: on-site workshop activities when possible, online (as happened especially during the first lockdown) or through the presence of our educational workers in schools. Again, discontinuing the service would have a strong negative impact on the perceived importance of museum education.

The fourth target audience is artists, particularly those placed in great difficulty by the Covid-19 crisis. If contingency and lack of resources leave exhibition spaces unused, an incisive and effective action is to open them up to artists, as experimented within MAMbo with the Nuovo Forno del P ane project that, from July 2020, sees 13 artists operating in self-management in the large Sala delle Ciminiere for the production of individual and collective work, transforming a public museum into a solidarity and creative hub.

Il progetto Nuovo Forno del Pane in corso presso il MAMbo - Museo d'Arte Moderna di Bologna. Foto Valentina Cafarotti e Federico Landi
The ongoing Nuovo Forno del Pane project at MAMbo - Museum of Modern Art in Bologna. Photo Valentina Cafarotti and Federico Landi

The fifth audience is made up of the less guaranteed workers who work in and for museums due in part to the outsourcing of many services. These are people who are suffering from closure and for whom we need to feel responsible.

I believe, therefore, that today the government should reintroduce the reopening of museums with the adoption of the measures that were decided last May and that worked well during the summer period, leaving it up to those in charge to decide whether to open or still keep museums closed.

This decision must take into account civic and cultural responsibility to all five audiences I have referred to and budget issues, which may also suggest modulated modes of opening in new ways.

Important is not to use this opportunity solely to cash in on refreshments in the voluntary extension of the closure, waiting to reopen with the same previous model of management and thinking. Let us use these months to debate and act not only to get the digitization processes right but to rethink our identity, the assumption of a stronger cultural and social responsibility that is also the condition that allows us to ask both the public and private sectors to rethink together a new management model.

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