Growth, inclusion, openness. What the Tridentine Diocesan Museum has been in recent years.

A few weeks ago, Domenica Primerano stepped down as head of the Tridentine Diocesan Museum: this is an opportunity to take stock of the seven years of her direction, a job rooted in the foundations laid when the former director was Iginio Rogger's deputy and conservator.

As we wait to see what the Tridentine Diocesan Museum will look like under the new director, economist Michele Andreaus, it is interesting to turn the lights back on the path the Trent institution has taken in recent years, for several reasons: because the management of Domenica Primerano, the resigning director, was long and left an extremely relevant mark on the face and identity of the museum; because the Tridentine Diocesan Museum has gradually grown over time to become one of the most active museums in the region and one of the most innovative ecclesiastical museums on the national scene; and because the institute has been pointed to by many as an example of authoritative management. One could start right here: in the book Ecclesiastical Museums. Proposals for Enhancement edited by Barbara Sibilio and Antonio Matacena, experts Francesco Badia and Fabio Donato emphasized in “the cultural depth, the authoritativeness gained in the field and the experience” of director Domenica Primerano, characteristics that led her to carve out “a wide space of management autonomy.”

Domenica Primerano, an architect, laywoman and professor of museography at the University of Trent, had been at the Tridentine Diocesan Museum since 1989 as conservator, and took over as its director in early 2014, after having been for a long time (since 1995) the deputy of the previous director, Monsignor Iginio Rogger, who led the Tridentine Diocesan Museum from 1963 until 2014, the year of his death. To give an idea of the energy with which Primerano ruled the museum for seven years, it would suffice just to assess the mere numerical data: as of today, the Tridentino is the most visited diocesan museum in Italy, with nearly sixty thousand visitors who walked its halls in 2019 (58,635), up from 51,893 in 2018. Numbers almost doubled in ten years (there were 35,543 in 2009), although it is an indisputable fact that the most significant growth occurred precisely under Primerano’s direction: the museum until 2013 stood at 35,000 annual visitors, and since 2014 the base began to increase considerably. The data represent eloquent but cold feedback, and do not provide a complete idea of the work and approach that the Tridentine Diocesan Museum, a reality to which the editorial staff of this magazine has been devoting particular attention for years precisely because of the innovative management that has distinguished its action in recent years, has taken on in the seven-year term in which it has been directed by Primerano.

Meanwhile, the premises: the work of the last few years was possible because it was rooted in time, consistent with the museum’s mission, and able to ensure continuity with what had been done previously and profitably. As a deputy, Primerano had in fact coordinated the museum’s refurbishment (which today is a precious gem of museography, for rigor in the scanning of the exhibition itinerary, care of the layouts, clarity of the didactic apparatuses, and modernity of the technological solutions, starting with the lighting technology and the multimedia devices supporting the room apparatuses: a must-see) and closely followed the cataloguing and filing of the works, another feather in the museum’s cap, an activity that later led to the restoration of the works that needed intervention. Again, in 1996 Primerano opened the educational section, another pearl of the institute, a reference model for the work that those in charge of the section have been able to carry out with regard to both younger visitors and adult visitors (more than ten thousand participants each year in courses and workshops: no small thing, in relation to the total public), the results of which are punctually made known each year through the“Annual Report” that the Diocesan Museum of Trent, in a spirit of transparency, has begun to publish since 2015, being very clear about what its statutory objectives are: The documentation of the evolution of the cultural and religious life of the local community through the preservation, study and enhancement of the heritage for which the museum is responsible, the promotion of an active and participatory knowledge of ecclesiastical cultural heritage, the proposing of the museum as a place of socialization and shared experiences to foster community inclusion and development, and the dissemination of Christian culture through the management of cultural heritage.

Il Museo Diocesano Tridentino
The Tridentine Diocesan Museum
Domenica Primerano alla premiazione degli European Heritage Awards
Sunday Primerano at the European Heritage Awards ceremony.

On this basis, a meritorious and remarkable work has been grafted, aimed first of all at the territory: numerous initiatives that the Tridentine Diocesan Museum has been able to put in place, thinking both of the public (guided tours, shows, concerts that have crossed the most disparate musical genres: in 2019, for example, the Tridentine distinguished itself by hosting the well-known Neapolitan rapper Lucariello, who in addition to performing with his repertoire has met with school children, being an artist committed to social issues) and of inclusion. On the latter front, for years the museum has been organizing a “Living Library” with the Trento Prison, facilitating encounters between the public and “human books,” or inmates and former inmates who tell visitors their stories (a modality also put into practice in the “jailbird dinners,” where the cooks are former inmates who thus have the opportunity to meet visitors and, again, make them participants in their experiences). Educational services organize dozens of courses for schools of all levels every year, several activities for families, and there is no shortage of courses for adults either (on topics such as the iconography of works, the symbology of minorities, the written word over the centuries, and so on) and proposals for the communities of foreigners and migrants in the area. These are activities that are little talked about, but they constitute the essence, reposed and at the same time vital, of every museum. Primerano’s direction has focused on public involvement to the point that, a case not so common in Italy in the aftermath of the pandemic, the institute decided to directly poll its visitors to set up the reopening.

As for more “visible” proposals, the Museo Diocesano Tridentino pioneered the free Sundays at the museum, which have been a reality at the institute in Piazza del Duomo since well before the initiative landed in state museums after the Franceschini reform (and in a museum where the influx of people entering for free is manageable, and especially where there is a high propensity for visitors to return, the initiative can make sense), and has successfully continued its exhibition activities: among the exhibitions of recent years it will be necessary to mention the first monographic exhibition on Francesco Verla, held in 2017, the experiment that brought the works of contemporary artist Sidival Fila to the halls of the institute, and above all the celebrated exhibition on Simonino da Trento that earned the Museo Diocesano Tridentino the European Heritage Award (the first win for an Italian exhibition). Exhibitions, Primerano wrote in Finestre sull’Arte itself four years ago, are in his view “laboratories interconnected to the museum that conceived them and to the territory on which the lens gravitates,” and under his stewardship the exhibitions have distinguished themselves not only for their very high scholarly value and for the advancement in terms of knowledge they have been able to guarantee, but also for posing themselves as opportunities for in-depth study that have often transcended the boundaries of the city or region, setting themselves up as notable reviews of national if not international caliber, as the exhibition The Invention of the Guilty fully demonstrated. The exhibitions, combined with the aforementioned activities, have helped to reformulate the image of the Tridentine, now perceived by all as a museum that not only caters to the diocesan community, but as an inclusive institution that has reached the most diverse audiences, fostered social, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, and has been able to acquire an increasingly open dimension.

After the resignation of Domenica Primerano, the Italian section of ICOM, speaking on the vicissitudes that led to the appointment of the new director Andreaus, stressed that the outgoing director “made that museum a small jewel, for its ability to interpret in an open and creative way the pastoral mission that is proper to it, highlighting the relationship between art, spirituality and contemporary problems. A model of experimentation that the entire community of museum professionals, including the European Union, has recognized for its innovative and guiding character.” The challenge, beyond difficult, that now awaits the museum will be to keep the institution on its level, also taking into account that Primerano is not the only one who has resigned, and that the Tridentino in the last month has lost two more important pieces. Managing a decades-long, high-level legacy, and doing so starting with an act that immediately sanctioned a strong sign of discontinuity, namely the appointment of a director with a completely different profile than that of Domenica Primerano and lacking sectorial expertise in the field of cultural heritage, will certainly not be easy. However, ICOM’s intervention certifies the need for an in-depth discussion on a cultural issue of relevant importance for contemporary museums: to what extent can the technical-scientific qualification of the director be put second to the administrative one?