Is the opening of a new museum always good news?

The largest Egyptian museum in the world, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, has opened in Cairo, Egypt. In Italy, millions have been allocated for the opening of new museums. But is a new museum opening always good news? Here are what questions we should ask ourselves.

A giant new museum, the largest Egyptian museum in the world, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, has opened in Cairo. Although the museum aims to tell the story of Egyptian, or rather Egyptian, civilization from prehistory to modern times, it was inaugurated by a grand parade of 22 mummies of pharaohs-a reference to a very specific moment in the country’s past, that of the pharaonic dynasties. There has already been much discussion about the political significance of the parade and the new museum sought by General Al-Sisi: a huge new museum, detracting from the previous museum in Tahrir Square, a symbol of the 2011 uprisings and since Saturday decorated with an imposing Egyptian obelisk, and inaugurated with a parade that draws on Hollywood imagery, explicitly aiming for not just national but international legitimacy. But little has been said about the fact that the birth of this new institution was made possible through the active collaboration of the European Union and some of the continent’s leading Egyptology institutes, starting with the Egyptian Museum in Turin, which provided funds and, above all, technical and professional expertise. “It is for all of us a great privilege to be able to intervene on what for every Egyptologist represents ’the mother’ of all museums, the cradle of Egyptology, the museum where you can find the most important collections in the world,” Egyptian Museum director Christian Greco told Repubblica in 2019. A collaboration that has not aroused any dispute, despite the fact that the political significance of the museum itself is undoubted and despite the fact that criticism of the Al-Sisi regime is not lacking even in those same institutions(a plaque to Giulio Regeni is also found in the Turin museum, for example). The non-discussion among technicians in the field, justifying the absence of debate, seems to be that a new museum is always good news, regardless of who and why builds it: more space, more funds for restoration, more knowledge and appreciation. But is this really the case?

Clear is that every museum is born with a patron, responds to that patron, and if that patron is a nation-state, the museum itself will always have within it a nationalistic principle, or even imperialistic in the case of colonial powers. So it is with all great national museums, particularly archaeological ones. Even in Italy: the National Roman Museum was born in the years of colonial invasions, while the fascist regime opened the Mausoleum of Augustus (with an exhibition), the Museum of Roman Civilization, and renovated the Colonial Museum at EUR, the symbolic district of the regime. But virtually all European colonial powers have had national museums to accompany those goals. The case of Cairo is an extreme case only because of the time in which it takes place and the Hollywood slant. But it is precisely because of this systemic rule that it seems necessary to ask whether, as citizens and heritage technicians, we should accompany, support and even celebrate the construction and opening of a new museum, always, on the principle that money for culture is always welcome, since it is scarce.

Il Museo Nazionale della Civiltà Egizia
The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization

Genova, l'abbazia di San Giuliano, il luogo che ospiterà la Casa dei Cantautori Liguri
Genoa, the Abbey of San Giuliano, the site that will house the House of Ligurian Songwriters

Looking at our country, for example, the opening of new museums has been becoming a rule in recent years: but this does not detract from the fact that, asISTAT has notedseveral times, the vast majority of Italian museums are at the end of the gas barrel and economic and tourist flows have historically, and even more so after the Franceschini reform of 2014, been concentrated on very few institutions: in 2019, 1.1 percent of museums received 50 percent of total visitors. Already Federico Giannini on these same pages noted in June 2020 how MiBACT’s major project funds, in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, aimed to create new museums of dubious usefulness, such as the Museum of the Italian Language or the House of Ligurian Songwriters. Let’s be clear, no museum is useless, but some museums may be superfluous, or not a priority. It is also not uncommon for museums to be used for so-called “urban redevelopment” operations, often more akin to speculation. As in the case of M9 in Mestre, where the museum was the centerpiece of a new private district with commercial traction: but nevertheless it was inaugurated in triumph. Or again the case of the Museum of the Resistance in Milan, for which the Ministry allocated 14 million euros: instead of creating it in a place symbolic of the Resistance, or financing existing ones, they preferred to stick it in Herzog’s (highly contested) second pyramid, all to be built, and disliked by the neighborhood. So here in one fell swoop is funding and an “uncontested” museum.

The examples can be many, part of a drift in contemporary museology due to many different factors, but in particular to the fact that it is no longer only the state or communities that want new museums but also the market, i.e., interest groups acting on the ground. And it is a global trend: it is no coincidence that ICOM has for years been debating no holds barred a new definition of a museum, divided between a majority pressing for a “revolutionary” definition that emphasizes its social role, and a minority aiming to preserve the previous definition that emphasized the educational and conservation role of museums themselves. But it is precisely these examples that call for reflection: Whether a museum can be the bearer of a nationalistic-propagandistic view of history, of economic interests that outweigh social and cultural ones, of a political approach that outweighs the technical approach... If all this has been reality for as long as we can remember, why are we still unable, as the archaeological, art-historical, and museological worlds, to compactly distance ourselves from the opening of museums that have little to do with culture, at a time when there is an extreme need for knowledge and clarity? To believe that culture may not be “political” is the greatest favor that can be done to those who want to politicize it instrumentally, cloaking themselves in the opinion of technicians.

Every new opening is greeted in triumph. Yet it can, at times, do more harm than good: giving legitimacy to a regime, creating a distorted view of the past (how much of the idyllic idea that too many Britons have of their colonial past runs through the British Museum?), bringing about economic speculation of which the museum is merely an instrument. A collective step forward, a critical acceptance of this reality, seems necessary, lest we enter into the propaganda of others, in Italy and elsewhere.

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