Museums: the Super League of the Rich is already a reality, but no one has opposed it

There is a lot of talk these days about the soccer super league: however, the model of a few major entities playing a separate league is already a reality in the world of universities and museums.

It has been all talk for two days now, at least in the countries where soccer is the national sport: twelve clubs, among the most famous and richest (and indebted) on the European continent have unilaterally decided to create their own exclusive league in which they will be members by right, and which should guarantee them revenues of 350 million a year. All announced at midnight on Sunday after negotiations conducted in the shadows. More or less hypocritically, self-interestedly or romantically, as the case may be, the soccer world rose up, with threats of expulsion, intervention by national governments and mass stances by fans of the clubs involved. We don’t know how this story will end, but we do know that in its basic features it appears to be a movie we have already seen: a reform dropped from above, without confrontation, that allows those who have more to stay safe without effort and become richer and richer, while those who have less are left to watch with no chance of catching up. The idea is always the one, consistently disproved by the data, that a few very rich “excellences” allow, by trickling down the wealth, even the lesser ones to grow.

This is a modus operandi that has been applied not only by powerful multinationals with unilateral acts of force, as in this case, but also, in recent years, by the Italian state, and in environments with which the market should have little to do. It happened, for example, with the reform of public universities, carried out between 2008 and 2011: finding in that case firm opposition from part of the teaching and student body. However, it is also, in fact, the format that was imposed by the state on the system of State Museums, and more generally of the Ministry of Culture (then MiBACT) between 2013 and 2016 with the Franceschini reform. Indeed, the reform, imposed by central offices without confrontation or serious public debate, did just that. A handful of particularly fortunate state museums (in terms of collections, geographic location, historical notoriety) were being split off from the rest of the system, which previously completely equated small and large museums, guaranteeing, albeit with obvious limitations in financial management, a certain balance in the redistribution of resources. These few museums after 2016 find themselves enjoying greater rights and possibilities: the guarantee of being able to keep 80 percent of revenues for themselves, having a well-paid director who was dedicated only to that, a Board of Directors, a Technical-Scientific Committee, and, above all, enormous media overexposure compared to all other state and non-state museums. Outside of this elite, there remained the other state museums, in great difficulty since they lacked the funds from the activities of the now autonomous museums, and the Superintendencies, likewise in great difficulty since some of the staff were being passed on to the new institutes and the “research-protection-valorization” chain was being disrupted. This reform could have led to only one consequence, well photographed in this newspaper in 2018: concentration of tourist flows in a few institutes, increased ticket prices, and easier access to funds and donations for museums bathed in greater media visibility. And so it was: this was found by ISTAT for 2017, saying that 36.3 percent of visitors were concentrated in only 20 museums, and then again for 2019, noting a steady trend, with 50 percent of visitors concentrated in only 1 percent of Italian museums. And the same museums that have the most visitors are the ones that have the easiest access to both public and private funds, from ArtBonus to sponsorships.

Pompeii Park, aerial view of the Basilica. Ph. Credit

It is no coincidence that to justify reform of the Ministry (like that of the University) they made their own sports competition buzzwords, such as “rankings,” “success,” and “records,” even though it seems obvious that Museums are not, or rather should not be in competition with each other. Yet in just a few years of Franceschini’s reform, "museum rankings," based solely on visitor numbers, had become a dreary norm for ministerial communication before the collapse of global tourism drove them into oblivion. In spite of all this, this reform in favor of the richest museums (or rather, the stakeholders of the richest museums, thus the companies that run the outsourced services) did not find the opposition that might have been expected: not even remotely comparable to what the football split or university reform is finding. The reform passed with almost unanimous celebration in national newspapers (among the few critical voices were Salvatore Settis and Tomaso Montanari, as well as this masthead), with the backing and support of ICOM, with the enthusiasm of the Higher Council of Cultural Heritage and the General Directorate of Museums, while an internal regulation in the Ministry ensured that employees could not speak publicly about it. The most notable protest that was registered was that of the archaeological officials, who came all the way down to the Roman Ministry, or that of Emergenza Cultura, which united unions and associations, both of which went completely unheeded. None of the major trade associations of the time denounced the economicist drift, completely prone to mass tourism, under which that reform was enacted.

And even today, after the consequences on tourist flows and the museum system have been seen(Pompeii, for example, has gone from 2.5 million to 4 million tourists a year, while all the surrounding sites have remained almost stable), and that the collapse of mass tourism makes that system made up of autonomous islands unsustainable, critical voices toward this ministerial arrangement are struggling to be raised, and the existence of that top club of Museums with greater rights and possibilities, divorced from everything else, is still not questioned. There is a section of cultural technicians and intellectuals who look down on the passion, the sporting impulses of a part of the population, judging the cultural ones much more important. But in these hours we read on social media a whispering of phrases such as “soccer belongs to the people,” we read of fans calling for an overhaul of the whole system, testifying that a debate is there, albeit with all the limitations of the case. But whose museums and cultural heritage, however, if something like Franceschini’s reform still finds so much enthusiasm or disinterest?