Temporary exhibitions: how to prevent them from disrespecting the museum's mission

Museums are in danger of being overwhelmed by monstrosities: how to prevent exhibitions from disrespecting the museum's mission? A reflection by Domenica Primerano

It happens that from the local tourist promotion company they ask you what exhibition is scheduled. If you answer In this period none, the reaction may be the following (it happened to me): But then you have nothing! Yes, because in the optics of those who package the tourist offer a museum without exhibitions is not interesting. Not even if that museum comprehensively tells, through its collections, the history of that place making the citizen, the tourist, the migrant understand the cultural identity of the territory in which he lives, that he is visiting or that hosts him. Things change if the museum has been designed by an archistar: in that case it matters little what it contains or proposes, what matters is the architecture, which often acts as an extraordinary eye-catcher. So if your museum was not designed by Renzo Piano but is simply housed in a historic building, for that matter located adjacent to the city cathedral on one of the most beautiful squares in Italy, if moreover you do not have an exhibition to propose, you are out.

If lottica is this, it becomes almost inevitable to have to invent exhibitions designed more to attract the public than as the outcome of a research path. For we know very well that the evaluation of a museum’s performance is based primarily on the number of visitors involved, regardless of what each of them will have brought home in terms of knowledge or cultural growth. However, if the big box of tourism promotion does not take your proposal into consideration because it is considered unattractive; if you do not have sufficient resources to advertise yourself or to hire a good press office, the media and a certain darte criticism, which has given up an autonomous function of guidance, will not take up your exhibition and visitors will inevitably be few. A snake eating its own tail.

Nothing new of course: of the mechanisms connected with what has been called the exhibitions effect we are all aware. Dating back to 2008 is a document by ICOM Italy signed by AMACI, AMEI, ANMLI, ANMS, SIMBDEA entitled Exhibitions-shows and museums: the dangers of a monoculture and the risk of erasing cultural diversity, a truly comprehensive text that well focuses on the issues related to the difficult relationship (and/or opposition) that is established between exhibitions and museums. The recommendations in the document, which are still valid today, have not always been implemented. The phenomenon is constantly growing, as attested by a recent research from which it emerges that in Italy eleven thousand exhibitions are opened per year, 32 per day, one every 45 minutes. And this daily monstrosity is in danger of overwhelming everyone a bit, putting a strain on, among other things, the professional ethics of those who work in museums.

Etymologically, the term exhibition is traced back to the Latin word monstrare, itself derived from mostrum. Monstrare means to indicate, designate, elect, choose, present or, in the case of a temporary exhibition, to propose, document, illustrate, and develop a particular theme through a selection of materials, accompanied by communicative tools, traditional or innovative, including for the purpose of proving a point. Mostrum refers to a prodigious fact, to an exceptional event that generates wonder, amazement: the provisional nature of the exhibition, when compared to the permanent dimension that connotes the museum, constitutes the out of the norm, the lecception that attracts the public. So much so that a painting exhibited daily at Brera succeeds in catalyzing the visitor’s interest better if it is included in a temporary exhibition, especially if it is well publicized and linked in its title (but not necessarily for most of the works it proposes) to a famous artist. Since this is a short-lived initiative, writes Francis Haskell, it triggers the Cinderella effect: the emotion becomes more intense, the ability to observe more acute. In the exhibition, moreover, the Brera painting becomes the lingage of an argumentative-narrative machine that is better able to engage the visitor, especially those without adequate skills.

Sala XXI della Pinacoteca di Brera
Room XXI of the Brera Art Gallery.

Have we ever wondered,“ Giulio Carlo Argan asked in 1955, ”why exhibitions attract audiences much more than museums? Evidently because, in the exhibition, the presentation of objects is more lively and stimulating, the juxtapositions more persuasive, the comparisons more stringent, the problems more clearly delineated. The exhibition stands to the museum as the test track stands to the road, he added in 1982. So it was in the post-World War II period, when exhibitions (by the way, conceived as the final link in a serious research path) served as an experimental field for Italian museography, whose strength stemmed as is well known from its close link with museology.

So it is not a matter of demonizing exhibitions, but of bringing out their potential as laboratories interconnected to the museum that conceived them and to the territory on which lens gravitates. But this presupposes that the objectives of the exhibition are consistent with the mission of the museum that proposes it, with its collections and with the venue that is to host it; that its scientific and innovative value and the contribution it will make to the process of knowledge are assessed; and that its programming does not take resources away from proper conservation and enhancement of the collections. The problem is that too often this is not the case: in fact, for the most part, the planning of exhibitions is embedded in a mechanism managed by parties outside the museum institutions, fueled by tourism entrepreneurship, the convergence of economic and political interests.

Starting from the premise that exhibitions should be an opportunity for visitors to grow, in terms of knowledge or active citizenship, it is essential for the museum to return to its proper functions: like heritage education, the design of temporary exhibitions should not be delegated or outsourced. It must remain the prerogative of the museum institution. But all this is possible provided, of course, that the museum has the necessary human and economic resources.

Equally important, in my opinion, is for museum professionals to abide by the code of conduct developed internationally to establish a balance of rights and duties between lenders and organizers, so that both are not burdened with unnecessary or unjust burdens. The exhibition should not be an opportunity to make cash by imposing payday loans, restoration of works that have nothing to do with the exhibition, per diems, reimbursement for travel or stays for oversized couriers; forcing the use of certain insurance companies or firms for transportation, maintenance, photographic reproductions, etc., if those proposed are just as reliable and perhaps less expensive. The ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, in effect since 1986, in Article 2.16 clearly states the principle that Museums’ collections were established for communities of citizens and should under no circumstances be considered financial assets. It is good to keep this in mind at all times.

Domenica Primerano
Director of the Tridentine Diocesan Museum and President Amei (Association of Italian Ecclesiastical Museums)

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.