The sad reality behind FAI Spring Days. What the celebrations don't say

On March 24 and 25, 2018, FAI Spring Days will be held, and everyone is enthusiastically celebrating the occasion. But behind the Days lies a sad reality. Here is a reflection on the topic.

As has been the case every year since 1993, the arrival of warm weather brings with it the FAI Spring Days, and the approach of the event is accompanied by the usual florilegium of articles with encomiastic tones that, in every headline, celebrate the work of FAI - Fondo Ambiente Italiano, which is credited with opening the doors of hundreds of cultural properties otherwise largely closed to the public. A truly praiseworthy initiative, also considering the fact that every year FAI invests significant funds for the recovery and preservation of cultural heritage, using sums donated by citizens: and it is admirable how FAI, in all these years, has managed to bring citizens closer to culture, both with those few opening days that physically lead the public inside the places of culture, and with the daily action that spurs many to do something concrete for heritage.

However, we want to shy away from all those rhetorical triumphalisms that make Italy appear as if it were stuffed in a sort of great Alberto Angela documentary, and to raise some objections to this narrative that, over the years, has developed around the “great street party dedicated to the beauty of our country” (so on the FAI website) that brings thousands of citizens and tourists to discover the heritage with which they are surrounded. In 2014, then newly appointed Minister Dario Franceschini declared that the Fai di Primavera Days “allow citizens to enjoy an extraordinary cultural heritage that would otherwise be hidden and teach us how to be Italian,” and that “thanks to the work of thousands of volunteers, over the coming weekend more than 750 places throughout Italy that are normally inaccessible will be open and visitable.” Again, two years later the minister said that the FAI Days represent a demonstration “of how public and private together can do a really important job of enhancing and protecting cultural heritage, especially the lesser known, involving not only tourists but also citizens. Something that Fai has been doing for many years and that we want to continue to support in every way.” And similar words were spoken this year by Ilaria Borletti Buitoni, undersecretary of MiBACT as well as former president of FAI: “I have never believed in barriers between public and private. The bet that our country has before it, that is, to design a road for development that respects cultural identity, contexts, and our landscape, is extraordinary and we can all win it together.”

Taking the minister’s statements as a starting point, there are at least three arguments to object to the FAI Days. The first: many of the properties that are opened during FAI Days remain closed all the rest of the year. It is not enough to rejoice because those “otherwise concealed” properties open their doors two days: it is necessary to ask for what reasons they are closed during the remaining three hundred and sixty-three, or remain visitable by appointment. Take the example of the Rocca di Ripafratta, in the province of Pisa, a privately owned site that, as the Salviamo la Rocca Association denounces, “has been in a serious state of neglect for years,” and to no avail so far have memoranda of understanding aimed at its recovery and the citizens’ petition asking for the castle to become public property: the Municipality of San Giuliano Terme formally asked the owners to acquire it by way of donation, but the response has been negative because the property would have embarked on a path with a private foundation, which, however, appears to be at a standstill at the moment, and further proposals are currently being studied. Then there are several public museums that, due to staff shortages or lack of funds, are forced to open their halls with dropper drops, with the result that FAI Days represent one of the few times a year when it is possible to guarantee an unrestricted opening. What’s more, there are sites that, on these two days, are open exclusively to FAI members, and still others that have time slots reserved for members (for example, in Milan, almost all sites, on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., guarantee admission only to members, with the result that a third of the opening period is precluded to those who do not have a FAI membership card).

La Galleria degli Arazzi di Palazzo Clerici a Milano
The Tapestry Gallery of Palazzo Clerici in Milan, with its vault frescoed by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: this is one of the properties opening for FAI Days and which on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. will have admission reserved for members only. Photo released in the public domain

The second: the openings are guaranteed by an army of thousands of volunteers (who, moreover, to date are not even mentioned in the institutional website’s acknowledgments ), who are joined, where provided for, by about 40,000 “apprentice Ciceroni,” or schoolchildren who are entrusted with the task of guiding the public to discover the properties. It seems superfluous to point out that entrusting to volunteers, even for two days, such a delicate task as organizing a guided tour and even conducting the tour itself, is an aberration that is likely to be reflected in the visitor’s experience who, not being able to take advantage of professional figures, will just have to hope to run into the young person animated by true passion and eager to go deeper (if the training materials of the “apprentice Ciceroni” are those that can be found on the FAI website, visitors will probably have to worry) and not the one who has simply bet on the best of options to fulfill his obligations related to the atrocious institution ofAlternanza scuola-lavoro. By this, let me be clear, it is not meant to point the finger at the volunteers: surely most of them believe in what they do, and want to put themselves at the service of others because they are convinced that spreading awareness around cultural heritage is a way to grow and to grow. What is meant to be stigmatized is the idea of resorting to volunteering to entrust praiseworthy young and old people, but most of whom have not gone through adequate training or professional paths, with tasks that would require the skills of professionals.

Finally, the third: contrary to what Franceschini stated in 2016, it is really difficult to find in the FAI Spring Days “the demonstration of how public and private together can do a really important work of valorization and protection of cultural heritage.” This is not the model of enhancement and protection that heritage needs. Volunteerism may perhaps be fine, in the absence of better alternatives, to sew a ragged, momentary patch over pressing emergency situations, but if it becomes the norm and if it even has to be the subject of a minister’s interest, then it means something is not working. The problems that force certain sites to accept FAI volunteers, moreover, risk spreading like wildfire: there are already cases of major, publicly owned museums being forced to make drastic reductions in their hours due to lack of staff because the Ministry is not hiring. Even, some institutes sometimes have to call on young people from the civil service to fill the gaps. And this, unfortunately, seems to be the most immediate effect of the “FAI Days model”: beyond the glossy surface, there is a sad reality that is made up of substantial disinterest and the substitution of professional work by the services of those who work in museums as members of voluntary associations. A volunteer work that, unfortunately, also risks becoming the depressing substitute to which many excellent young people who have studied to get a job in the cultural heritage sector are obliged to rely on in order to acquire a minimum of experience in the field. A volunteer work that therefore forces them to de-skill themselves, covering tasks that would require a real contract and adequate remuneration.

Ultimately, we are convinced that FAI’s commitment is of considerable importance, and those who work and put themselves on the line to make FAI Days a useful and interesting event should be congratulated as much as possible. But to believe that FAI Days can be seen as a model or as a demonstration of happy interchange between public and private, perhaps means continuing to condemn our cultural heritage to a reality of precariousness, insecurity and sporadic interest.

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