We have come to compare visiting museums to soccer games

In releasing data on museum attendance this year, the Ministry of Culture lets it be known that some of the Free Sunday editions have surpassed the Serie A soccer championship.

It is a little more disconcerting than usual this year to read the statement on museum visitor data that the Ministry of Culture annually releases at the end of January to present the previous year’s results. And the disquiet, of course, does not stem from the fact that in 2019, almost certainly, the total number of people who visited state museums was lower than in 2018. That is not the point: there is no drama to be had if, for one year, museum visitors decline. To make more accomplished and thoughtful analyses, however, it will be necessary to wait for the full results: accustomed to the triumphalist tones of communication that has always accompanied the Franceschini-led ministries, if visitors had increased we would surely have known about it and the MiBACT promotion offices would have spoken of “boom,” “record,” and so on. Instead, the total number of visitors was not released this year, unlike in previous years, and the ministry’s press office merely reported in the last paragraph of the press release that “after years of continuous double-digit growth, the number of visitors to the entire national museum system settles at around 55 million,” and to let us know that it was the number of visitors to the thirty most visited cultural sites that had increased (by 2.4 percent).

For now, however, the point is not the data: in the absence of complete numbers it is impossible to comment. However, it is possible to dwell on the sports competition phrasing used to present the museums’ results. “Superstar,” “podium,” “climb four positions,” “climb three positions and place eighteenth in the rankings,” “excellent performance,” expressions that seem to be taken from an article about the second run of the Schladming special slalom, and yet they do not describe a competition between athletes taking part in the Alpine Ski World Cup, but an absurd contest between museums, where there are institutes that install themselves on a podium, others that climb up or down rankings, and still others that have performed “well in terms of growth.” As if we were talking about a soccer team.

Turisti agli Uffizi. Dal progetto Grand Tourismo (2018) di Giacomo Zaganelli
Tourists to the Uffizi. From the Grand Tourismo project (2018) by Giacomo Zaganelli

A comparison, the one with soccer, that does not come from a suggestion of the writer: it is the MiBACT itself to emphasize that “museums beat the Serie A.” In fact, we learn that, during some editions of the free Sunday (editions, of course, “record-breaking”), the “attendance in museums was higher than that of a day of the Serie A soccer championship.” Should we therefore officially consider our museums as substitutes for soccer games? Let’s hope not, because if free Sundays are to become the alternative to the soccer championship, it means we have misunderstood the purpose of the museum. In the real world, wrote Tommaso Labranca in his Vraghinaroda, and precisely on the subject of free Sundays, “one cannot go from a week of football postponements to an exhibition on the Dutch avant-garde about which the news told bookshop wonders and not a single one about how the Dutch avant-garde came to be.”

Now, however, MiBACT comes to certify that this shift from soccer to Dutch avant-garde can be accomplished nonchalantly, data in hand. What may not be clear to many, however, is that to reduce the museum to a disengaged pastime, to a place to experience intangible emotions, to a theater for demented “walks in beauty,” is to push for the museum itself to abdicate its role as a place where one seeks to understand the world, to develop critical thinking, to reason about rights, freedom, equality, participation, to dialogue about the past and the future. And for it to be reduced to simply a site where you can spend some time because it’s free anyway, or because “it’s better than the mall.” And so, as we prepare for the divestment of one of former Minister Bonisoli’s rare good moves (i.e., the abolition of free Sundays in the peak months: Dario Franceschini has already let it be known that “Sundays at the museum” will return stable year-round), it will be the case to ask ourselves a question: but isn’t it better to watch a good and knowledgeable soccer game rather than visit a museum as if we were going to see the windows of an outlet mall?

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