Why can't Italy have a museum or documentation center on fascism?

A possible museum (or even better a documentation center) on fascism is not incompatible with the values of today's Italy. Why then so much discussion? Why can't Italy have a museum on fascism? It is a disagreement that Germany has resolved; what are we waiting for?

It is well known that instrumentalizations exploit very blurred boundaries: sometimes, those that simply run between two articulated prepositions. So it happens that, in Rome, three city councilors of the Pentastellata majority (Gemma Guerrini, Massimo Simonelli and Andrea Coia) promote a motion that commits the mayor and the council, the agenda for the August 4 council meeting reads, “to create a ’Museum on Fascism’ connected to a study center that also uses new technologies, open to a wide public; to consider, for such a museum, one of Rome’s industrial archaeological sites.” And it happens, as a result, that for much of the press the “museum on fascism” automatically becomes a “museum of fascism,” and that the reference to the attached study center gets lost along the way, proving that many people are more interested in talking about petty, weekday politics than history. Vigorous controversy ensues immediately, with the Anpi and the Roman Pd leading the protests.

“We imagine how many are looking forward to being able to show that fascism also did good things,” the Anpi predicts. “A museum that will be built and managed by the next Capitoline Council, on whose anti-fascist values nothing can be predicted today, when in our country we are no longer ashamed to mention Mussolini and where fascism is even expressed by forming parties that explicitly refer to it and that are slow to be disbanded,” adds the partisans’ association. “We will not allow Rome’s gold medal for the Resistance to host a museum of fascism,” thunders the Roman section of the Democratic Party. The word “end” to the discussion comes from Mayor Virginia Raggi herself: “Rome is an anti-fascist city,” she says, and with this argument she opposes the construction of the possible museum. So much so that the three councilors withdraw their motion.

The furious bailamme that has been created around the news has well demonstrated how, in Italy, it is still difficult to succeed in engaging in a calm public discussion about fascism. And it certainly cannot be said that the three councilors of the 5 Star Movement have done anything to facilitate this discussion. Far from it: in making an interesting proposal, they committed some major sins of naiveté. First, they used an expression (“museum on fascism”) that could lend itself very easily to misunderstandings and exploitation, circumstances that have since punctually occurred (if they had rather spoken of a “documentation center,” perhaps the affair would have taken a different turn). Second, in presenting their motion they were extremely laconic and not very explanatory, and on topics such as a possible museum on fascism clarity must be utmost. Third, they launched the initiative out of the blue and did not engage in any prior public discussion on the issue, and they were swept up in the storm without any possibility of handling it. It was natural, then, that the proposal would be overwhelmed by criticism.

However, it is also necessary to question the consistency of the criticism, starting from a firm point: a possible museum on fascism would not be incompatible with our anti-fascist values. To assert otherwise means only two things: to indulge in speculation not unlike that which is blamed on the opposing side, or to fall into a major misunderstanding of the purposes and functions of a museum. Probably, in the minds of many dwells the idea that a museum is equivalent to a monument and, therefore, could take on celebratory tones and characters. But in reality museums are not created to magnify the objects in their collections, much less to exalt the subject matter on which they specialize, in the case of single-topic museums: no definition of the term “museum” accommodates this possibility. The current ICOM definition states very clearly that a museum is an institution “which carries out research on the tangible and intangible evidence of man and his environment, acquires, preserves, and communicates it, and specifically exhibits it for purposes of study, education and enjoyment.” No room, then, for any hymns, no room to lend itself to distorted interpretations, no room to confuse history with mythographies or even to confuse historical reconstruction with political judgment (as the ANPI probably thinks when it fears a museum that deals with so-called “good things”): in such cases, one could not speak of a “museum.” And this is the reason why in Germany there are documentation centers on Nazism such as the NS-Dokumentationszentrum in Munich or the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände in Nuremberg: are places much more focused on research and education than on exhibition (which is why they are referred to as “documentation centers” rather than “museums”), where the history of Nazism is critically examined, and to which are associated research centers and laboratories, which are directed and managed by historians with impeccable academic records.

Adolfo Wildt, Maschera di Mussolini (il Duce) (1924; marmo di Carrara, 60 x 49 x 22 cm; Milano, Galleria d?Arte Moderna)
Adolfo Wildt, Mask of Mussolini (il Duce) (1924; Carrara marble, 60 x 49 x 22 cm; Milan, Galleria dArte Moderna)

Having clarified this point, avoiding falling into the impropriety of attributing improbable nostalgic impulses to proponents, and without getting caught up in the temptation to shuffle the cards (as when it is said that the Museum of Via Tasso and the Fosse Ardeatine already exist in Rome: beyond the fact that these sites, obviously valuable and indispensable, are configured as places of memory rather than as historical museums, it is all too obvious to note that they are centered on much more circumscribed events than those that a broader museum dedicated to the history of the fascist movement and party would deal with), the most sensible criticisms concern the appropriateness of opening a museum on fascism in the Italy of 2020. In other words, the question that many are asking sounds something like this: can a past that is still the subject of bitter political contention become the central theme of a museum, in a country where reductionist temptations on the dialectics between fascism and anti-fascism not infrequently emerge, where more or less veiled apologetic readings of broad passages of our history, where Italy’s own colonial past is still an extremely labored subject, and where even the most media-pervasive opinion-makers have often shown an inability to deal with the events of the Ventennio with due detachment?

If we think of a museum on fascism as a tool for research and knowledge, the answer can only be affirmative. On the contrary: a serious museum, or even better a documentation center on the history of fascism (or both) that avoids opening loopholes of any kind, would be an extremely useful tool to begin to correct some of the points that, in these hours, lead many to question its appropriateness. And we would also be ready to set it up, since there is certainly no shortage of figures (historians, art historians, architectural historians, architects, urban planners, technology and communication experts) who could bring to life a scientifically based museum on fascism. It is, of course, taken for granted that a possible museum on fascism cannot do without instruments and organs (relating to scientific design, apparatuses, governance) capable of making it a well-grounded and rigorous operation, and it is likewise taken for granted that, as in the case of German centers such an institution should be born from a shared project and a long-term path capable of questioning at length also the very slant to be given to the place (a museum on the entire history of fascism could be a project far too broad, and therefore liable to become dispersive).

Of course, we are not talking about a museum that will arise from a very naïve proposal of three city councilors, launched out of the blue a handful of days before an August session of the Capitoline Assembly. We are talking about a project that, in the meantime, should have a national scope (and for which, moreover, Rome may not even be the appropriate venue, since fascism was born and died in Milan), that should have a governance capable of sheltering the institute from any instrumental use (the museum could thus have some form of endorsement or presence of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage), that would arise from a serious and lasting public debate (so not like the one that has arisen around the proposal of the grillini councilors, with laughable arguments on both sides, and which is destined to last the space of a few hours), and that should be inscribed in the furrow of a broad strategy that does not stray from certain fixed points: constant dialogue with other institutes spread throughout the territory that have the objective of documenting the history of Italy from the wartime and interwar period, dialogue with international institutes, the possibility of doing continuous research, sufficient organic endowments that allow the museum to operate efficiently.

The first real challenge will be public discussion of the project. And here it will be up to the media to set up the debate in a serious way, without giving way to the unseemly theatrics we have too often witnessed in recent times on issues concerning the history of that period, and to prevent such an institute from becoming a reason for political confrontation. To engage in such a discussion requires maturity and will (and, although it may not seem so to many, neither would be lacking): otherwise the ravages of misinformation will crush everything even before it starts. It will then be necessary for the forming institute to clarify from the outset its purpose and the manner in which it intends to operate. If everything will start from these foundations, any danger will automatically be unhinged and we will finally be able to start thinking about issues that could help us to come to, albeit belatedly, those so-called “reckoning with our past” that we have been putting off for too long.

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