Heritage, the network, the general public

Full text of the talk 'Heritage, the Network, the General Public,' given by Federico Giannini in Rome on May 6 as part of 'Emergenza Cultura.

For those who were not present in Rome last weekend, we publish below the video and full text of our Federico Giannini’s speech (titled “Heritage, the Net, the General Public”) as part of the conference held in Rome on May 6 for the “Emergenza Cultura” event. To stay on schedule, our Federico had to offer a slightly shortened version of the speech. So good viewing and good reading! On the Altra News Youtube channel you can also see videos of all the speeches from both the conference and the event.

I would like to start this intervention of mine with a little game. Let’s pretend that we have a time machine at our disposal, the kind we have surely seen in some movie or comic book. Let’s program it to go back a few years: lo and behold, we need only go back to 1974, exactly thirty-two years ago. So let us begin to take a tour: we find ourselves in an Italy ruled by the Christian Democrats, in an Italy dominated by an oppressive bureaucracy, in an Italy that is prey to building and environmental speculation, in an Italy in which the issue of heritage protection is of interest only to a small group of people connected to the universities and to what we might call the cultural elites. Someone may rightly observe that, having come this far, there is little difference between the Italy of 1974 and that of 2016: however, it is necessary to point out that in that 1974 there was someone who thought of expressing his or her positions in a strong way on the issues we are discussing today, and at that time it was a novelty, because sensitivity to these issues, after all, has progressed in recent years, fortunately. That someone was a great archaeologist, Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, who in 1974 published a collection of writings on issues such as protection, the management of heritage by institutions, and popularization. The book, moreover of great topicality, was titled AA.BB.AA. and B.C., Historical and Artistic Italy at the Bar. It was clearly an ironic title, to emphasize the excess of bureaucracy in which the protection system was already entangled at that time: BC obviously stands for Beni Culturali, while AA.BB.AA. stands for AntichitÓ e Belle Arti. At that time, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage did not yet exist, which would not be established until the following year: the protection of heritage was therefore delegated to a General Directorate of Antiquities and Fine Arts that depended on the Ministry of Education.

On the subject of popularization, we read a really significant sentence in the book, which I quote. Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli says: In the transition of civilization that has begun in the world today, the work of popularization that brings culture out of the narrow elite to which it still belongs, and makes its deepest substance, its most concrete values accessible to the widest possible public, is therefore, in my opinion, of decisive importance. Here, it is interesting to start with Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli precisely because he was one of the first scholars to be interested in relations with the general public and to think that knowledge of art history is a way to develop memory and critical thinking. This great scholar saw popularization as a point of arrival to which to strive, to use his own expression, because all the public must be put in a position to be familiar with art history, archaeology and, in general, the humanities: after all, they constitute the fabric on which the values of our civilization have been built through the centuries. And it is really interesting to note how, according to Bianchi Bandinelli, culture at that time was still jealously guarded by a narrow elite, incapable of dialoguing with the public and probably not even willing to do so. This distance between scholars and the public has not yet been bridged, because even today there is still a certain incommunicability between the insiders on the one hand, that is, those who deal with works of art, because they study them, analyze them, catalog them, and in any case ensure that the memory of the works of the past, but also of those of the present, can be preserved in the future, and those on the other hand, who enjoy the heritage by going to visit a museum, an exhibition, a church, a historic building, a contemporary art collection.

Incommunicability, however, does not mean incompatibility: dissemination is precisely what is needed to make the world of scholars compatible with that of the general public. Disclosure basically has a bridging function, which is not infrequently carried out by many scholars who decide to get directly involved and meet the public, and many times by figures who have a solid scientific background on the subject matter to be disclosed, but also have the ability to understand the needs of the public. Let us focus precisely on the audience: too often we make the mistake of assuming that the audience is composed of villans, totally unversed in art and art history, who must either be astonished with special effects, or, turning our gaze to the opposite side of the fence, who must be indoctrinated. No, the audience for art history is made up of people who want to be enabled to enjoy works of art in the best possible way, who seek information in popularization that they would not otherwise be able to find, who want this information to be provided to them through forms that may be palatable, and who often want to have their say. I believe that the era of unidirectional disclosure is over: the public demands to be firsthand participants, and it is not certain that they cannot bring a stimulating and interesting contribution to the discloser or scholar as well. I can assure you that even the seemingly least sophisticated or most na´ve question coming from even the most art history novice can give rise to interesting opportunities for insight and discussion: for this reason, the public always deserves the deepest respect.

I was saying, therefore, that in my opinion the era of unidirectional popularization is over. In this regard, what Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli perhaps could not have foreseen was the role that the internet, the network, would play. Scholars should not make the mistake of underestimating the role of the Internet as a powerful medium of dissemination, even though I note with pleasure that the number of those insiders who still harbor skepticism about the Web is shrinking more and more: I have been confronted in the past with professors who were even proud of their ignorance about new technologies, and I imagine it will have happened to many people in the audience as well. Fortunately, we have almost reached the time when this attitude has been derubricated to a pleasant memory of the past: there remains some minor resistance from those who insist on considering the contribution that the web can provide to knowledge in the humanities as secondary, but most seem to have realized that the tools that the internet makes available to us add features that other media either do not have, or have in a very limited way. Just think of the possibility of combining, within the same project, a differentiated set of modes of content transmission: text, hyperlinks, images, infographics, audio, video, three-dimensional reconstructions. And let’s think about the fact that the audience is not forced to enjoy this content sequentially, but can stop reading, viewing or listening, go back if they didn’t quite understand something, save the information for later, perhaps more convenient enjoyment. And of course we think about the fact that by now every outreach project that wants to be truly up to date offers the audience the opportunity to interact with those who curate the content.

The problem is that, if we think about these issues, our country unfortunately suffers from a heavy cultural lag, and it did no good to remember, a few days ago, that our country was the fourth in Europe to connect to the Internet: from 1986 to the present they have surpassed us practically all. Just think of the role that every museum, every library, every archive can play in popularization, presenting works from its own collection, or artists, writers, historical figures linked to its territory. Let’s think about the fact that with the network the museum can in part mend precisely that relationship with the territory that the Franceschini reform is recklessly severing: and let’s think that this relationship with the territory can benefit from the contribution of citizens, who can be called upon in the first person to participate in the life of a museum, if only to make suggestions to make it more welcoming, more suited to their needs, or even to ask for insights into a local artist. Because it is by no means true that the public is interested exclusively in the usual familiar names: Caravaggio, the Impressionists, Frida Kahlo, and so on and so forth. Since I come from a city that lies on the border between Tuscany and Liguria, I can give you an example close to me, that of Rolli Days in Genoa, that is, the periodic openings of the Palazzi dei Rolli in Genoa, the sumptuous mansions of the Genoese patriciate of the Republic: there are thousands of people, mostly citizens of Genoa or neighboring municipalities, who flock to the halls not to see Caravaggio, the Impressionists or Frida Kahlo-although Genoa is home to, among other things, one of Caravaggio’s most interesting works and not everyone knows it-but to learn more about Lorenzo De Ferrari, Domenico Fiasella, Valerio Castello, artists who, in short, are not very well known but who have brought prestige to the city and to whom citizens feel intimately connected. And the public obviously wants to know their works, their stories. So it’s about re-establishing a bond, about igniting in the public a passion for art, also and perhaps especially for the art of their city, their community. There is still so much work to be done, however, if we think about the fact that Istat tells us that only 27.9 percent of Italians set foot inside a museum last year: there is therefore a substantial disconnect between citizens and art. The example of Genoa makes us understand how it is possible to succeed in bridging this gap, and that in order to succeed in the goal, the help of the network is also needed.

Unfortunately, the state in this sense is not giving any direction, with the result that institutions, especially the small ones, make do as best they can: I could give examples of directors and former directors of museums who in the evening, after work, reinvent themselves as social media managers to answer questions from the public on Facebook or Twitter, or who dress the role of popularizers to tell, on blogs and websites, stories related to paintings and sculptures from their own collection. But while there are these dare I say romantic figures of exceptional professionals who devote their days to the museum, even when they would not be required to do so, we instead have situations of which we should be deeply ashamed: we wonder, therefore, what was the point of appointing new museum directors if the three main Florentine museums, the Uffizi, Accademia and Bargello, on the web present themselves with a site that has been under construction even since January, providing thousands of visitors with a dreary blank page, in only one language, Italian, containing only some basic information about visiting hours and tickets. And let’s remember that on the Web five months is a huge amount of time. We wonder what is the point of the government’s proclamations about the desire for change if the management of interaction with the public is more often than not left to workers who by trade deal with other matters and have to improvise as communicators because communication with the public has never been a government priority. We wonder what is the point of having a minister Franceschini who declares that the reform also intends to catch up with museums on web-based communication if there are no adequate training plans on how to disseminate and how to communicate with the public.

I believe that much of the problems arise because there is little consideration for the public. What we should all do, with great humility, is to ask why cultural heritage is important to the public, and what value heritage has for them. From confrontation with the public we can all benefit: it is an opportunity for enrichment, fostered, I reiterate, by the network, that we cannot afford to miss. I conclude by returning to my starting point: Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli was convinced that exclusion from culture was an injustice equal to economic and social inequality. I believe that nowadays inclusion also means listening to the general public, understanding its needs, and making it part of the changes. We need to demonstrate openness, clarity, accountability, and we need to be able to dialogue with the public with all the means at our disposal.If we can achieve this, we will have taken further steps toward a culture that can truly belong to everyone. Thank you.

Federico Giannini, Il patrimonio, la rete, il grande pubblico