The "Italians first" effect: what does it mean for Italian museums?
The ministry of culture threatens to pull out of previous loan agreements with France and leaves foreign directors wondering whether they might lose their jobs.
The “Italians first” approach of the nationalist government was bound to have an impact on the world of culture: the Minister of Culture Alberto Bonisoli has recently expressed the desire to see nationals back in charge of Italy’s top museums, stating that the country has enough home-grown talent to manage its cultural institutions.
Italian museums are managed by the Ministry of Culture, and all the most prestigious positions have been traditionally assigned to Italian professionals. However back in 2015, the Renzi government decided to organize the first international recruitment drive in the attempt to diversify the museum workforce. As a result, seven non-Italian directors had been appointed in order to breathe new life into Italy’s often too stuffy and underperforming museums. This led some major institutions such as the Uffizi Gallery and Pinacoteca di Brera to be managed by foreigners for the first time in Italian history.
One can see why this move would stick in someone’s craw, particularly in the current political climate. But why would the culture minister even consider dismissing these new directors when evidence suggests they seem to be doing a great job? It's not so unusual to see foreign directors leading prominent museums across Europe: only in London, German Hartwig Fischer successfully directs the British Museum and Italian Gabriele Finaldi the National Gallery. In our globalized world, the idea that having a few foreign museum directors is somehow "a slap in the face" for the country, like art critic Vittorio Sgarbi put it, is utterly preposterous; and yet this kind of rhetoric is welcomed by quite an audience.
In the same spirit, it seems that Italy’s culture ministry could be backtracking on important loans planned for the Louvre’s blockbuster exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci in occasion of the 500th anniversary of his death. The reason? According to the undersecretary to the culture minister, Lucia Bergonzoni, fulfilling the request — which involves an unprecedented number of Leonardo’s paintings, drawings and sculptures — would exclude Italy from a major cultural event. “Leonardo is Italian; he only died in France”, Bergonzoni pointed out. Fair point, one might think, Leonardo was indeed Italian, and I would agree that Italy should definitely be at the core of this event. I for one would like to know why the the ministry agreed to loaning so many of Leonardo’s works in the first place. Different leaders, different strategy - the deal was made under Gentiloni’s government after all. With this in mind, I wonder: is any Italian institution actually planning on exhibiting these works and celebrate this important anniversary? Or is this just another populist move to show Italians that they are indeed first on the government's agenda (even though they're not) whilst further damaging the already strained relationship with France?
I have always found it irritating how many of my compatriots take their immense cultural heritage for granted. Could it be because we have too much? I remember when the British Museum opened the Life and Death in Pompeii and Hercolaneum exhibition in 2013; it was a huge success, the third most popular exhibition in the Museum’s history. And many of us thought: ‘Why can’t we do this ourselves?’. Of course it is more complicated than that, and one could argue an exhibition about Pompeii in Italy wouldn't have been as successful; but I do believe - and I know I’m in good company - that Italy has been historically unable to really make the most of its enormous cultural heritage, and this isn't because we don't have the knowledge to do it, it is because our museum practises are outdated and ineffective.
Personally I don't think that culture naturally lends itself to a nationalist agenda. Quite the opposite, it is a tool for building bridges and connections with other cultures. The overall feeling is that behind all this nationalistic propaganda there is nothing but fear and incompetence: Bonisoli is threatening to fire our ‘foreign’ museum directors and pulling out of international loan agreements out of spite. As an Italian and an art lover, I wonder if there is something more useful he could focus on, something that might actually strengthen our cultural institutions (it's his job after all) and put them at the center of the global stage, which is where they belong.