Interview with Carlo Simoni
Carlo Simoni (born 1949 in Brescia, Italy) is the author of many essays on contemporary society, economics and work culture in northern Italy. From 1992 to 2008 he directed the publisher Grafo in Brescia. Along with his research activity, he devoted himself to the conception of Material Culture museums as well as to the recovering of dismissed historical industrial areas. In the last years, he has written and published novels and stories.
He has recently opened a website dedicated to literature and writing (www.secondorizzonte.it)
FL: Since long ago, you have been studying and disseminating the heritage of workplaces. Not simply as a researcher or as a historian but also as a curator and museum planner. In such a sense, how could you define yourself?
CS: Perhaps a historian who has always felt the coldness, maybe the pointlessness, of a history “out of place”, which means that forgets the concrete places where the events it studies took place. Therefore, the history of manual labor, as well as the cultural and political expressions of the working class, since the 1970s have led me to deal with Industrial Archaeology: workplaces, disused machinery, and former industrial buildings are not optional but fundamental findings to me, capable to provide my research with a sense. I worked, besides as a historian, also as a museum planner when the most relevant of such findings have become subjects of rehabilitation and exhibition. One one side, this induced me to reveal, not only in theory but in facts, that “fourth dimension” where the past permeates the present. On another side, such experience gave me the opportunity to compare my approach with the sensibility of the many “instinctive museum planners” I have been working with; a sensibility, the Latins called it pietas, made of a great care for objects and places once related to their work and everyday life; a vision in counter-tendency with the cultural marginalization of manual labor, the de-materialization of reality and the Consumerism.
FL: The most common issues that emerge when discussing small museums are short funding and a general difficulty to reach standards of quality of an international level: adopting regular opening times, providing multi-language information, organizing temporary exhibitions and special events, offering adequate services to visitors. What is your opinion about?
CS: Museum funding and running problems are likely to worsen, but the financial difficulties of the Public Sector add themselves to the common and enduring opinion that museums, especially if not related to relevant art collections, are a luxury that public administrations (with or without private contributions) can no longer afford and cultural institutions, once established, must financially self-sustain or even produce profits.
Unlike public libraries, the opinion that museums, and particularly the local ones, are providing a public service, besides the number of their visitors, is quite rare.
This does mean I underrate the actual problems of museums or the need for them to reach proper standards of quality and a sufficient number of visitors.
But at the same time, we must not underestimate either the function of local museums, especially the ethnological/anthropological and historical/industrial ones: they are an expression of their communities and preserve their collective memory, also through the efforts of their founders, volunteers, and animators.
It is, however, true that in minor urban centers the creation of a museum frequently arises from a spirit of emulation, sometimes due to a localist approach, but I don’t think we must stigmatize such initiatives but rather redirect them toward solutions adequate to their real ambitions and their consequent management requirements.
I have once advanced the proposal to create, rather than new ethnological and anthropological museums, the “case delle cose”, organized depots aimed at the conservation and restoration of objects, also finalized to become museum planning learning facilities as well as aimed to promote and enhance local heritages.
FL: Looking at the museum you worked at, it is evident your attention to create a “narration”, that you achieve through texts, documents, and physical objects, either small findings or an entire building. In your introduction to a seminar on Material Culture you said: “when designing an exhibition, one should never forget that exposing an object does not to automatically make it communicative”. Can you further explain this concept?
CS: Considering that museums of material culture and their collections (as well as the restoration of the building containing such collections, which is sometimes the most important exhibit) usually born together, we must also take into consideration that most of the objects we expose have once lost their functionality, during their obsolescence process, and then, when collected for conservation purposes, have been pulled off their original context. We could say they were still speaking with a feeble voice so that only a few had been able to hear it, but, when placed in an alien ambient to let them speak again, paradoxically this made them definitively speechless.
Collectors often think that the objects they gathered have an inner, evocative power capable to automatically generate the visitors’ involvement. It is not so, because the same reasons that created their obsolescence also cause a gap between different generations, a collective amnesia which makes such objects now indecipherable.
Since museums of material culture are primarily addressed to schools, therefore to very young visitors, we must be conscious that findings must be regarded as museum exhibits, so needing to be fitted in a new contest: the exhibition design is the means for such re-contextualization and narration building up. The realization of a story-telling exhibition also requires areas where the narration expands, changes its pace and offers different logical paths, this could be done in many ways, for example by using multimedia installations or by using a single object so to make it a symbolic one.
FL: In the complex process of creating a museum, you worked with architects and other technical figures. What kind of relationship did you establish with them? Did you clash with ideas very different from yours?
CS: Firstly, I had to cope with all those “instinctive museum planners” I was talking about before: not only to persuade them to get rid of the prejudice that “objects speaks for themselves”, but also to reject without too many regrets the wish to put on display everything they had once collected as well as, in some case, the will to massively adopt multimedia technologies, often considered sufficient to make a museum attractive. What in my opinion is stimulating in such relationships is that the questions issues those persons arise are, in my opinion, fundamental for every exhibition. For what have we to opt for? A narrative or a collection-oriented approach? A museum full, displaying the largest possible amount of objects, or a pretty empty one instead, displaying only a few objects so to make them iconic? Furthermore, a silent, taciturn museum (which doesn’t mean deprived of sounds but rather which provides a more subtle level of stimulation if compared with the “outer world”) or a museum where communication arises to a primary and pervading role?
For what concerns my relationship with architects and technicians: it has always been substantially a positive one, often leading to a redefinition of the exhibition set-up. Architects have been often able to translate the narration into a spatial articulation as well as to find the exhibition techniques suitable to precisely evoke an idea. In such a process also technicians can provide an important contribution by often asking architects practical questions that help to transform a preliminary design in an effective project.
FL: If you should recommend to our readers one museum you worked at, which you would choose and why?
CS: I can suggest two examples, one because the museum has been housed in a significant historical building and another because it has been located in an anonymous modern construction (I don’t have an experience of museums housed in a building designed on purpose).
For the first example, I think that the Museo del Forno in the Trompia Valley, housed in a disused iron foundry, is an exemplary case: mainly because of its careful and attentive exhibition layout, effective because very respectful of the place, somehow exceptional, where it has been located.
Another case is the Museo del Parco dell’Alto Garda Bresciano in Tignale, where a building of no quality has been “bent” to the museum needs and various approaches have been adopted so to conform the exhibition to a quite complex narration.
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