A new role for museums: A talk with Adele Maresca Compagna, president of the Italian National Committee of ICOM

"Tourists taking pictures of Mona Lisa painting in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France". Photo Marcin Rogozinski / Alamy Stock

The debate over the role of museums remains at the center of attention, following the controversial 2019 General Assembly of ICOM in Tokyo. Here, a group of countries proposed to rewrite the definition of the museum. Little did they know at the time that a pandemic would impact tourism severely and even force many museums to close on a global scale. As a result, Museums had to re-channel their energies into new ways of communicating that favored civic responsibility over tourism. We talked to Adele Maresca Compagna to find out what Italy’s stance is on this debate.


1. The mandatory closure of museums related to pandemic containment measures forced museums to channel their energies into finding new ways of communicating their social role and relevance to local communities and not only to tourist flows. What is your reading of the situation?

During the long period of pandemic-related closures, museums were forced to review their policies, reschedule their activities and offerings and to reorganize their work. In particular, not only did the lack of visitors create serious problems of economic sustainability and interrupt the beneficial knock-on effects on linked productive activities (from transport to tourism, from commerce to handicrafts), but it also undermined their very identity of museums as institutions, which has long been strongly oriented towards the public.

In this situation, professionals considered what functions might be fulfilled while museums were shut and what motivations might lead them to reopen while adhering to new safety measures. As was frequently observed, during the first lockdown multimedia tools and the internet were used to establish virtual contact and communication between museums and the public or to rediscover the value of the heritage found within the museums.

We are now preparing for a gradual reopening. In order to compensate for the lack of foreign tourism and the difficulties of organizing large-scale events, we are exploring targeted actions as a way to increase the attractiveness of museums and cultural and natural contexts and to help citizens rediscover the desire to visit these by taking advantage of the skills of various professionals and listening to their ideas and suggestions.


2. The debate surround the social role of museums, after all, has also been at the core of the lively discussion on the new definition of the museum first debated in Kyoto in 2019 at the ICOM Extraordinary General Assembly and which is still ongoing. Within ICOM, divergent positions have emerged precisely concerning the emphasis to be given to the museum’s civil and social commitment. How does Italy’s position, which you represent, fit into this debate? How do you think this dialectic concerning the role of the museum will develop?

Of course, the traditional functions of conservation and research are still essential. Nonetheless, in order to illustrate the need of museums to be supported by public resources and for them to build collaborations and partnerships with other institutions and businesses, the museum’s active role in the contemporary world must be clearly demonstrated.

This role of the museum in relation to individuals must be apparent and illustrate how it fosters knowledge, participation, enjoyment, and psycho-physical well-being. It must be evident how a museum stimulates critical thinking, creativity and an awareness of the past and of the political, environmental, and social issues of the present. Museums must demonstrate their role in relation to their local communities by helping these to overcome marginalization and cultural and social differences and by fostering the role of heritage as a force for economic and productive recovery.

These needs become more pressing in moment of crisis, but they have long been part of the international museological debate. They are, for example, integral to many international acts and directives, including the definition of ICOM itself (which in 1974 included the description “at the service of the community and its development”) and the 2015 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Protection and Promotion of Museums and Collections, their Diversity and Role in Society. These needs were highlighted more emphatically in the new definition proposed in Kyoto in September 2019 at the ICOM General Assembly. Beyond its formulation which, in our opinion, does not respond to a clear and concise description of the characteristics and functions of the museum as an institution, the proposal reflects a broadening of the visions, missions, and objectives of the contemporary museum and therefore embraces many of the suggestions of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development.


3. Is the “active role in the contemporary world” of which you speak a new aspect for Italian museums, or is this thinking already rooted in the national panorama? In your opinion, what are the obstacles facing this new vision and what do museums most need?

I believe an awareness of the museum as a place for the contemplation of beauty, for the acquisition of historical, artistic and scientific knowledge, for the instruction on active citizenship as well as a place for discussion and debate on contemporary issues (from climate change to social conflicts, from prejudice to inequality) is taking hold in the Italian museum community.

For some time now, many museums have felt the need to go beyond their own walls and assume new responsibilities towards their heritage and the communities they serve, resulting in efforts to attract and welcome a wider range of visitors. While the dialogue with other cultural institutions and with schools continues – albeit still in a discontinuous and episodic manner – there are interesting projects designed to include socially disadvantaged groups in public cultural life and to promote a dialogue and interaction with ethnic and cultural/linguistic minorities. Although these constitute more complex and delicate processes, they enable the gathering of divergent views and perspectives on exhibited works and the reflection on certain choices of display setup, interpretation and communication.

Of course, there are still many obstacles blocking the establishment of the social role of the museum and the possibility of its making a real impact on sustainable development.

Beyond many rhetorical and very general statements, which often lie beyond the potential reach of cultural institutions, governing bodies and many museum directors are not yet fully aware of the need for reflection on and the possible revision of the prevailing missions of individual museums. They therefore lack a clear vision of the objectives to be pursued and the funding to be dedicated to these.

There is also a dearth of adequate training for professionals, of whom there are always too few and who are largely engaged in the key functions related to the conservation and care of museum collections. Furthermore, teamwork is not commonplace, although this would allow staff members to draw on different skill sets, including those from outside the museum, thereby fostering the rare possibility of experimenting with new methods and new tools for cross-cutting activities that go beyond the disciplines and organizational areas of reference.

As a leader of this broad international vision, ICOM Italia seeks to support museum professionals in their search for appropriate methodologies and the activation of innovative processes for the pursuit of these goals.

Adele Maresca Compagna , president of ICOM Italia

Adele Maresca Compagna is president of the ICOM (International Council of Museums) and a member of the Ministerial Commission for the activation of the National Museum System. From 1982 to 2015, she coordinated research and surveys on museums at the MIBACT Studies Office, as well as publishing articles on the standards, professional positions and services required for the public.  A Neapolitan by birth, she loves the mountains and has regularly spent time in the Dolomites since she was a child.