New SNSF project at the Academy of Architecture

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A new Research Project titled Visibility Reclaimed. Experiencing Rome’s First Public Museums (1733-1870). An Analysis of Public Audiences in a Transnational Perspective [100016_212922]. Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Project is directed by Carla Mazzarelli, full professor at the Institute of History and Theory of Art and Architecture (ISA) at the USI Academy of Architecture. It relies on the collaboration of a research team that includes both internal ISA project partners (Christoph Frank and Daniela Mondini) and important international museum institutions and universities, such as Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid (David Garcia Cueto), Durham University (Stefano Cracolici), Universitą Roma Tre (Giovanna Capitelli), and Universitą degli Studi La Sapienza (Chiara Piva).

This is USI’s first research project in the field of Museology and Museography studies and aims to promote its role in the history and theory of architecture and art at the Academy and USI.

As Carla Mazzarelli, project leader, explains, "the research builds on three initial questions: how was the public museum defined and perceived in its early days, in the sense of an architectural space being defined, but also as a place of encounter and shared experience? Which and how many audiences were accessing the early public museums? How many and which audiences were excluded?"

The research questions place the "embodied encounter" at the centre of historical and critical reflection on the museum, which invites us to go beyond the visual dimension that exhibition space assumes and to probe its characteristics and outcomes in light of the material experience of museum space and collectorship. Indeed, the museum as it is "open" to the public necessarily requires a progressive system of disciplining the public itself: distancing devices, prohibitions, and compulsory visiting routes will decisively influence architectural and art display and exhibition models throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, up to the contemporary age.  

Starting from the assumption that the dialogue between museums and the public began in Rome with the founding of the Capitoline Museum in 1733 and continued with the renovation and expansion of museums in the Napoleonic era and during the nineteenth century, the research aims to study the evolution of Rome’s first public museums in relation to the different geographical origins and categories (social, cultural, gender) of the international and cosmopolitan public that accessed them. Therefore, Rome should also be understood as a laboratory for establishing the long dialogue (not without conflict) between cultural institutions, museums and the public during the modern age.

The project puts a body of primary sources at the centre of the research, primarily unpublished, including requests and permits for access to museums, requests to copy, study or survey ancient monuments, and visitors’ books.

Comparisons with critical methodologies that have emphasised the importance of mobility over "national" paradigms and provided the dynamic artistic geography of Rome in the 18th and 19th centuries underpin the project’s reflections and lend themselves to a transnational and comparative perspective with other geographies. 

Professor Carla Mazzarelli explains that "the project has matured within the framework of collaborations already active in the ISA and has an interdisciplinary vocation that includes not only the history of architecture and art but also the history of cultural institutions, social sciences, the history of literature, anthropology and material culture, and the history of economics and cultural consumption."

This vocation is reflected in Carla Mazzarelli’s well-established collaboration with the Institute of Italian Studies (Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society) and in the makeup of the research team, which will also draw on the expertise of an international Advisory Board that includes some of the top specialists in Europe and the United States in the field of museum history and theory.

As also a professor of Museology and Museography at the Academy, Carla Mazzarelli emphasises that "The placement of the research project within a Faculty of Architecture such as the USI Academy will allow placing the historical-critical reflections of the research in constant dialogue with the role of the Museum today, in the region and beyond, with the theoretical debate and its design in relation to contemporary publics and society and issues at the centre of contemporary debate such as accessibility, inclusiveness and sustainability. By surveying its historical, theoretical and cultural assumptions, the research thus also aims to contribute to the discussion on the prospects, in the digital and (post)pandemic era, of a rediscovery of the material experience of museum space."