Following a six year renovation and, more significantly, a pivotal redo, Italy’s Museum of Civilizations reopened its doors to the public on October 26. In recent years, many encyclopedic museums around the world began to anxiously tackle the ideologies and modes of presentation behind their ethnological collections—not to mention their often spotty provenance. Rome, which has been slow to confront its colonial past in the public discourse, is decolonizing the state-owned museum’s collection with remarkable clarity of vision, steered by Italian curator Andrea Viliani.
Having taken up the directorship of the Museum of Civilizations (known in Italian as the Museo Delle Civilta) only this past March, Viliani didn’t waste any time implementing a “progressive radical revision process” that will unfold over the next four years, as different collections in the museum’s holdings will gradually reopen to the public.
The encyclopedic collection counts over two million items and documents that came under one roof as the result of merging several state collections that have been closed to the public for years. It includes prehistoric artifacts, paleontology, and mineralogy collections, as well as items representing Italian folk traditions, ethnological collections, and the collection of the former Colonial Museum of Rome, which was inaugurated by Mussolini in 1923. The latter will most likely prove most challenging to study, as the Colonial Museum never used scientific methods of archiving and cataloguing, nor has it kept the biographies of the objects it had amassed.
Museum of Civilizations, Rome. Installation view. Photo: Giorgio Benni. Courtesy Museum of Civilizations
For Viliani, an erudite, soft-spoken force of nature, the most coherent way to present and contextualize the vast holdings was self-evident. “The museum should tell the stories of how human beings related to each other, sometimes respectfully, sometimes disrespectfully, violently, and in self-destructive ways for society and the planet. And to show that it happened everywhere, all throughout history,“ he told Artnet News. But there’s also another, parallel story. “The projects of encyclopedic and anthropological museums started in the 19th century, from a positivist, Eurocentric culture driven by ideas of dominance,” he added. “We need to tell these paradigms as well, in particular because it happened at the same time as the unification of Italy, as the new nation was born.”
Viliani is rethinking the museum within the specific context of Italian history, and the othering that helped to shape a nascent national identity. But one chapter of Italian history looms particularly large. The multi-part museum is located in Rome’s EUR district, a sprawling marble-and-concrete “model city” built by Mussolini to glorify the fascist project and house the 1942 World Fair, which never took place due to World War 2.
Back in March, when the team of researchers and curators got to work, no one could have known that the museum’s reopening would coincide with the beginning of another troubling chapter in Italian politics. It came as no surprise that Italy’s New Culture Minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, didn’t attend the grand opening.
But Massimo Osanna, who is director-general of all Italian museums, working within the ministry of culture since 2020, was beaming at the press preview. Asked how the new government (which is not the one that appointed him) might respond to the museum’s progressive overhaul, he replied that “it‘s important to include different points of view in every museum because culture is not monolithic. Culture is fluid, it’s a process of hybridization,” he told Artnet News. “It’s wrong to think there is one true point of view.”
The Role of Contemporary Art in Showing Multiplicity
Osanna stressed the importance of contemporary art in shaping the museum’s approach, and illuminating the many narratives connecting past and present. To that end, curator Matteo Lucchetti joined the museum‘s team as head of contemporary art and programs after nearly a decade abroad working with artists such as Sammy Baloji and Otobong Nkanga, who deal in their art with colonial legacies and extractive industries.
Lucchetti invited six artists to act as research fellows and develop longterm, autonomous projects around the museum’s archive and collections, in addition to the scientific and provenance research that’s taking place. “As long as the museum is changing, these changes will be accompanied by contemporary interventions.” said Lucchetti. Rather than highlighting contemporary work commissions, which could appear as if the institution attempted to “artwash” its collection, Lucchetti is taking a nonhierarchical approach where old and new are integral to the museum’s identity. “It’s a site-specific contemporary collection which is a byproduct of the role of contemporary art in the research,” he told Artnet News.
Among the fellows are Maria Thereza Alves, Sammy Baloji, DAAR-Decolonizing Architecture-Art Research (Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti), Bruna Esposito, Karrabing Film and Art Collective, and Gala Porras-Kim. Works giving insights into their practice and approach to the collection were installed in the building’s massive, marble-covered entrance. There, the curator also included photographs and pieces that refer to the museum’s architecture and location in the district of EUR. A work by Peter Friedel titled Tripoli (2015), shows a model of the Fiat factory that was meant to be built in Tripoli, Libya, under Italian colonial rule in the early 20th century, part of his research that looks at the connections between modernity, fascism, and colonialism.
Museum of Civilizations, Rome. Installation view Photo: Giorgio Benni. Courtesy Museum of Civilizations
What Came Before History?
Upstairs, visitors can view the prehistoric collection, which is the first to have been rehung and recontextualized. (Next up is the geological collection, set to open in mid-December under the title “Animals, Plants, Rocks and Minerals—Steps to a Multispecies Museum.”) Even the very use of the term “prehistoric” was put into question: Why do we mark the beginning of history with the first records of written language? Aren’t the traditions, artifacts, and rituals whose material evidence is stored here deserving of a non-prefixed term?
With more than 150,000 artifacts, the Museum of Civilizations preserves Italy’s largest collection of findings from archaeological sites dating from the Stone Age to the earliest forms of writing. The new display exhibits items that haven’t been accessible to the public before, such as the Guattari 1 Neanderthal skull found in Circeo; the three fertility “Venuses” found in Italy’s Savignano, Lake Trasimeno, and La Marmotta sites; and the gold Praeneste fibula bearing one of the oldest examples of Latin writing, which brings the tour to a close.
Museum of Civilizations, Rome. Installation view Photo: Giorgio Benni. Courtesy Museum of Civilizations
Here, Lucchetti invited the indigenous group Karrabing Film Collective’s Italian member Elizabeth A. Povinelli, a trained anthropologist, to add contemporary thinkers and texts to the displays. A quote by scholar Kathryn Yusoff for example reframes the anthropocene (a geological epoch that begins with humanity’s impact on Earth ecosystems) as “a politically infused geology and scientific / popular discourse just now noticing the extinction it has chosen to continually overlook in the making of its modernity and freedom.”
Elsewhere, visitors are offered more visual experiences of the same criticality. Lebanese artist Ali Cherri’s video work The Digger (2014) is installed within the prehistoric presentation. It shows an archeological excavation in the Emirates, and the person doing the digging is a worker from Pakistan. It speaks to one of Lucchetti’s aims with the rehang, which he said is to “to stress” that “behind the creation of a historical collection there was a declaration of a national identity through othering.”
In a surprise volte face, the Dutch Restitutions Commission has reversed a recent ruling regarding one of Kandinsky’s most important works, deciding instead that the work should be returned to the heirs of the Jewish collector who owned it before the Second World War.
The commission, a national panel which assesses claims linked to Nazi-looted art, agreed that View of Murnau with Church (1910) should be handed over to the family of Johanna Margarethe Stern-Lippmann, a Jewish collector who died at Auschwitz in 1944 and owned the painting prior to the war.
The large-scale painting has been in the possession of the Dutch city of Eindhoven since 1951, and housed at the local art museum, the Van Abbemuseum. The museum acquired it from the Jewish dealer Karl Legat, who worked with Myrtil Frank, the husband of the Jewish photographer Meta Ehrlich. Both dealers collaborated with the Mühlmann Agency, which functioned as a clearing house for art expropriated in German-occupied Holland (their families were subsequently protected from deportation).
The group of 12 heirs fought for years to reclaim the Kandinsky painting and finally succeeded after an appeal on a previous ruling that the Restitutions Commission issued in January 2018. The Dutch committee initially rejected the claim on the grounds that “insufficient facts and circumstances have been established on the grounds of which it can be deduced with the required degree of plausibility that the work ceased to be in the possession of Stern-Lippmann during the Nazi regime”.
The heirs disagreed and subsequently filed a civil lawsuit against Eindhoven’s City Council, requesting a reassessment of the case in light of new evidence. The restitutions committee did not initially agree to reconsider the case, stating that the heirs’ appeal “was inadmissible on the grounds of the committee’s regulations applicable at the time because it concerned a dispute in regard to which the applicants had instituted legal proceedings before a court”.
However, Eindhoven City Council agreed to reconsider the dispute, prompting the committee to reopen the case. A key finding proved to be a postcard dated 1966 in which the wife of Myrtil Frank called the disputed painting “our Kandinsky”; this convinced the committee, which stated that “it is highly plausible that the work by Kandinsky comes from the collection of Margarethe Stern-Lippmann and that it is sufficiently plausible that she lost possession of the work involuntarily as a result of circumstances directly related to the Nazi regime”.
The committee also confirmed that Eindhoven City Council “waives the right to invoke good faith in regard to the provenance of the work when purchasing it”.
Numerous Jewish families fled to the Netherlands in an attempt to escape Nazi Germany, but from 1940, under German occupation, many works were abandoned, confiscated, or sold under duress in the country. Crucially in April 2021, after the recommendations of the Kohnstamm Committee, which was set up to investigate and evaluate the Dutch restitution policy, the Dutch government adopted a new assessment framework for restitution claims.
The Kohnstamm report examines the drawbacks of the “balancing interests” method, stresses the importance of conducting systematic provenance research in the Dutch state collections and proposes that the government “should ‘under certain circumstances’ refrain from invoking an acquisition in good faith”.
The restitution of View of Murnau with Church is the latest of a series of rulings in the Netherlands in favour of Jewish families seeking to reclaim possession. In 2018, the Commission ruled that Kandinsky’s Painting with Houses (1909) should remain in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam due to its “significant place” in the museum collection since 1940. After a protracted legal fight, the work was returned to the family of the original owner, the collector Irma Klein, in March 2022.
Insta’ gratification is a monthly blog by Aimee Dawson, our acting digital editor. Looking at how the art world and social media collide, each article tackles a topic around the innovations and challenges that spring up when art enters the digital world.
More than a million users have left the social media giant Twitter since Elon Musk took over on 28 October. "The bird is freed,"tweetedthe business magnate who has long-accused the platform of heavy handed censorship. People are now leaving the platform fearing an outpouring of unpoliced offensive content. Meanwhile, fans of Instagram have been complaining for months about changes to the social media network, claiming it isbecoming too much like TikTok,with a focus on video that doesn't appeal to all users (read: Millennial and older). And then there's Facebook...
So what are the alternatives? Here are eight new and lesser-known social media platforms to try.
What is it?The main platform that ex-Tweeters are flying off to. It is a decentralised network meaning it is not owned by one person or firm but is held on multiple international servers
Users:More than 650,000 (and growing rapidly—200,000 joined within the last week)
Pros:It can't be co-opted in the same way as Twitter but it functions very similarly
Cons:The decentralised aspect of it can be confusing for first-time users
What is it?A platform aimed at creating meaningful connections and a culture that supports creators
Users:Around five million
Pros:It is free of ads, algorithms and data mining
Cons:It might be free now but soon it will introduce a subscription model
What is it?A chat and “hang out” platform that is particularly popular with gamers, developers and the crypto community
Users:Around 150 million
Pros:It is free and easy to connect with users with similar interests to create active communities and is also decentralised, like Mastodon
Cons:It has a rough-and-ready developer aesthetic that some users may find difficult to navigate
What is it?A content subscription service
Users:Around 120 million
Pros:Creators can actively make money from their work and it is free of censorship
Cons:The site is better known for its pornography content than its art
What is it?A creative space for women and LGBTQIA+ creators and their fans
Pros:It sidesteps censorship and aims to create an online space for marginalised communities
Cons:Like OnlyFans, it is more associated with sex work than art
What is it?A photo app that invites users to take “real” photos at specific moments each day
Users:Around 23 million
Pros:It encourages an unfiltered, imperfect aesthetic that is refreshing
Cons:The photo format, which captures an image using both the front and back cameras on your phone, is restrictive
What is it?A photo sharing platform
Pros:If you’re nostalgic for the good old Instagram days, this is the app for you
Cons:It’s not yet available for Android and you have to pay to use it
What is it?A photo and video editing app that also has a community sharing function
Pros:Like Glass, it has no ads or algorithms, just photos. Plus it has a sleek design and user experience
Cons:Some features are subscriber-only and it doesn’t publicly display details such as follower count, likes or comments