by Vittorio Zappa – PPE student at the University of York
OCTOBER 28, 2020
Well, we hoped to be irreverent…
Director Eike Schmidt has been managing since the year 2015 one of the most important museums in the world; the Uffizi Gallery, of which Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens are part. Rome has renewed his mandate as the Uffizi‘s director and he now finds himself to faces one of the biggest challenges for the Museum – Covid19 which has brought a lost of revenue of the tune of 10 million euros.. The floretine Museum has decided to use the most modern social-media platforms – from facebook to the most up-to-date TikTok videos – to reconnect with its public in the midst of this Pandemic.
How has your personal experience at the Erasmus project shaped your career and what did it offer in term of art and cultural education?
It was one of the first years of Erasmus, 1991-1992, when I went to Bologna University. It was a great experience because it gave me the opportunity to get to know a different culture and a different approach to academic studies and teachings, but also because Bologna is and has always been an international and multicultural University. There were lots of exchanges on a personal basis and moreover not just between me coming from Germany and students from Italy, but there were also people coming from, at that time, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and so on. We participated to in the cultural life of Bologna from concerts to poetry readings. As an history of art student, an additional benefit was the opportunity to go and systematically see collections in Bologna, and in many other italian cities. It was certainly an extremely useful experience in shaping my knowledge in the field, and also in opening my mind to different academic conventions; to the fact that something has been done differently in different places. That is very important for Erasmus to know that problems are being solved differently in different places. And it is not always easy to tell which is the better way than the other, but you do lear different methods, additional methods, from your home institution or country. And that is certainly very important.
As a well-traveled European and having lived in multiple international cities in the course of your career, how have you managed the transitions and learned to integrate in different countries such as US, UK and Italy?
Well, It has always been a very precious experience. It has become one of my aims, to adapt from different cultures, to learn from other countries, and to contribute with what I have learned along the way to the all the challenges that each situation is needing.. I think it is very important in the first place not to be overwhelmed by differences and to be aware that you might encounter at the end of the world people who are as provincial as they might be in your home village/country. But on the other hand, you should cherish and be proud of what you bring along. For me at least, it has never been a challenge to adapt when I travel. Of course, to move is, by itself, getting more and more difficult as older I get . Not for any psychological reason but, but simply because my own collection of books is growing and growing, and so it is getting more time-consuming to pack and unpack them all in an other country..
What you should internalise very quickly is the various conventions and learn to switch between them in a short time. This requires a fair amount of concentration. For instance , the fact that in the US you should only in very formal situations shake hands or otherwise never touch the hosted person. This would make you look as a very weird person, while in many european countries you are expected to at least shake hands, hug or kiss. These conventions are very important in daily life. Or for instance, in England it is part of culture that on Friday night colleagues go out to the pub to have a drink together, but you would never invite a colleague for dinner and especially not at your home, whereas it is very very normal in most continental european countries or also in America.
How did the Kunsthistorisches Institut, which is international in its nature, prepare you for a life as a cosmopolitan art historian?
Well, the Kunsthistorisches Institut is one of the primary research institute in the field of art history in the world. It has, indeed, been a cosmopolitan and international foundation since its very beginning. In the first years it was founded in Florence by the Prussian state more than by other government actors, and now all is part of the Max Planck society, a german research confederation. It has always been international in its goals. In fact, oftentimes the director was not even german, but from different countries. […] Usually when you study or work in high academic institution, you are always reminded of the particular hierarchy within that country or academia. Yet studying and working in such an international contest really bring the necessity to have the best argument. So, nobody would agree with someone just because they were senior professors, researchers or extraordinary professor, but it comes down to the best argument. This is very healthy for students and people to interact in such environment. It usually happens in an academic national contest that many people would never disagree with someone who they might have in their exam commission, who might offer you your future job or should have. I gather that that brings out the true essence of what was the republic of letters imagined in the 18th century enlightenment; that arguments should be at grammar and not at persona . For what is my personal opinion, this is even truer in the humanistic sector, differently from the world of natural sciences where numbers dominate. In the humanities language plays a huge role. We look at how differently we talk and at how we manage to talk about our differences in different languages. So, talking about an art work with different languages and from different backgrounds often times brings you to a new perspective on the problem you are facing. Oftentimes this might open up new solutions that otherwise you might have never thought about. If you always speak with the same language, with the same people the risk to adopt a academic jargon is much higher. So these are all the vary valuable points of such an international-based institution.
Have contemporary nationalisms undermined the world of art and all its collaborations around the world?
In my opinion nationalism does not necessary need to be a negative element. So let me explain in two or three words. If you are conscious about you own culture, your upbringing or background, or for instance when you are aware of national and cultural differences, then it can oftentimes help you to get a better understanding of what your believes, and tastes are. So, I gather that is important to be aware of the fact that wherever you come from, whatever your background is, this is what inform and form your thinking and actions. This is valid on every level from religious and linguistic to artistic and cultural. There are many patters that we are determined by throughout our lives and we have to be conscious about them in order to free ourselves from stereotyping. Stereotyping others, but also oneself. So, overall the solution is not to simply denying any national tradition, any national history, or national culture, but it is to actually think what connects that and divides that. To be conscious about this is the real challenge.
Having benefited from multiple cultural and educative programmes for young people, what are your/the Uffizi’s contributions towards scholarships and education for young artist and young historians?
Actually the Uffizi offers opportunities for art historian and more. We have many disciplines involved in Uffizi from economists, archeologists, biologists, art historians of course. We do have also our social media manager, architects, and professions of all kind. Moreover, one of our main goal, and one of our main strategic objectives is research. In fact we actually publish from 5 to 6 thousand pages of new scholarships every year. That has been a mission of the uffizi since the 18th century, when the museum was transformed from a princely collection into an open and public institution. […] For instance, in 1970 exactly 50 years ago the educational department was added. With that the Uffizi and Brera were the two first museums in italy to have a formal education department.
The education department throughout Europe, not just Italy, has suffered a lot in recent years, but in many places including the Uffizi, it has got more important again, because people have understood how important education is and how important museums for education can be. Oftentimes resources need to be activated. And it is specially important in periods like ours, when we do not know wether schools will reopen or not in few weeks from now, to have museum to contribute to that function as well.
The recent Uffizi social media campaigns (from TikTok videos to Chiara Ferragni on Instagram) has been deemed irreverent by some international media. What are your comments about this?
Well, we hoped to be irreverent in a very neutral and descriptive sense of the word. Irreverence was partly the aim of our TikTok account. It was necessary because we are using different social media to reach different demographics.
We reach the elderly generations via facebook and young adults via instagram which is our strongest social media account with over 537 thousand […] where, because of our international media, we post everyday our world top collections and furthermore literature and poetry in two languages.
And for younger generations, younger folks we have a notably success on our TikTok. Socials are instruments which allow us to return to the original function of art. Art is not just there to be studied, to be admired and adored but art has historically always had also a very powerful function in social communication. Moreover I firmly believe in the importance of humour and self-irony. Of course, that is not our only media to interface with our community, and it has not been. In fact we have seen the results. After Chiara Ferragni visit to the uffizi, we have had 27 percent more youth under 25 in the Museum and that has been on going, it was not just for a few days but a long lasting result. Furthermore after we started our TikTok account, we have received letters by many parents and grandparents, thanking us to have involved their children and grandchildren to the world of art.
Is this era fulfilling Bejamin Walter’s prophecy?
Yes and not. So Bejamin Walter was thoroughly right when he said that photography, and we can add now social, have democratised art.[…] Yet his idea that the era of mechanical reproduction of art would reduce the importance of the orignal piece was wrong. We have seen the complete opposite happening. Apparently, when people know a work of art from the digital sphere, they search for the original and its aura even more. In fact, Bejamin Walter thought about it as a dialettical theory, and I think that we can re-interpret that in such a way. We can now say that social media have turned, made art democratised even further than what photography has already. However a dialetical contro-movement has happen and the era of the original has become even greater. This was totally unexpected, Walter Bejamin forsaw the opposite.
The Uffizi has reportedly lost revenue to a tune of ten million euros. How has this loss of income affected projects and exhibition planning at the Uffizi?
Yes, this year is not going to be great for the Uffizi or for any other museum because of the coronavirus pandemic, yet the outlook continues to be extremely positive because as soon as the pandemic will be under control, we do expect a far greater number of requests and visitors. This has happened before. When the museum was closed for a prolonged period such as WW2, the 1966 flood, or the 1990 three mafia bombing, the interest was even greater after being returned to normality. But this is also a big challenge and risk because uncontrolled growth has many times brought to several problems such as over-tourism. This is in my opinion the moment, as a museum, to act to explore ways for a different, alternatives forms of tourism. A more sustainable form of tourism, sponsoring longer and more relaxed visits and also with a more profound approach to our works of art. It is crucial to do it now because it will be diffucult to sort it our later and a rush to the museums will become a nightmare.
You have proposed that works of religious art be returned to their original places of worship, what are you suggestions on how to safeguard them if they are returned?
This refers to the many works of art that have been taken out from their original place for which they were made. The fist and most common intention was to return them to their original place just temporarily, and store them for the majority of the time in museums where they can be safely kept. Yet unfortunately in many instances even after many many decades they have not been returned, neither is that on the horizon. There are can be two reasons for that. The first is architectural. So for instance there can be a church with leaking ceilings and crack in the building and then it is just down to find the way to finance the restoration and the artworks can be returned. The second problems is security. There can be churches in very isolated towns and then the main problem is to secure the whole chapel or church. This might have been a problem in the 70s, yet now with all the technological development that has occurred it would be reasonably easy to instal proper surveillance for quite a reasonable cost. And it is getting incredibly easier with time passing and new technologies involved. So, what in the 70s or 80s did not exist, in the early 2000 would have had prohibited costs, now is in the reach for many. So, considering that there might have now many more religious buildings that could receive their original art works than before.