Interview with René Capovin

EMA continues interviewing experts in their field. For our current issue we have been speaking to René Capovin who is the director of the musil – museum of industry and labor in Brescia, member of EMA and the creator of Museums in Short.

Director of the musil – museum of industry and labor in Brescia, member of EMA and the creator of Museums in Short

Your master’s degree is in Museology and your PhD is in philosophy. Do you think your educational background has affected professional choices as an instructor and a museum director?

The impact of my studies in social sciences and philosophy on my work at the museum has been limited, in any case smaller than I expected. I felt a radical discontinuity between my academic background and what working in a museum involves.
On the contrary, but for the same reason, the master in museology curated by Massimo Negri played a crucial role for me: few books and a lot of visits, stories and dialogues with professionals. A very practical attitude, which I consider the best way to approach museums.
Something more about intellectual field and museums. Museums resist the application of general frames: they are a hybrid cultural form – in part cultural, in part social, in part political, in part economical. This mix can vary in a very high degree, so every general praise (or, more commonly, attack) focuses on single faces or a specific type of museums (typically art museums). Moreover, the most common critics (museums as «symbol of conservatism» or «space of exclusion») already became food for the debate of museum professionals. So, when philosophers talk about museums, they tend to run in circles.
More recently, museums became objects of a much more technical approach: you can find complex aesthetic of phenomenological analysis dedicated to exhibitions or single exhibits (see for example: V. Harrison, A. Bergqvist, G. Kemp, eds., Philosophy and Museums: Essays on the Philosophy of Museums, Cambridge University Press, 2016). It is a matter of fact that a dialogue between philosophy (in this more academic sense) and museology exist, there is a growing literature of this kind. Reading some of these articles, I concluded that they could be more interesting for architects and exhibition designers than for museum professionals. But the same is true for educational theory: you can spend time in comparing theories and empirical studies, but in the end what you, as professional, are supposed to provide is an effective idea for your new laboratory, next month. There is a big gap between conceptual level and everyday work. And time is always so short.

What are the most significant challenges museums face today in representing diverse cultural narratives? To overcome the challenges, how should the technology be used by museums?

Difficult questions, indeed. As a premise, I have to say that, in my opinion, museums share with schools the same problem: these institutions are asked to fill every hole in our picture of «how the world should be». They are treated as «wish box». Obviously, we can agree on the fact that our societies are not inclusive, or less inclusive than we dream. But how a modest director of a poor museum of industry could contribute in a tangible way to the representation of “diverse cultural narratives”? Reality is so far. I can answer you with an example.
I have always hated audioguides: visitors are isolated by a device, which must be continually updated (new exhibitions, new exhibits, so new speakers, new translations etc.). This year we are testing an APP by which exhibitions’ texts are managed online and translated by AI: in this way, visitors can use their smartphones, choosing between several languages. By that, I want to confirm that technology can overcome personal idiosyncrasy, but I want also to show the real profile of multilingual and multicultural challenge. I am aware that that is only a very preliminary step towards the representation of ‘diverse cultural narratives’, but it is heading in the right direction, I guess.

Could you please give us a little background information about Luigi Micheletti himself? In what ways has your involvement with the Luigi Micheletti Award and Foundation shaped your approach to museology and contemporary history? Are there specific insights or experiences from this role that have influenced your work at MUSIL?

Born in 1927, Luigi Micheletti was a young partisan during the Second World War. Afterwards he remained a militant, but he became an entrepreneur in the field of economics. His engagement was at the origin of his Foundation: established in 1981, it soon became an important archive in the domain of contemporary history and one of the first Italian institutions engaged in the preservation of industrial heritage, more than 30 years ago, thanks to his friendship with Kenneth Hudson.
In 1994 Luigi Micheletti died and Kenneth dedicated to his Italian friend an award, whose first edition was in 1996.
As representative of the Luigi Micheletti Foundation in the last 15 years, I have had the privilege to visit many European museums with reputed colleagues. For some years, to be honest, I just observed, listened and tried to learn. These visits were in line with my education in museology: in philosophical terms, I have an empirical, anti-theoretical perspective, and these experiences filled my archives with fresh data. The fact that participants are not art museums made a difference: the format of an art museum is very stable, while industrial or anthropological museums are much more innovative, both from museological and museographical point of view.

What new directions do you anticipate for the Luigi Micheletti Award? EMA has changed the criteria for the Award to storytelling, why is that?

The Micheletti Award was a secondary prize in the context of the European Museum of the Year Award, administered by the European Museum Forum. The winner of the Micheletti Award was selected from the applications pertaining to science and industry. From 2009 onwards, the Prize has been managed by the European Museum Academy: it became an autonomous Prize, and this led to a progressive convergence with the scope of the Luigi Micheletti Foundation – an archive and study centre focused on contemporary history. This process was accomplished in 2022, when the prize focused on history-telling and the following question: how to tell history in an exhibition in the 21st century? A convincing answer is provided by the first winner of this new format: FLUGT, the Refugee Museum of Denmark, in Oksbøl. I visited that museum as judge (what an experience! What an honour!) and it was easy to convince my wise colleagues in the judges’ meeting: this museum is exactly what we had in mind when we decided to give visibility to new, good ways to tell contemporary history with the resources of museums.

Could you discuss the significance of the Luigi Micheletti Award in promoting innovative practices in European museums? How do you see this award influencing the development of museum practices?

Well, a problem in our world is the risk (if not condemnation) of rhetoric: as I said, museums are a wish box, but also a rich source of too big ambitions and too wide sentences. A prize is just an occasion for networking (with judges and colleagues at the ceremony) and a good asset for winners. The Micheletti Award is not an exception. If it promoted innovative practices in European museums it would be really great, but I do not have evidence of that.

Do you have any recommendations for younger generations who works for a museum or want to work in a museum?

Museums are hybrid institutions playing a relevant role in the cultural field. That explains the development of what are called ‘museum studies’, an abundant source of insights and ideas. Unfortunately, this new discipline, like more classical human sciences, remains quite far from the needs of people who work or want to work in a museum
My suggestion is: find one course or masters in museology where teachers have experience about the real life of a museum. It is far from being obvious. A parameter can be the number of lessons dedicated to the new ICOM definition of museums: if more than two, look around you.
After a general introduction to this world, as soon as possible, invest all your energy on stages: there you discover if you are in a place right for you.
Museums are something to be learnt in the field, trust in your failed philosopher.

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