Museums and returns. The point of view of Mudec in Milan

In our reconnaissance of the very current theme of refunds, the voice of museums could not be lacking. We have made room for the Museum of Culture in Milan

How do you behave in a practical way when requesting the return of works? How do Italian museums prepare? How they are doing upstream the postcolonial question? We talked about it with Carolina Orsinicurator of the archaeological and ethnographic collections at the Cultural Museum in Milan.

The open deposits of MUDEC in Milan

What is your policy on the issue of return?
The issue of repayment is very complex and each case stands alone. We have not received formal requests from international governments to date, but the museum has for some time been working on three different fronts: 1. transparency in the collections and traceability of the objects’ origins to clarify any incorrect situations of acquisitions that have taken place in the past; Examination of the status quo in relation to the procedures for any disposal of assets (by law, the assets of the state are indispensable and therefore not transferable unless specific measures are followed); 3. preparation of a document on the policy of acquiring or receiving donations, taking into account the most current rules on the circulation of non-European goods as well as the ethical criteria laid down by ICOM, and which also examines the vademecum of due diligence made abroad, e.g. Guidelines for German museums. Care of collections from colonial contextswhose third edition was published in 2021.

How do you manage your museum identity, which inevitably has its roots in a past that is less sensitive to particular topics, in light of the need to “decolonize the museum”?
The museum has for a long time had a special office, the Office Network and Cultural Cooperation, which aims to promote the participation of diasporic communities in the museum’s life, also in terms of museological and museological choices. For example, the new permanent exhibition was the subject of a participatory process involving some citizens, who contributed their vision of how to deal with some topics and some materials relating to the colonial past. We have also spent a great deal of energy on offering the public a narrative about historical events associated with our objects that is as multifaceted and transparent as possible in terms of the dynamics of asymmetric force that these stories reveal, also using appropriate linguistic tools.

Are there any models you refer to for inspiration? I am thinking, for example, of the very complex project at the Rietberg Museum in Zurich.
In our opinion, one of the most interesting projects that has been carried out in recent times has been the one promoted by the Goethe-Institut. Everything passes except the past because it saw the involvement of various European and African museums and a long-term discussion on issues such as return, repairs and transnational collaborations.

At the education level, have you planned any activities that address these issues?
The museum’s teaching activities are outsourced. But again, through the Networks office mentioned above, we carry out small training projects, especially aimed at educators and teachers.

Performance at MUDEC in Milan
Performance at MUDEC in Milan

Do you have open dialogue programs with museums in countries whose artifacts you keep? I mean not just on the issue of refunds, but on dialogue on a broader spectrum.
Admittedly, for many years the museum has had an archeological and anthropological mission in Latin America that follows in the footsteps of one of the museum’s founders, the Milanese explorer Antonio Raimondi. Raimondi is a very positive figure of an explorer who became the father of his home country of Peru, where he emigrated for political reasons in the middle of the nineteenth century. The archaeological mission was created to better contextualize Raimondi’s works and the Peruvian artifacts in the museum. We have implemented many concrete initiatives to promote and defend the archaeological heritage of Peru, just as we have collaborated with local museums to conduct training. The mission also promoted a work program for women aimed at resuming the production of traditional ceramics and substances to revitalize a very important tradition but also promote economic independence for women.

Important books on the subject have been published, from the famous Sarr-Savoy report to the recent one Decolonize the museum by Giulia Grechi. Which text would you recommend to our readers, even if it is not strictly and technically related to the question?
Although the Sarr-Savoy report is not exactly a popular text, it is certainly a milestone in the literature on restitution. Savoy himself collaborated on another interesting volume, which also shows the market’s role in the circulation of goods: Acquisition of cultures: Stories of world art in Western markets. I recommend reading it to anyone who wants to deal with the history of material culture. Those who want to approach the subject instead origin in a less technical way can struggle with A legacy of ivory and amber by Edmund De Waal.

A final question linked to the rigorous and dramatic topicality. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly brought the instrumental use of culture to the surface in conflicts. I refer in particular to the cross-requests for repayment of museum loans, which were fortunately “smoothed out”. Of course, these are very different “returns” than those that an “ethnographic museum”, for example, has to face, but what reflection can this other meaning generate?
The political use of inheritance is an old question that goes back to prehistoric times: In situations of conflict or asymmetry of power, inheritance is always used in this sense. But it has also always been used for diplomatic purposes in the positive sense of the term. On the other hand, if heritage did not have a strong identity value, it would not be at the center of such crucial issues. I believe that we will never stop reclaiming, destroying, but also “exchanging” heritage: it is part of the interactions (of the encounter, but also of the confrontation) between people. It is up to us that these exchanges become more and more collaborative and equal.

Marco Enrico Giacomelli

Article published on Artribune Magazine # 65-66

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