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Words by Rosa Anna Di Lella

Unveiled storages. How to imagine a de-colonial Museum?

Unveiled storages is an installation that aims to place the former Museo Coloniale collection storages at the heart of the MuCiv’s museum spaces. Our purpose is to render objects accessible to everyone, even if only partially, that seem hidden from view and that had been hidden for several decades. Our aim, through this installation, is to make this heritage surface from the oblivion in which it remained for years.

The objects of the former Museo coloniale di Roma are currently stored at the Museo delle Civiltà; they have been accessible and open to research and artistic experimentation for years, however their location was preventing their accessibility to the large public. This installation is only the first step of a series of exhibitions that will lead to the permanent exposition of these objects.

Unveiled storages is a laboratory that will launch a participatory process beginning in November 2021 and that will continue throughout all of 2022, with the intention of creating spaces where discussions and dialogue concerning the collections, the heritage of colonialism and its image can be carried out. It will be a path that will lead us to conceive collectively the new section dedicated to the colonial collections.

MuCiv 'Unveiled Storage'

The installation is the starting point of a series of meetings with scholars, intellectuals and experts about dealing with the colonial heritage in a contemporary world. Cultural anthropologists, artists, writers, historians, journalists and witnesses will be asked to choose objects from the storage and to present them on a public stage. Alongside this project of open consultations, Unveiled storages will include book presentations, conferences and round table meetings regarding colonialism and its narrations.

Unveiled storages is a long-term project that will allow us to compare perspectives and memories on the representations and the colonial image starting from the objects collected within the Italian colonial experience. The curators that are leading this process are European and this could raise some questions.

We are aware that colonialism was within our history and this could generate some critical issues with regard to the perspective of the museum narrative. Nevertheless, we are aware that it is  both compelling and necessary to face Italian colonialism on a public stage, also because a colonial Museum existed and its collection had been hidden, denied and removed for almost fifty years. While waiting for a more inclusive representation within the museums’ staff, which requires a wider involvement in the process of selection, we believe that, as far as colonial collections are concerned, it is necessary to start this process of exposition now, in a moment when the voices that are denouncing the lack of attention regarding colonialism and its memories are growing in public debate. The development of a participatory process, founded on a constant and open debate that will affect our methodology and the exhibit, has to also be understood as a measure to overcome these potential critical issues related to our identity. 


The Collections of the former Museo coloniale di Roma.

The history of the collections of the former Museo coloniale di Roma took place through various events; the entrance of these collections into the Museo delle Civiltà heritage in 2017 constituted only the last step of this history.

The Museo coloniale di Roma was inaugurated by Mussolini in 1923; it  hosted materials collected in the Italian colonies during the previous decades and was situated at Palazzo della Consulta, sharing the location with the colonial ministry. In 1935 the Museum was moved to Via Aldrovandi. After the proclamation of the Empire, which took place in 1936, it was renamed Museo dell’Africa Italiana (Museum of Italian Africa). In the following years, the Museum remained closed due to various inventory checks. It opened once again to the public in 1947, the year in which Italy formally renounced its colonial aspiration, maintaining only a protectorate over Somalia. The permanent closure occurred at the beginning of the seventies, after the donation of the collections to the Istituto Italiano per l’Africa (Italian institute for Africa). It was only in 2017, that the Museum eventually moved to the Ministry of Culture, thus becoming part of the Museo delle Civiltà.

The original purpose of the Museum was mainly of a propagandistic nature: the knowledge of the Italian colonial expansion was to be shared with the Italian population which, through the fruition of the Museum, was to acquire racial awareness and get acquainted with the idea of being a Nation of colonizers. To fulfil these aims, the first opening of the Museum was characterized by the exhibition of objects gathered in Libya, Eritrea and Somalia and already shown to the public in previous fairs and colonial expositions. The Museum’s collections have been growing over time, today they count more than 12,000 heterogeneous objects that can be classified as ethnographical, historical, artistic, anthropological, archaeological and architectural. The collections are still expanding thanks to various donations to the Museo delle Civiltà from people committed to not allowing the Italian colonial past to be forgotten.

The objects of the former Museo coloniale collections are bearers of memories and stories of violence and dominion: they show us the view of the former rulers over the former colonized. And yet we ask ourselves: can they also become a vehicle for alternative, subordinate and resistance stories? Can we, starting from this colonial collection, critically reflect on the Italian colonial past?


Why set up the collections of the former Colonial Museum?

The Colonial Museum, with its heterogeneous and controversial collections, has had a complex history, made up of quick openings and closings, transfers, explicit and unspoken elements, traced and clear research paths as well as of blind alleys of non- knowledge. This complexity makes the collections, which once belonged to this museum, to be approached with caution, to be looked at from various points of view, to be re-read today with a dual awareness.

The first aspect we wish to be aware of is that the history of this museum can tell us a great deal of our colonial past in its various developments and moments. We can place the museum and its collections in a much broader historical framework, read and documented by historians and scholars who provide interpretative keys on the colonial past and its links to today. This provides us with a fixed point: that of looking at every single object in the museum as an element that shows us the way we had established in the past to represent the people who lived in the territories that later became an Italian colony.

The second awareness with which we interpret the collections of the former Colonial Museum arises from the gaps and uncertainties of the information we collect and seek, from the realization that we will never be able to completely reconstruct this past, this glimpse and this vision with rigor and precision which is required of the work of the curators and museologists of a museum institution. The Colonial Museum did not have, nor did it preserve, archiving tools typical of scientific museums, which keep traces of the cultural and social biographies of the objects collected in the archives, through the names of donors and sellers, the date of collection and passage to the institution. We know little about these colonial collections, almost no information on who collected the objects, in what context and for what purpose. 

The museum and its collections are elusive, mobile material, whose interpretation is never definitive, thus making our progress unsteady, poised between certainties and uncertainties. What is particularly striking, when looking at the colonial collections, is what some scholars would call an "aphonia of the other", the invisibility of the subjects that the museum represented, the total lack of any consideration of their complexity as human beings. And at the same time, its hyper-representation as an instrument of exaltation of Italians; conquerors, dominators, racially superior, bearers of freedom and civilization.

The complex history of this museum traces, in part, the history of Italian colonialism, from the first explorations in the Horn of Africa up to the post-colonial phase. The Museum and its collections can therefore become a tool to critically read and re-read the history of Italy's relations and rapport with some African countries and allow us today to analyse our colonial heritage along a path made up of memories and repressions.


What sort of museum for the colonial collections?

Some thoughts to get started

It will be a dynamic, open museum, a laboratory in transformation, with a permanent nucleus designed to be updated and modified over time, and spaces for temporary exhibitions and meetings. It will have a certain degree of indefiniteness and openness that will allow the themes of the sections to be presented not as definitive and closed contents, rather as places of shared creation. It is a museum conceived as a space for negotiation and redefinition of the meaning of objects, through a plurality of points of view that also include the voice and the historical perspective of those formerly colonized, of the diasporas, of the museum's public. It will be a place to debate, confront each other, discord.

It will be a reflective and anthropological museum where to build de-constructive exhibition spaces, dense and critical installations in which the objects, photographs and documents on display are not elements that are considered neutral and self-evident, rather they can become material for a contemporary interpretation. It is imagined as a space in which different mediums - beyond the simple text - can help to make visible the critical and interpretative frames chosen, trying to avoid the perpetration, in the act of exhibiting, of the mechanisms of violence and oppression that have characterized the collection and the exhibition of objects in colonial propaganda speeches.

It will be a museum that will attempt to restore subjectivity to the people represented, in order to make reversible the process of and reduction to object and "type" that took place within the evolutionist, racist and museographic theories of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It will be a multivocal museum, open to collaboration and the presentation of different perspectives to critically read and re-read the history of Italy's relations and rapport with some African countries through a process - which we imagine to be long and complex - of rereading the (many and various) colonial legacies, of including a plurality of views and visions in the narrative, and even of inevitable conflicts. 

Text and installation by Gaia Delpino, Rosa Anna Di Lella, Claudio Mancuso

With the collaboration of Pietro Dalmazzo