De-activating Contested Layers of Memory in Historic Museum Buildings: Ongoing Experiences at Museo delle Civiltà in Rome

Elena Montanari
Department of Architecture and Urban Studies, Politecnico di Milano, Italy

Within the complex field revolving around the relationship between museums and heritage buildings, a specific section pertains to those institutions that are located inside architectural structures embodying or stemming from contested histories, which often convey a layer of meaning that may be dissonant with the effort that these cultural agents are doing to become “democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures”. Sometimes the actual or potential friction between the “content” (the museum and its collections and programs) and the “container” (the venue) merely ensues from “difficult memories” somehow associated to the building, while in some cases it is possible to detect a specific conflict between the two – as, for example, is the case of many ethnographic museums, that are often located in palaces whose architecture bears witness of the colonial past that had set the basis for their foundation. Along the major revision path that these institutions have undertaken in the last decade, this issue started to be problematized and tackled.
The paper aims at reflecting on the ongoing work that is being carried out around this theme in Italian cultural institutions, where the “conflict” between the museum’s mission and its building’s identity emerges in various contexts. In particular, the experimentations designed and realized in the last decade in Rome, at Museo delle Civiltà (housed in Palazzo delle Scienze and Palazzo delle Tradizioni Popolari, a monumental complex built during the 1942 World Fair, a renown architectural symbol of the Fascist Regime and its colonial stances) exemplify different strategies enabling the re-appropriation, re-use and subversion of dissonant architecture, variously tackling the contested memory narrated by spaces and structures through multi-disciplinary actions merging museographic, architectural and artistic interventions.

Keywords: difficult heritage, content vs container, post-colonial museums in colonial buildings, Italian museums, Fascist built heritage.

Elena Montanari is Assistant Professor in Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design at the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies of Politecnico di Milano. Her research work is mainly focused on the development of museographic culture at its intersections with other disciplines.