Post-pandemic future looking bright for Italy's museums

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Art galleries across Italy marked International Museum Day on Tuesday in low-key manner, overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic and yet confident about the future.

One thing above all supported them through the difficult 15 months since the coronavirus first raged here in late February 2020, prominent directors said.

"Innovation has inspired us, helping not only to preserve a close relationship with our audience but to broaden and reinvent it," Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, told Xinhua.

This was in tune with the theme of this year's International Museum Day -- "The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine."

As in many other countries, the full lockdown last year and the subsequent period of alternating closures have caused huge losses to Italy's art galleries and historical sites.

Overall, their net revenues decreased by 157.8 million euros (192.7 million U.S. dollars) and the number of visitors dropped by 75.67 percent in 2020 against 2019, according to the Culture Ministry.

The Uffizi focused on two strategies during the worst of it, according to the director.

"It was crucial to turn the painful closures into an opportunity ... so we focused on renovation, and we could work speedily despite the strict anti-COVID measures because we had no visitors roaming in the museum," Schmidt explained.

"We also intensified our activities online and improved our presence on social media. Among others, we launched the Uffizi's pages on Facebook and TikTok ... and we were rewarded."

Currently, the Uffizi ranks first among Italy's museums and 25th globally in terms of followers (almost 640,000) on Instagram, Schmidt said.

Besides its renovated spaces, in early May the main gallery inaugurated 14 new rooms with 129 artworks newly on display. And, between October 2020 and February 2021, it staged an unprecedented exhibition featuring early Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which drew over 60,000 visitors, according to the management.

Many cultural institutions around the country -- from the Capitoline Museum in Rome (bulging with ancient Roman art) to the Egypt Museum in Turin (hosting the largest ancient collection outside Egypt) and several museums in northern Milan -- organized events to celebrate International Museum Day.

These included virtual marathons, open days or cultural debates, all reflecting on how the pandemic has changed the way they communicate art.

"It forced us to look for new paths, the most obvious and immediate of which was the digital one ... yet, it is a world in which you cannot improvise, and that has been the most useful lesson," said Emanuela Daffra, director of the Lombardy Region Museums that comprise 12 state galleries.

Although challenging, innovation allowed them to learn how digital tools could add to the "usual" way of enjoying a museum, she said.

As an example, Daffra mentioned an initiative launched at their most important museum, the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which contains the mural of "The Last Supper" by Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci.

"In the week preceding Easter, we put online a descriptive story of The Last Supper scene based on a very high definition image," Daffra told Xinhua.

"The tool allowed visitors to zoom in on the ancient painting almost at microscopic level, a definition the human eye could never reach.

"This would never replace the feeling of looking at The Last Supper in real life, but it could enrich the visitors' experience, stimulate their curiosity and enhance their knowledge," she said.

Nicholas Lahuel Turchi, 26, visiting the MAXXI national museum of contemporary art in Rome on Tuesday, agreed that nothing could beat the feeling of being back there in person.

"It is a strange feeling ... strange because it is a familiar thing and yet something we have not been doing for more than one year, so it is like coming back home after a long journey," he told Xinhua.

This was one factor allowing the management to be optimistic about the future despite the unknown variables associated with the pandemic. Both the Uffizi's and Lombardy's directors said they do not expect the number of visitors to reach pre-pandemic levels before 2022, partly because the flows of foreign tourists remain on hold.

"Yet, during the closures, we saw a huge increase in terms of virtual visits and interactions with the public, and we reached out to many new young people ... all of this will at one point translate into real-life visits," Schmidt said.

The Lombardy Museum's director also mentioned "very positive trends." "As soon as we reopened in late April, we had visitors again ...we see that people yearn to spend their time in nice and interesting places, and this is a wonderful signal for us," she said. 

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