The new director of Palazzo Grimani Museum is Valeria Finocchi, a young art historian and Ca’ Foscari alumna. “The most exciting thing about this role,” she says, “is not the role itself, but the fact that it gives me the opportunity to make use of my studies over the years, as well as the studies of the capable people that I have the honour of working with. I am grateful to Ca’ Foscari for the curricular and extracurricular activities it enabled me to engage in.”
Dr Finocchi was born in Rome in 1982. She graduated from Roma Tre University and then obtained a master’s degree and a PhD in Art History at Ca’ Foscari. She has focussed on museology, history of collecting, multimedia and visiting styles in art exhibitions. In 2017, Dr Finocchi participated in the competitive examination of the Italian Ministry of Culture and found employment in Polo Museale del Veneto (Veneto museum centre), and in particular at Palazzo Grimani, where she was in charge of the management of collections and heritage and of Education Services. Dr Finocchi has recently replaced Daniele Ferrara as the Regional Director of Veneto Museums.
Tell us about your new role as director: what is your idea of what a museum should be like?
Museums are places in which culture is fostered — they are not ‘white cubes’, disconnected from everything around them. It is important that we promote the relationship between the heritage preserved by museums and history. For example, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Palazzo Grimani hosted the students of Liceo Classico Marco Polo for a laboratory organised with Ca’ Foscari to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of the novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani. The laboratory offered an opportunity for students and professors to remember the Venetian Shoah. We read some of the pages of Bassani’s novel and some of the testimonies by Venetian survivors published in the book Il banco vuoto. Scuola e leggi razziali 1938-45 (The empty desk. School and racial laws 1938-45), highlighting the universal significance and continuity of these stories and of the history of Palazzo Grimani itself.
I am proud of another, similar project, ‘Grimani 1600’: it is a series of in-person and virtual events that celebrate the 1600 years from the foundation of Venice, which we organised to highlight the relationship between Palazzo Grimani and the city of Venice. The success of these initiatives shows that when you find the right ‘key’, you can generate an affection for culture, even in the ‘digital’ world. The number of museum visitors is growing, especially among under-25s, which is one of our objectives.
Museums are places in which we can experiment and reflect on topics such as inclusion, in addition to conducting archival studies, research, and ordinary museum management. I am not referring only to architectural barriers, but to inclusion in a broader sense. For example, lowering ticket prices is one way to make museums more accessible. There are many more ideas and many young researchers are focussing on these topics, which are unavoidable nowadays.
As a museum director, I have the privilege of having resources with which I can conduct interesting and innovative studies. However, our resources are limited, because as a national museum we cannot manage our budget freely, so planning is quite challenging. On the other hand, the very fact that we are public servants meant that we were lucky enough to continue to work during the pandemic, while many of our colleagues in the private sector could not. This means we also shoulder great responsibility, such as that of devising new projects and using new communication channels to promote culture.
Can a virtual environment replace a trip to the museum?
Our language and approach to communication have changed, and this is true for exhibition spaces, as well. Going digital requires that we change our mindset. It requires that we use specific tools, for example social media, which can facilitate an interactive approach towards the world of art and museums. If museums make good use of social media — finding the right approach and using photographs well — they can capture the attention of the public and promote the desire to visit. At the moment, Palazzo Grimani is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — we collaborate with an excellent social media manager. In the future we would like to develop a presence on other platforms.
It sounds like a paradox, but the 2020 lockdown actually helped us develop some of these tools. In fact, at that time social media was the only communication channel we could use. The challenge was to create content that was more than a digital ‘translation’ of physical content, in order to exploit social media’s potential by creating ad hoc content that would help people develop a positive interest in the museum. When our museum opened again, we reaped the benefits of this effort in terms of the number of visitors. Of course, no digital tool can replace a physical, in-person experience.
You managed educational services for a long time. How can we help young people become interested in cultural heritage?
The preservation of cultural heritage is key to its enhancement. In my view, one of the reasons why Italy is rather behind schedule is that we have such an enormous wealth of cultural heritage, compared to other countries, that we first of all must invest many resources and much energy in preserving it. Over the last few years there has been an acceleration of education and training courses aimed at promoting artistic and historical heritage, which has led many young experts to join museums with an open and integrated approach to work. On a national level there is a growing interest in going to museums.
The pandemic has made it more difficult for museums to reach out to young people, in particular to school-aged children. Over the last three years the Venetian Museums Complex has organised summer camps — which we would like to turn into regular activities — in an attempt to promote opportunities for young people. This objective — i.e., a strengthening of the relationship between museums and the territory — was already contemplated in the cultural policy of former director Ferrara. The families that get in touch with us want to take their children to museums, but things are still happening quite slowly.
In September 2021 we promoted the Meduse initiative, which was conceived during lockdown by the institutions that participate in EduDay, a day organised by MuVe and Palazzo Grassi in which museums present their educational offer to schools. The Meduse website provides an overview of what museums offer to young people. The website is designed so as to make it easy for teachers to find activities that will support classroom teaching.
What advice would you give to someone interested in working in this field?
First of all, you need to gain an understanding of the differences between cultural institutions. When I receive CVs I often notice that the pathways to different job titles are unclear. In fact, in Italy museum workers are public servants who are hired after a competitive examination, and a candidate’s qualifications make a difference. So if you are interested in working in this field, you need to understand what is required for each position.
My advice is that you do not underestimate the value of experience. Experience has been important for me, together with commitment, patience, and a bit of luck. I gained experience working as a shop assistant, as a trainee in the cultural office of a bank, as a research assistant, and even writing descriptions of works of art for exhibition catalogues. The important thing is that you always maintain your dignity and avoid being taken advantage of — but I think young people today are aware of this.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Make that five years — five years are enough time to do a lot of good work. I hope I will continue to be working here as a director, and that we will have greater resources to further our projects. In the future I would also like to work in the field of land conservation, although I know I will never want to stop working in museums.