Factories of Stories

We are pleased to publish the writing of Simona Bodo, an Italian researcher and consultant. A few years ago, we had published her writing on intercultural dialogue, which you can find here. Below, she shares about her recent work with the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, Italy and their journey to activate the collections and the galleries in meaningful ways. She proposes an example of how a traditional cultural heritage institution can create bridges between its holdings, space, and activities and immigrants, constructing a more inclusive approach to curation and storytelling.

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Being taken by the hand and guided by the stories of men and women […] is an eye-opening experience, showing us how the first, essential vehicle for a journey through the museum is not so much expert knowledge, as open eyes, mind and heart (Emanuela Daffra, art historian and museum curator).

 

When we allow our life experiences to engage in a dialogue with objects and their stories, the museum turns into an intimate place, where profound reflections may be exchanged, and objects acquire new meanings (Rosana Gornati, museum mediator).

To these important considerations, made by Emanuela Daffra and Rosana Gornati as a result of their direct involvement in landmark intercultural museum projects (see below), I would add the following: encouraging new conversations around heritage is a powerful vehicle for interpretive communities to take shape not so much around “identity” fault lines, as through collaborative meaning-making and a shared sense of ownership and belonging.

In times of increasing identitary obsession, the need for such “new heritage communities” is becoming ever more imperative, not least because

a battle is being fought today in the public squares, at political conventions, on the television, in the opinion pages: a battle of storytelling about migrants. Stories have power, much more power than cold numbers (The Guardian).

Well, museums are powerful storytellers. How can they enter the fray, and convey different stories through what makes them unique: their collections?

 What follows is an example of how this can be done. Think about the most “iconic” and “untouchable” museum in Italy – the Uffizi Galleries – and you will perhaps unexpectedly run into a ground-breaking project: “Factories of Stories”.

Back in 2016, a Cultural Mediation and Accessibility Unit was created at the Uffizi Galleries on the initiative of the Director, Eike Schmidt. The aim was to approach and encourage the involvement of new audiences and non-visitors such as citizens with a migrant background, individuals with disabilities and, more generally, groups with socio-economic vulnerabilities.

The museum decided to first focus on working with “new citizens”, in the light of the significant impact immigration has recently had on the socio-demographics of Florence and its metropolitan area: although migration flows reached their peak in 2015 and subsequently started to decrease, at the time when the Uffizi started to address this under-represented audience (autumn 2017) extra-European immigrants accounted for 9.9% of the local population, nearly 40% of them coming from China and Albania. 

The museum’s preliminary step was to become more familiar with the surrounding communities. This was done by identifying and establishing contacts with local migrants associations, and by involving them in an introductory activity called “Views from around the world.

In the process of engaging with these local communities, the Cultural Mediation Unit was determined to address the following key questions: 

  • Could the Uffizi Galleries go beyond the rationale of “social inclusion” and the goal of “integrating immigrants”, by working towards a “cultural innovation” approach to the interpretation of collections? 
  • Could the Galleries become a place where not only the understanding of “Italian art history and heritage” is deepened, but also where participative, cross-cultural, creative encounters can take place, and new knowledge be created? 
  • Could wider, more diverse and inclusive heritage communities be initiated, based not so much on nationality, ethnicity, religious beliefs, as on a shared process of meaning-making?

For a world-renowned, highly traditional museum like the Uffizi Galleries, answering these questions would amount to nothing less than a Copernican revolution.

That’s when the Cultural Mediation Unit started to look into the expertise developed in the past decade by other Italian museums through projects where the essential cognitive and art-historical contents are interwoven with a strong narrative and autobiographical dimension. More in particular, the Unit drew inspiration from two projects developed by Brera National Picture Gallery with similar goals, but engaging two different interpretive communities:

  • Brera: another story, aimed at empowering museum mediators with a migrant background as “new interpreters” of the collections 
  • #tellmeaboutbrera, aimed at promoting professional development of Brera educators by providing them with new mediation skills.

The Uffizi Galleries deliberately chose to work with a diverse group of storytellers, including both museum staff (3 operators from the Cultural Mediation Unit, plus one museum guard) and 8 “new citizens”, all long-time residents with Italian citizenship status. The reason why I feel the need to stress their citizenship status is self-evident as much as it is often disregarded: cultural access and participation are an issue not only for “newly arrived immigrants” or asylum seekers, but also for those persons who having been living next to us for decades, have become a vital part of our social fabric, and yet are still shamefully under-represented in the audiences of museums and heritage institutions.  

The goals of “Factories of Stories” were to:

  • Promote the access and cultural participation of non-visitors such as citizens with a migrant background, while at the same time providing frequent museum visitors with new insights into the collections: in other words, to help all individuals approach the artworks in a way that involves them personally, regardless of their prior knowledge and cultural consumption patterns
  • Diversify programming through the active involvement of citizens in participatory practices of interpretation and meaning-making
  • Enable intercultural and intergenerational contact and exchange between visitors 
  • Foster a closer relationship between the Uffizi Galleries (a museum extremely overcrowded with tourists and school groups) and Florence citizens, both “old” and “new”.

In working towards these goals, the Director and the Cultural Mediation Unit sensed that “Factories of Stories” would be an important opportunity for professional development of the museums staff and, in the best-case scenario, a chance for operators in charge of education, outreach and access to start working in better synergy with curators. 

They also knew they needed qualified support in these uncharted waters, so as to address reservations about participatory interpretation practices, which are still deeply rooted in the institutional culture of many museums, under a thin veneer of “political correctness”. That’s when Maria Grazia Panigada and myself were brought in, as two external experts who had developed and tested a particular storytelling methodology over the years in projects such as the above-mentioned “Brera: another story” and “#tellmeaboutbrera”, but also “TAM TAM – The Museum for All at PIME Museum of Peoples and Cultures, or “Twelve storytellers in search of an authorand “My Place / My Texts at the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Bergamo.

How was “Factories of Stories” developed? 

To start with, the group of 4 museum operators and 8 citizens went through an intensive training (January 2018) on the use of storytelling techniques inspired by the long established tradition of the Italian “teatro di narrazione”. It is very important to stress the specificity of this kind of work, tapping into the potential of “storytelling” as a crucial dimension of human relationships (driven by an urgency to share life experiences, feelings, memories, aspirations), and therefore as a universal language which may be understood by everyone, rather than as a performative action or a persuasion strategy.

In this preliminary phase, particular attention was devoted to expanding the participants’ skills of observation, description and an ability to listen – the group as an incredibly important “sounding board” – through a number of storytelling exercises revolving around personal memories, places, individuals, “objects of affection”. 

The language of storytelling was subsequently applied to museum collections (February-April 2018), with the mixed group of storytellers spending months in the exhibition spaces, in direct contact with the paintings. 

20180319_150938

The Uffizi storytellers with Maria Grazia Panigada in front of the Annunciation by Sandro Botticelli: work in progress…  

Maria Grazia and I always make it very clear: choosing the artwork or artifact – depending on the nature of collections – around which to develop a story should be based on the personal memories, insights or feelings triggered by the encounter with it, and the resulting sense of urgency, rather than on one’s own “cultural background” (as is often the case with migrants, when they are involved as “representatives” of a given community) or “expertise” (as is the case with museum staff). 

Every storyteller chose a painting, the only restriction to the “eligible” ones being dictated by a very pragmatic factor: the need to physically circumscribe an area of an otherwise huge museum, where storytellers and future listeners could easily move, work and enjoy the stories. 

The development of the narrative trails took place in front of the selected artworks, with storytellers spending hours looking at them, describing them, and starting to interweave art-historical content with a personal tale, under the guidance of the two external experts.

Individual stories all turned out to revolve around universal themes such as family, friendship, prayer and journey, casting a more evocative and personally meaningful light on otherwise “revered” and “distant” Uffizi masterpieces like the Spring by Botticelli (as we will see shortly) or the Virgin and Child with St. Anne by Masaccio and Masolino.

Another key ingredient was the support provided by a curator of the Uffizi Galleries and two scholars from other Florentine cultural institutions. The art-historical accuracy of the narrative trails is intended not so much as a means to retain “content control” on the part of curatorial staff, but rather as the only way to create a genuine “resonance” between the artwork and the storyteller: a resonance which cannot be attained by merely using the chosen painting as a “pretext”, or as a “Rorschach inkblot”. In fact, many personal details of the stories were directly triggered by the thorough work of observation and description mentioned above, which ended up multiplying the evocative power of collections. 

The innovative character of this approach to museum storytelling lies in the close intersection between the two dimensions (History and stories), which are not kept separate, but nurture each other and become one, as the two examples below clearly show:

Ghirlandaio_Adoration of the Magi_detail in the foreground

Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Ghirlandaio, detail in the foreground

In the painting there are a few objects in the foreground, placed on a stone: a case for glasses, a saddlebag, and a water flask, just the essentials for a journey. I pick them up and leave. Without looking back.

Working on the Adoration of the Magi by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Lina Callupe used the objects represented in the foreground of the painting, symbols of the long journey undertaken by the Magi, to describe the moment she fled Peru in her early twenties. 

Spring_Botticelli_detail of the Three Graces

Spring by Sandro Botticelli, detail of the Three Graces

My gaze returns to the meadow, to the feet of these three ethereal girls dancing. 

It is such a perfect dance as to seem completed. Yet this is the point of the painting that invites me to enter. 

I would enter in small steps, hesitating like I did as a child, imitating the grown-ups. At a certain point, you find yourself inside the circle. Bare feet pressing firmly down on the ground. You begin doing what the others do, and you manage it, and you become part of that circle. The dance was held once a year, when the village was lit by the full moon, and it followed a precise ritual: to implore gods, to chase out sickness and bring in health but, at the same time, to explain the roundness of the earth, the central position of human beings. 

Different gestures, different contexts, but is it so far removed from the man who was lord of all things, celebrated in Florence during the 15th century?

While interweaving the story of his own childhood in Benin with the dance of the Three Graces, Kuassi Sessou transports us to another time, another place, another life; and yet we keep on seeing the painting in front of us, but with new eyes, and perhaps this experience will stay with us every time we think about Botticelli’s Spring.

The following step of the project was the implementation of an audio-trail revolving around 12 artworks of the Uffizi collections (October 2018 – March 2019), with great Italian theatre actors (from Marco Paolini to Giulia Lazzarini, from Marco Baliani to Lella Costa and Ottavia Piccolo) generously giving their voice to all storytellers in the Italian version of the stories, while storytellers with a migrant background also recorded their own tale in the respective mother tongues (Arabic, French, Mandarin, Persian and Spanish).

The audio-trail casts a new light on the museum as an inexhaustible “factory” of stories, and is virtually addressed to all visitors: young, adult and elderly; Italian and with a migrant background; tourists, frequent visitors and individuals who never set foot in a museum. The contents are available not only for download in front of the paintings, but also on the Uffizi website as well as on major podcasting platforms such as Spotify – a choice of the museum to assure maximum exposure and accessibility of the project.

FdS website

The Uffizi website section devoted to the project

Factories_of_Stories_audio files

“Factories of Stories” audio files

Factories_of_Stories_written texts

The written texts of the stories, available on the Uffizi website in English and in the mother tongue of storytellers with an immigrant background

Going through these Uffizi stories, the power of storytelling as a universal language, breathing new life into heritage as a resource we can always tap into, triggering new conversations, is finally unveiled. 

Because in the end, as one storyteller mused on the reasons why she chose a particular painting, or it chose her, «artworks reflect our emotions, they resemble us, and call on us to weave our stories with theirs».

Useful links 

“Factories of Stories” is accessible from three different sections of the Uffizi Galleries website: 

  • Special Visits: audio files, available both in Italian and in the mother tongue of storytellers with a migrant background
  • HyperVisions: high definition images of the artworks and written text of the stories (shorter versions) in Italian, English and the mother tongue of storytellers with a migrant background
  • Artworks: high definition of the artworks, short “scientific” description and audio files, accessible only through a specific search by artist/title of the artwork.

A translation in English of the shorter versions of the stories is also available on Spotify (look in the podcast section for: “Uffizi | Fabbriche di Storie”).

Patrimonio di Storie / Heritage of Stories, available in English from December 2019, is the new website with all storytelling projects curated by Simona Bodo, Maria Grazia Panigada and Silvia Mascheroni.

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Simona Bodo is an independent researcher and consultant with a particular interest in the social agency of museums and their role in the promotion of intercultural dialogue. On these issues she acts as an advisor to public and private institutions (e.g. the Uffizi Galleries, Brera National Picture Gallery, Fondazione ISMU – Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity, Fondazione Cariplo), and has taken part as a team expert in a number of European studies and projects addressing the issue of migrants’ cultural participation. She is co-creator and editor of “Patrimonio e Intercultura” (English version also available), an on-line resource promoted by Fondazione ISMU and specifically devoted to the intercultural potential of heritage education projects. Among her most recent publications/essays: S. Bodo, S. Mascheroni, M. G. Panigada (eds.), Un patrimonio di storie. La narrazione nei musei, una risorsa per la cittadinanza culturale (Mimesis Edizioni, 2016); S. Bodo, “Museums as intercultural spaces”, in R. Sandell and E. Nightingale (eds.), Museums, Equality and Social Justice (Routledge, 2012); S. Bodo, K. Gibbs and M. Sani (eds.), Museums as Places for Intercultural Dialogue: selected practices from Europe (published by MAP for ID partners, 2009). You can reach her at info@patrimoniodistorie.it.

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