Il Palazzo dei Musei, Musei Civici di Reggio Emilia
Reggio Emilia’s Town Museums have been hosted in the San Francesco Palace since 1830. The two floors of the palace host several Ethnographic and Natural History collections, Archaeological collections and an Art Gallery.
I am particularly attached to this museum because I started visiting it when I was about five years old and in my teens my summer work was to take photos of items for record purpose.
The massive amount of items in the various collections are displayed in XIXth century glass cases and presented according to the taste of the time.
The oldest collection of the museum is a 1770 gathering of items of “natural productions” by L. Spallanzani, still exhibited in its original cases, organized as per Linnean taxonomy.
The natural history portion of the museum is very interesting because we gain insight in the XIXth c. collection practices and studies in the animal and plant kingdoms, in minerals and fossils. Here we find special, and truly amazing, collections addressing anatomy (human and animal), teratology (the study of abnormalities) and zoology.
While the teratology exhibit is rather horrifying (but loved by kids like me…), the zoology exhibit takes the crown with the large mammal’s heads – hunting trophies of the pasts – hanging over the display cases while incredible ‘tableaux vivants’ of hunting animals populate the corridors where mummified whales, crocodiles etc. are sharing the floor with visitors.
Even though these sections are more akin to a movie set than a contemporary museum display, they do not fail to fascinate visitors of all ages, the only question being for how long they still could be enjoyed.
The museum displays proceed, without solution of continuity, into matters of ethnography involving collections of artifacts from tribes from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and America. These items had been gathered by scientists and explorers (mostly in the XIXth c.) that subsequently donated them to the bulging museum. These artifacts appear rather delicate and of difficult care and are displayed in semi-darkness, to little benefit of the visitor.
We then enter the antiquity sections of the museum. The initial set up was carried out by G. Chierici in 1862-70 and his expositive approach, still visible today, is of displaying everything at hand, amassing thousands of items in cases whose only purpose seems to be the storage of items following their classification. A broad grouping in “local” artifacts and “other areas” sums the level of information we can gather here. The sight of the ridiculous crowding of items in the cases is particularly annoying considering the notable artistic and historical value of many artifacts displayed.
Large archeological findings are shown in the cloister, now enclosed, where roman and mediaeval marbles are displayed floor to ceiling and in the foyer, where mosaics from the same period greet the visitor to the museum. One last room at the ground level has more recent findings from the city center.
The museum second floor hosts, since 1975, archaeological items unearthed in the last seventy years. The artifacts, from the paleolithic to the Ist c. BCE, are from local settlements and number some relevant finds like the Etruscan stelae from Rubiera (VIIth c. BCE).
Although the spacious display here is in stark contrast to the ground floor curio display, its outdated design appears even less effective than even the old cabinet downstairs.
The second floor exhibition continues with the collection of frescoes and paintings with a strong connection to the city, produced from the 1300 until now.
The San Francesco Palace has embodied the city’s key cultural functions for almost three centuries and its museum characteristics have become so important as to deserve some kind of preservation (even though the institution appears in dire need of rationalization). A change of curatorial approaches that could bring a segregation of the Archaeological collections from the Art Gallery section while somewhat preserving the old Ethnographic and Natural History collections could be envisioned as beneficial to the overall important endowment.
After many years of providing strictly operational support, the City seems poised to finally initiate a restructuration of the museum but, in a typical Italian way, opposition to the City’s plans have caused everything to be placed on hold. Perhaps it should be visited now….