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Culture, work and knowledge: in museums (company museums included) we find the social capital of a productive and inclusive Italy

Museums are an essential part of our social capital, they are custodians and promoters of memory while stimulating its dissemination; they encourage participation within local areas and communities and therefore nurture the culture of environmental and social sustainability and strengthen civic commitment to it. They help to share knowledge and promote the mixing of different types of knowledge. They are, subsequently, fundamental instruments of cultural and therefore economic and social growth. Museums, in short, should be treated as witnesses to history and stories, as yeast for the future; as active spaces for the “future of memory”.

These words, so dense with meaning and strong values, are to be found in a large diagram that Michele Lanzinger, director of the Science Museum of Trento and president of ICOM Italy (the International Council of Museums) likes to show people to illustrate how museums are changing at a time when sensitivity to environmental and social issues is growing, especially among younger generations, and complex and controversial critical thinking on the role of museums and cultural relations is spreading. This goes beyond the traditional limits marked by the primacy of Western representations of culture and art (a good place to explore the issue further is the book Musei possibili. Storia, sfide, sperimentazioni – Possible Museums. History, challenges, experimentation – edited by Fulvio Irace, published by Carocci and presented in Il Sole 24 Ore on 26 May: from the symbol of the Altes Museum in Berlin, an icon of the Enlightenment museum, to the revolution of the Centre Pompidou and new constructions in Arab countries, such as the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, up to the advent of digital experimentations). And, amid conflicts and opposition (cancel culture, woke trends), the quest continues to build dialogue and discussion, navigating different ideas about the world and different representations.

Lanzinger, therefore, situates the responsibility of museums within the context of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and, in particular, of UNESCO’s Thematic Indicators for Culture (environment and resilience, prosperity and livelihoods, knowledge and skills, inclusion and participation) and explains that “bringing sustainable development to the world of cultural heritage means exploiting the ability to look towards the future and expanding the scope of the cultural institutions that are involved”. This was discussed in mid-May at the Triennale di Milano, as part of a conference promoted by the Lavazza Museum for Museum Day 2024 to debate the role of museums and businesses. And it will be on the agenda once again at the Dubai 2025 ICOM International General Conference.

In short, then, the UN’s 2030 Agenda is setting the direction taken by UNESCO and ICOM. And this is reflected in the definition of “museum” adopted by ICOM with a document approved in Prague in August 2022: “The museum is a permanent non-profit institution at the service of society, which researches, collects, preserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible cultural heritage.” It then adds: “Open to the public, museums promote diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically and professionally and with the participation of communities, offering diversified experiences for education, pleasure, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

And here we can detect the echo of many of the words we started with. They point to a clear way forward, which fully invests museums with the task of transitioning “from agents of conservation, research, exhibition and education to true drivers of social and economic innovation”. They point to being cultural hubs and stimuli “for an increasingly diversified and global contemporary audience”. And to providing a public service, even when it comes to private facilities; spaces for knowledge, and therefore for freedom; for discussion; for dialogue; and, for Europe and other Western countries, a fundamental democratic space.

The indications set out in Article 9 of the Italian Constitution, in the new wording approved in May 2021, come to mind: “The Republic promotes the development of culture and scientific and technical research. It protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation. It protects the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems, including in the interest of future generations.” This is a wise and responsible frame of reference, and one in which museums play an essential part. And, naturally, that includes company museums.

The indications of ICOM and the definition of museums as places for education, pleasure, reflection and the sharing of knowledge resonated in recent days when the annual assembly of Museimpresa (the association promoted over twenty years ago by Assolombarda and Confindustria, which almost 150 museums and historical company archives are part of) gathered in Florence (the guests of Baker Hughes/Nuovo Pignone and the Ferragamo Museum) to talk about how to “value memory and identity at a time of great transitions“. Those transitions refer to the environmental and digital transitions; the transitions towards a new geopolitical equilibrium, which is undermining the old models of an unequal and distorting globalisation; the changes in production systems and products driven by innovations amplified by the spread of Artificial Intelligence; migration; and generational transitions, with old and new divisions across gender, age, geographical origin and knowledge-related lines.

Businesses are physical and cultural places that are more sensitive than ever to these issues. They are organisations driven by innovation, productivity and competitiveness. But at a time when there is much talk of the stakeholder economy (with priority given to the values of the individuals, areas and communities on which the business has an impact), social inclusion, the values of work and its safety and respect for maintaining the environmental equilibrium are also fundamental factors that drive the kind of sustainable development that is increasingly appreciated by the markets (the investment market, as well as the consumer market).

Museums and historical archives feature (very current) testimonies to these economic and social processes. Their documents and images, technical data sheets and stories reveal the strength – historical and contemporary – of Italian companies, starting with its workmanship and the qualities of a full-blown industrial “metamorphosis” prioritising quality and social relations.

Working on preserving the memory and valuing Italy’s enormous industrial and cultural heritage is a way for companies to testify that they are part of an active citizenship that helps us to think in concrete terms about the quality of our country’s development. In the archives and in the business museums we find the story of women and men who, in the face of the challenges of the time, were able to respond through growth. This is reflected at an economic level in the success of export figures (670 billion euros, which places Italy among the top five countries in the world) and, on the social and cultural level, in the growing influx of visitors, especially the younger generations, to company museums.

“High-potential destinations for industrial tourism”, writes Il Sole 24 Ore (1 June). In any case, this is exemplary testimony of a “civilisation of machines”, of enterprise and work that constitutes a fundamental asset for writing a better “history for the future”, one that very much starts from the economy and from museums.

Museums are an essential part of our social capital, they are custodians and promoters of memory while stimulating its dissemination; they encourage participation within local areas and communities and therefore nurture the culture of environmental and social sustainability and strengthen civic commitment to it. They help to share knowledge and promote the mixing of different types of knowledge. They are, subsequently, fundamental instruments of cultural and therefore economic and social growth. Museums, in short, should be treated as witnesses to history and stories, as yeast for the future; as active spaces for the “future of memory”.

These words, so dense with meaning and strong values, are to be found in a large diagram that Michele Lanzinger, director of the Science Museum of Trento and president of ICOM Italy (the International Council of Museums) likes to show people to illustrate how museums are changing at a time when sensitivity to environmental and social issues is growing, especially among younger generations, and complex and controversial critical thinking on the role of museums and cultural relations is spreading. This goes beyond the traditional limits marked by the primacy of Western representations of culture and art (a good place to explore the issue further is the book Musei possibili. Storia, sfide, sperimentazioni – Possible Museums. History, challenges, experimentation – edited by Fulvio Irace, published by Carocci and presented in Il Sole 24 Ore on 26 May: from the symbol of the Altes Museum in Berlin, an icon of the Enlightenment museum, to the revolution of the Centre Pompidou and new constructions in Arab countries, such as the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, up to the advent of digital experimentations). And, amid conflicts and opposition (cancel culture, woke trends), the quest continues to build dialogue and discussion, navigating different ideas about the world and different representations.

Lanzinger, therefore, situates the responsibility of museums within the context of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and, in particular, of UNESCO’s Thematic Indicators for Culture (environment and resilience, prosperity and livelihoods, knowledge and skills, inclusion and participation) and explains that “bringing sustainable development to the world of cultural heritage means exploiting the ability to look towards the future and expanding the scope of the cultural institutions that are involved”. This was discussed in mid-May at the Triennale di Milano, as part of a conference promoted by the Lavazza Museum for Museum Day 2024 to debate the role of museums and businesses. And it will be on the agenda once again at the Dubai 2025 ICOM International General Conference.

In short, then, the UN’s 2030 Agenda is setting the direction taken by UNESCO and ICOM. And this is reflected in the definition of “museum” adopted by ICOM with a document approved in Prague in August 2022: “The museum is a permanent non-profit institution at the service of society, which researches, collects, preserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible cultural heritage.” It then adds: “Open to the public, museums promote diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically and professionally and with the participation of communities, offering diversified experiences for education, pleasure, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

And here we can detect the echo of many of the words we started with. They point to a clear way forward, which fully invests museums with the task of transitioning “from agents of conservation, research, exhibition and education to true drivers of social and economic innovation”. They point to being cultural hubs and stimuli “for an increasingly diversified and global contemporary audience”. And to providing a public service, even when it comes to private facilities; spaces for knowledge, and therefore for freedom; for discussion; for dialogue; and, for Europe and other Western countries, a fundamental democratic space.

The indications set out in Article 9 of the Italian Constitution, in the new wording approved in May 2021, come to mind: “The Republic promotes the development of culture and scientific and technical research. It protects the landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the nation. It protects the environment, biodiversity and ecosystems, including in the interest of future generations.” This is a wise and responsible frame of reference, and one in which museums play an essential part. And, naturally, that includes company museums.

The indications of ICOM and the definition of museums as places for education, pleasure, reflection and the sharing of knowledge resonated in recent days when the annual assembly of Museimpresa (the association promoted over twenty years ago by Assolombarda and Confindustria, which almost 150 museums and historical company archives are part of) gathered in Florence (the guests of Baker Hughes/Nuovo Pignone and the Ferragamo Museum) to talk about how to “value memory and identity at a time of great transitions“. Those transitions refer to the environmental and digital transitions; the transitions towards a new geopolitical equilibrium, which is undermining the old models of an unequal and distorting globalisation; the changes in production systems and products driven by innovations amplified by the spread of Artificial Intelligence; migration; and generational transitions, with old and new divisions across gender, age, geographical origin and knowledge-related lines.

Businesses are physical and cultural places that are more sensitive than ever to these issues. They are organisations driven by innovation, productivity and competitiveness. But at a time when there is much talk of the stakeholder economy (with priority given to the values of the individuals, areas and communities on which the business has an impact), social inclusion, the values of work and its safety and respect for maintaining the environmental equilibrium are also fundamental factors that drive the kind of sustainable development that is increasingly appreciated by the markets (the investment market, as well as the consumer market).

Museums and historical archives feature (very current) testimonies to these economic and social processes. Their documents and images, technical data sheets and stories reveal the strength – historical and contemporary – of Italian companies, starting with its workmanship and the qualities of a full-blown industrial “metamorphosis” prioritising quality and social relations.

Working on preserving the memory and valuing Italy’s enormous industrial and cultural heritage is a way for companies to testify that they are part of an active citizenship that helps us to think in concrete terms about the quality of our country’s development. In the archives and in the business museums we find the story of women and men who, in the face of the challenges of the time, were able to respond through growth. This is reflected at an economic level in the success of export figures (670 billion euros, which places Italy among the top five countries in the world) and, on the social and cultural level, in the growing influx of visitors, especially the younger generations, to company museums.

“High-potential destinations for industrial tourism”, writes Il Sole 24 Ore (1 June). In any case, this is exemplary testimony of a “civilisation of machines”, of enterprise and work that constitutes a fundamental asset for writing a better “history for the future”, one that very much starts from the economy and from museums.