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Historical archives and innovation to revitalise industrial pride

Archive. In this day and age, it is a word without much charm. It sounds old and dusty and evokes images of a place where you pile up things that are no longer relevant or useful. A sort of warehouse of waste or a place to store useless memorabilia. Limited attention (so little as to draw criticism from a great historian such as Giovanni De Luna; see, in Italian: “Memoria usa e getta: le linee guida del ministro penalizzano gli archivi, un grave danno per gli storici” in La Stampa, 25 July) is also paid to archives and related oversight in the reorganisation plans of Italy’s Ministry of Culture (a commendable reform effort launched by Dario Franceschini in order to take better care and make better use of Italy’s cultural heritage), and yet, if we think about it, archives play a crucial role even from the point of view of a sound culture of enterprise as a place to preserve a company’s history and to gather the evidence of how plans and ideas become products and production processes, which exemplifies how, as time flows, we build a present that then transforms into history.

As a historian, De Luna asks that we not penalise the preservation and management of cultural heritage, but rather that we protect it for reasons that have little to do with its ability to generate profits and much more with the memories that are the bedrock of society.

Here, in this blog on culture of enterprise, it’s worth pondering the meaning of documents, technical specifications, advertising graphics, corporate films, annual reports, and files on production processes and labour relations (i.e. the organisation, union negotiations, company welfare) and how to preserve them, not only so that we don’t lose a cultural heritage of such great technological and material value, but also to protect and take advantage of suggestions and testimonies that can point to new ways to revitalise Italian industry.

Indeed, the key to Italy’s growth lies in the “smart lands” where manufacturing is interwoven with culture, as documented by Aldo Bonomi, a sociologist and expert in sound economics (see Il Sole24Ore, 6 July), and the documentation of that culture (that is both technological and aesthetic, with quality and cutting-edge design, something both beautiful and well made) is an indispensable part of Italy’s heritage. That culture, a conscious synthesis of tradition and constant drive for innovation, is our best competitive asset, that which makes our businesses precious and their best products not reproducible at low cost.

This awareness is what underlies the commitment both of great enterprises such as Pirelli and of small and medium-sized businesses to establish foundations that preserve historical archives, providing for document maintenance, restoration and digitalisation (and for opening these archives up to schools, historians, and other researchers), and it is what underlies the decision to think of the “modern relevance of the historical archives” not as an oxymoron intended solely for marketing impact, but as a creative means of achieving innovation for the future by looking back on a company’s past.

Of course, archives and foundations come at a cost (and are not supported very well fiscally, unfortunately). They take space, technical skill, resources for archive restoration and preservation, and investment for their publication and dissemination, but they also give value, value that speaks to a company’s identity and to the future. Initiatives such as Confindustria’s Museimpresa and, in particular, the Centre for the Culture of Enterprise (an initiative in which Assolombarda and the Milan Chamber of Commerce are playing a leading role) to help smaller enterprises to preserve and make use of their archives in public relations and to promote a “culture of enterprise history” can also play a part in all of this.

We need history, including for how it will help revitalise Italy’s industrial pride. We need to make the quality of Italian craftsmanship a part of public discourse and sentiment and to strengthen our sense of responsibility towards our roots. History and the culture of enterprise not only as ephemeral events used to promote business triumphs (although this is a part of good public relations), but also, and above all, as a means of preserving our social and manufacturing values, of preserving Italy, its wonderful monuments, and its factories.