The former Colonial Museum in Rome On the past and the future

Decolonisation: Rome’s former Colonial Museum has been stored in the archives of the Museo delle Civiltà, and is being reopened after forty years
After four decades return from the depot: the holdings of the former Italian colonial museum | Photo: Maik Reichert © Goethe-Institut Italien

The Luigi Pigorini Museum of Ethnography is part of the museum complex Museo delle Civilità (Museum of Roman Civilisation) in Rome’s EUR district, which was commissioned by Mussolini for the World Expo in 1942 with ceremonial avenues and monumental buildings. It includes an African department, and its archives contain the former Italian Colonial Museum, which is to be reopened after spending forty years in boxes. Two young experts who specialise in Africa and museums are in charge of the project: Gaia Delpino and Rosa Di Lella. A multimedia coverage from the Italian capital.

By By Sarah Wollberg (texts, interviews) and Maik Reichert (photos/camera)

Our tour starts in the African department. Gaia Delpino shows us on a map how the Europeans sailed towards Africa at the start of the 14th century, and forged economic and political alliances on the continental coasts. “What I particularly want to emphasise today is the equality between the African and European kingdoms in those days.” This is also reflected in the language of many written works from this period. Expressions influenced by colonial thought structures did not yet exist. “The Other,” according to the researcher, “was viewed as an equal trading partner and human being.” Even the artefacts on display in the department were made specifically to suit the European tastes of their trading partners and are still viewed as “ambassadors” between the two continents nowadays.
 

The repression of colonialism

From the African department we head for the spacious archives of the museum building, where the former colonial museum is still kept behind locked doors. After forty years in the vaults, the idea is for these artefacts to show the public an area of Italian history that has previously been a victim of extreme repression. “The fact that the museum has been closed for so many years has gone hand in hand with a physical denial of colonialism and its collections,” confirms Rosa Di Lella. Processing this history is long overdue in all our countries, and it’s only in the initial phase in both Italy and Germany. Most of the artefacts we see in the archive originate from the model exhibition and came to Italy for propaganda purposes. It takes courage to deal with them in the jungle of scientific research and politics, and find a path through that’s no longer unfair to anyone.
 

The museum’s future vision

“We’d like to try and put the history of the museum and of colonialism into the greater context of relations between Italy, Europe and Africa. To achieve this, we intend to accommodate multiple interpretations and views. As Europeans, we have a perspective that needs to be complemented by other perspectives,” says Rosa Di Lella. It’s imperative in 2020 that we incorporate the viewpoint of people who were colonised, and that we face up to them. The two young experts have a clear vision in this regard: “We’d like to collaborate with our colleagues in the archives to develop a centre dedicated to Italian colonialism, in which new debates are conducted.” The plan is for the museum to become the central point of reference for this collection, so that it’s alive and open at last.
 

A dialogue with Africa

The idea is to facilitate an ongoing discussion with people of the diaspora in Italy, as well as close cooperation and partnerships with museums and universities of the former colonies in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Libya and Somalia. “The new museum concept is being created together with architects and communication experts. Even in this initial phase we think it’s really important to involve our colleagues from the African countries,” explains Rosa Di Lella. On the other hand they are already talking to Italian witnesses who have a colonial history of their own. “We’re talking to them about memories as well, so that we can gradually reconstruct a colonial history that reflects the full complexity of the situation.”
  • Decolonisation: The Luigi Pigorini Museum of Ethnography is part of the museum complex Museo delle Civilità (Museum of Roman Civilisation) in Rome’s EUR district, which was commissioned by Mussolini for the World Expo in 1942 with ceremonial avenues and monumental buildings. © Maik Reichert
    The Luigi Pigorini Museum of Ethnography is part of the museum complex Museo delle Civilità (Museum of Roman Civilisation) in Rome’s EUR district, which was commissioned by Mussolini for the World Expo in 1942 with ceremonial avenues and monumental buildings.
  • Decolonisation: The spacious archives of the museum building, where the former colonial museum is still kept behind locked doors © Maik Reichert
    The spacious archives of the museum building, where the former colonial museum is still kept behind locked doors
  • Decolonisation: Object from the former colonial museum in Rome © Maik Reichert
    Object from the former colonial museum in Rome
  • Decolonisation: Object from the former colonial museum in Rome © Maik Reichert
    Object from the former colonial museum in Rome
  • Decolonisation: Object from the former colonial museum in Rome © Maik Reichert
    Object from the former colonial museum in Rome
  • Decolonisation: Object from the former colonial museum in Rome © Maik Reichert
    Object from the former colonial museum in Rome
  • Decolonisation: Object from the Africa-Section of the Luigi Pigorini Museum © Maik Reichert
    Object from the Africa-Section of the Luigi Pigorini Museum
Gaia Delpino also believes that it’s high time we stopped talking about Africa and Europe as singular entities, and used the plural instead: Africas and Europes. “In the course of my experiences in Africa, I’ve come across more similarities than differences. But the differences are also very important, as long as you don’t judge them.”
 
And on this note we hope that the new Colonial Museum will also be free from the fear of being judged, and that all over Europe we will commit to the responsibility of finally unpacking colonialism from the boxes in our heads and facing up to it.