The four case studies exemplify the issues which marked the development of Italy’s museums: the complex relationship between local and national identity; the difficult construction of a state system of heritage protection; the weakness of the state in building a sense of shared belonging from above; the fragility of museums as institutions with their own capacities for initiative and autonomy. This report faces these issues by focusing on the creation of the new state in 1861 and on the organization of a system of national protection characterised by a severe shortage of means and resources and; in general; by unawareness of the social and cultural value of Italy’s heritage. The scant capacity of planning of the national ruling classes in the cultural sector was aggravated by the wide resistance against the processes of nation-building which became particularly evident with the sale of ecclesiastical estates (1866). This phenomenon induced not only the growth of the national museums but also; and especially; the founding of a large number of civic museums. Between these two types of museum and between the identitarian processes they promoted; a competition arose; in relation to the idea of nation they respectively propounded.
The complexity of the museum issue became even more evident at the beginning of the new century; when the creation of new government bodies for protection of the national heritage weakened the museum system; depriving it of scientific and managerial autonomy. The needs of the open-air heritage outweighed those of the museums; which thus became of secondary importance. Neglect of the country‚Äôs museums grew worse under fascism (1922-1943). Rather than museums; fairs and temporary exhibitions were better means for the regime to advance cultural policies with a view to building consensus. And there were also the archaeological sites; in Rome as in the African colonies; which could be used to celebrate Romanit√†; and to affirm an imperialism whose most powerful symbol was antiquity. Museographical experiments were nevertheless undertaken during the 1930s; but overall the museums were pushed into the background by cultural policies based on public spectacle.
With the birth of the Republic; new democratic perspectives superseded the nationalistic and imperialist contents of Fascism’s cultural policies. The museums; and national heritage more generally; were conceived as instruments to foster the collective growth of society. But the principles enshrined in the Constitution were not fulfilled; mainly because; from the 1950s onwards; the national heritage was confronted by unbridled modernization. In the 1960s a new consciousness began to form in civil society. It gave rise to initiatives; campaigns; and movements that shook the immobilism with which the country’s heritage and museums were treated. It was; however; in the following thirty years that substantial changes came about in the sector; which as regards museums; significantly improved from the end of the 1990s. It was then that the museums gained scientific and managerial autonomy and once again became institutions of importance to the life of society. This substantial regulatory change; however; was not accompanied by a broader reflection on the role of the cultural heritage in contemporary society. As recent debates have shown; the notion of national heritage continues to be associated with that of a fixed and immovable national identity; anchored to a vague past of greatness which has little to do with society‚Äôs real mechanisms and dynamics.