Artwork stories: from primary sources to digital technology. Pilot project for research and communication of the conservation history of artworks in museums stems from the need to make visible to the public the long history every work of art has gone through during its lifetime.  Works of art, indeed, did not originally appear as we see them today and were not made for the museums where they are currently on display. Rather, they have been transformed and relocated over time, subject to interventions and alterations on the part of artists, custodians, restorers, scholars, collectors, dealers, thieves, conservators: generations of people who have written the artworks’ biography and enabled its transmission to the present.

It s a story that must be retraced and recounted, in order to avoid falling short of the responsibility to preserve and hand down works of art to future generations. Hence it is essential that museums not only display the works, but also narrate the events that led them there and the changes they have undergone over time,  that is to say their “conservation history.”

The meaning of the project’s subtitle, from sources to digital technology, is twofold

– it indicates the range of documents used by the project to research and reconstruct the life of artworks: from manuscript inventories to historic photographs, up to the most advanced diagnostic analysis

– it  also indicates the range of forms of communication the project will adopt to tell the life of artworks, from publications to guided tours, from exhibitions to documentaries, from apps to social media.

Therefore, the challenge  is on many levels: to reconstruct the conservation history of works in all their complex material, critical and exhibitional aspects; to make the results of such extensive research understandable even to non-specialist visitors, through integrated forms of communication; to deliberately apply digital technology as an instrument of knowledge for art history and cultural heritage.

The website documents the project’s many focuses and illustrates the experimentation gradually undertaken by research groups at the Universities of Pisa, Turin and Venice.

In the various sections, research outcomes are presented: publications, conferences and study days, documentaries, exhibitions organized in collaboration with partner institutions. The observatory on digital tools meanwhile intends to spur discussion on the relationship between museums and digital media.

Furthermore, a specific area is dedicated to the design and development of an App for presenting the conservation history of artworks in museums.

The museums involved in the various activities, which act both as custodians of the examined works of art and as locations for experimenting with communication, were selected on the basis of complementarity, in terms of their collection history, collection typology, territorial matrix, and their approach to visitor fruition. Therefore they include large museum institutions originated from historical collections (in Venice: Gallerie dell’Accademia and Museo di Arte Orientale), residences inherited from dynastic patronage and collectionism (in Turin: Reggia di Venaria, Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi and Musei Reali) and finally small and medium-sized local museums closely linked to their respective territories (in Tuscany: Museo Nazionale della Certosa monumentale in Calci, Museo Diocesano in Massa, Musei nazionali di Villa Guinigi and Palazzo Mansi in Lucca, Galleria comunale d’arte moderna e contemporanea “Lorenzo Viani” in Viareggio).

The project is the result of the collaboration between three art historians, Antonella Gioli, Chiara Piva and Maria Beatrice Failla, who have the desire to share not only their common research interests, dedicated to the history of restoration, history of conservation and museology, but also their ethical and political intention of restoring greater awareness and collective responsibility to the public regarding the knowledge and protection of cultural heritage.

The project was funded for a three-year period (2014-2017) by the Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca as part of Progetti di Ricerca di Interesse Nazionale (PRIN).

In each university a research group was formed, composed of students, graduate students, post doctoral researchers and staff from local museums and Soprintendenze (Commission for the Architectural and Landscape Heritage)

Maria Elena Colombo collaborates as digital tools producer and digital media curator.

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