Project Italo Rota
Project collaborators Carlo Ferrari, Francesca Grassi
Lighting design Alessandro Pedretti
Photo Carlo Vannini, Marcello Grassi
Text Antonella Galli
Comments on the images Italo Rota

For the architect Italo Rota, regenerating a museum means inventing new ways of sharing collective memory, making it fertile with ideas, creations, inspirations.

This has been the guiding idea in the project of renewal and expansion of the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia, completed in May, with a coda that will conclude during the year to come. The project involved Palazzo San Francesco, a structure that started as a monastery (1265), and since the early 1800s had a range of functions, until it became the location of the precious collections of exhibits on natural history, history and art of the local community. The nucleus of the civic collections was the extraordinary 18th-century accumulation of the scientist from Scandiano Lazzaro Spallanzani, including zoological, paleontological, mineralogical and botanical exhibits, later joined by the paleoethnological collections of the priest Gaetano Chierici, various art collections, and a large number of objects of memory of the city, its history and its people. The project by Italo Rota covered the restructuring of the building, with the reorganization and modernization of the first two floors, previously utilized as museum spaces, and the total recovery of the third floor (1800 m2 of additional exhibition space), containing areas for temporary exhibitions, for the Kunsthalle on two levels, an agorà and a workshop, as well as rooms for designers and makers (digital artisans) of the local Fablab. On the first floor, with the reception and the Spallanzani collection, the atrium and ticket desk have been renovated, along with the bookstore and a study where visitors can spend time before entering the museum proper. A room where the walls feature large graphics and multicolored figures of animals, almost an introduction, in dream dimension, to the encounters between nature, history and the present that await them. On this level, and on the second, the architectural intervention substantially respects the typological, historical and structural characteristics of the building, updating functions and interpreting the spaces in keeping with an outlook that suggests – through lights and neutral surfaces, and the introduction of contemporary elements – a true dream dimension. The space of the museum in the vision of Rota is defined as an area for imagination and the unconscious, in which to come across the traces of the past, through passages and leaps of awareness, rather than being only devoted, as in the past, to the rational, positivist aims of study and classification. This vision triggers modular lighting elements that trace paths and poetically define volumes, furnishings and works, but also contemporary inserts that break up the established order here and there, like the red lacquer surface with a luminous insert placed on the 19th-century table of the ticket desk, or the wooden coffers that enclose certain portals of the gallery, one of which displays, as if to survey the passage, the funerary mask of Spallanzani himself, lit by three naked light bulbs, as in a theatrical mirror. To continue with the free associations, the architect has identified, for each level, a Pièce Unique space, for one of the most excellent pieces of the civic collections: the Chiozza Venus (first floor), one of the most ancient idols of the Paleolithic era; the very rare golden cup (second floor) dating back to the Bronze Age and found at Montecchio Emilia in 2012; the brass and ceramic sculpture La monta solare by Fausto Melotti (also on the second floor) from 1969-79; the Cross of Light by Claudio Parmiggiani on the upper level. The third and last floor, previously not utilized, has been converted into space for contemporary art, with multiple functions: temporary exhibitions, the makers lab, an art gallery, the agorà and workshops for the public. Here the long wing set aside for temporary exhibitions is the location, until Expo 2015, of the exhibition “For Inspiration Only,” created by Italo Rota, which assembles hundreds of objects from the storerooms of the Civic Museums, of various types and eras, that narrate stories of the city. A total of 365 tales, 50 already written, others that will be added during the year, to which every citizen can add a fragment of personal memory. With this exhibition, and in this space, the museum concept developed by Italo Rota for this project can clearly be grasped: a space for collective narration where objects, freely combined, become stimuli for awareness, for reinterpretation of the past and invention of a future for the community. “In this phase of change, people are conserving things, homes are like mini-museums,” Italo Rota says. “To conserve means to establish relationships, to decide what and how much is important: the form of the museum comes from this. For Inspiration Only is a selection of objects done with the sole purpose of inspiring ideas. Without imposing a vision, a logic of interpretation. In this moment of great transformations, conserving is inseparably linked with innovation.”

The study, a space to welcome visitors, on the first floor. “Museums are transforming into a composition of multiple voices, between memory, research, science, industry, art and humanism, mediated and made possible by the personal participation and intervention of the individual, to bear witness to the freedom and responsibility the future urges us to consider every day, both as individuals and as a community. One of the essential elements of this museum is that it offers citizens an individual process of exploration and knowledge that allows them to have a sensorial experience, useful to recall the past and imagine tomorrow.”   The external facade of the Palazzo dei Musei (former monastery of San Francesco).
24 April 2010 Towards the new museum / Installation 1 At the museum worksite opened for the occasion, citizens bring stuffed animals to construct the new identity of the cultural center, together. A new installation that launches the renewal project. The spaces on the upper level of the building come alive with the motto “the Museum is now.”    “Dress Rehearsals for a Museum,” “Love will divide us,” “A great Noah’s Ark.” The Blue Planet by Peter Greenaway/Saskia Boddeke. After the staging of this performance at the Expo of Zaragoza on the theme of the future of water, where together with my studio we opened the City of Water pavilion, this work arrives at the Teatro Municipale of Reggio Emilia (21-22 March 2009). Here again, the story from which the entire episode springs has been known to us since the dawn of time: it is the story of the universal deluge, of Noah who builds the Ark to save mankind and the animals. “2014: let’s also save all the plants of the Planetary Garden.” (Photo Franco Laera).
During the construction of the museum (2012-2014, first step), we ‘dug’ in the storerooms of the civic museums and found unexpected ‘treasures’ conserved there. One characteristic of the Museum of Reggio Emilia is that it is a true Museum of Museums, combining important collections, but also small, curious contributions brought by citizens.   12-14 April 2012 – Towards the new museum/ Installation 2 – “Objects talk to us/Work in progress.” The citizens of Reggio Emilia were invited to donate objects from the last sixty years. Connected with their own memories, but selected with a critical act, favoring those that in their day represented an innovation, a breakthrough, a change. Four themes of our life were proposed, which are rapidly changing today and therefore demand new reflections: how we eat, how we dress, how we share, how we participate.
How the visitor becomes a viewer and therefore an artist. Installation (from the exhibition Love will divide us, 2010): it is the method Goethe develops starting from the natural sciences; not simply putting one thing next to another, but making them different things as well. One attempts to start with these sets to find the path that goes from one thing to the other, and vice versa, so that observation itself becomes creative. Because what is decisive is to know if we can pass from one object to another. To the extent that this is possible, contemplation becomes comprehension. Because things taken one by one are nothing, and rightly so. It is actually always a sensitive/ultrasensitive process of creation on substance. What is art? Conversation between Joseph Beuys and Volker Harlan. (Photo Marcello Grassi).   3 May 2014 – PALAZZO DEI MUSEI OPENING The entrance lobby to the Museums, on the first floor.  Taken from Glossary for the use of the Museum: E as in Environment… Environments are not just containers, but are processes that change the content totally. (Marshall McLuhan, in Eric McLuhan & Frank Zingrone, Essential McLuhan, Routledge, 1997).
Portal/cloakroom/passage from the environments of the 19th-century collections (confirmed in their historical presentation and only enlivened by certain small, strategic interventions) to the new restored spaces. The visitor is welcomed by the stuffed pelican of the Lazzaro Spallanzani Natural History collection.   The antique safe that contained and protected one of the most precious items of the Museums, the Chiozza Venus, has been restored and transformed, becoming a display case. The Venus has not changed its place or its ‘habitat’: small modifications of her ‘house’ make her the star of the museum
Venus, sandstone, Chiozza di Scandiano, Upper Paleolithic, found in Neolithic context.   On the first and second floors – the museum visit continues… The historical rooms, restored and photographed just before the installation of the exhibitions Reggio Emilia Fotografia Europea, May 2014.
Sarah Moon, Journal de voyage, Les pélicans, 2013© Sarah Moon, serie Alchimies. Questa e la successiva foto di Reggio Emilia Fotografia Europea, 2014 ritraggono la Collezione di Storia Naturale Lazzaro Spallanzani.   Reggio Emilia Fotografia Europea, 2014. Claudio Parmiggiani (in collaboration with Luigi Ghirri), Alphabet, 1973 © Claudio Parmiggiani. Courtesy Osart Gallery, Milan.
After having visited these spaces, one goes up to the second floor, climbing the restored monumental staircase. The fresco and the display cases, dating back to the period in which these spaces were used for a school building, have been conserved. The lighting is done with ‘Edison’ type bulbs. The contemporary touch is entrusted to two large Calenda lanterns by Artemide, design Rota Pedretti.   From the second to the third and upper level: an informative, emotional and sensorial experience At the top of the marble steps, in the large glass volume, we are welcomed by the second treasure of the Museums, the Gold Cup, Montecchio Emilia, Spalletti quarries, Bronze Age, 18th-17th century BC.
Entrance to the collections of the second floor and the Pinacoteca Antonio Fontanesi. Digging through the many storerooms of the museum, we searched for a method for ‘using’ all the things we found, to tell stories and make connections, imagining the future of the new Reggio Emilia.   The temporary exhibition area is also full of exhibition rooms for the organizing of meetings, workshops and other public events: the focus is on a composite, realistic representation of the future, from the perspective that starts with memory and through educational workshops moves towards project experience. Special attention is devoted to young people, who are better at grasping changes.
The temporary exhibition For Inspiration Only takes its cue from the title of a small book of Future Systems published about twenty years ago, in which Jan Kaplicky, through 100 objects, encouraged us to explore the world and get inspired by everything; to observe the planet from outer space, all the way to the smallest subatomic structure of the particles of the earth.   365 objects/365 stories/A big crossword puzzle on the walls of the room containing the show. 365 things with comments: Instructions for use by visitors: One thing per day… 365 things that keep us company for one year. Here we find the first 40. Do you want to help us? Do you want to comment? Go to www. The Sperm Whale, at the center, is the protagonist of the first story.
A museum where the curator is the whole of humankind. Jimi Hendrix suggested, in Are You Experienced?: If you can just get your mind together… Have you ever been experienced?… Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful…   From the exhibition For Inspiration Only, dress rehearsal of a planetary museum where the earth has become a small garden and the time is an instant. The curator of the planetary museum proposes observation of diversity as a guarantee of a future for humankind. The mission becomes to know, critique and protect differences. An invitation to ask ourselves the following question: is it possible to use cultural and natural diversity, after having revealed and understood it, without destroying it? The collections of the museum allow us to offer visitors a thousand intersections, almost a crossword puzzle between culture and nature
Dioramas as installations. The visitor is transformed into an eye with a prosthesis, a viewer. To penetrate into the diorama becomes an immersion, spectacular, where the visitor is experienced, through the senses, through the mind, with a mnemonic effect, that will remain imprinted when the experience is over.   Pièce Unique room: Claudio Parmiggiani, Cross of Light, 2003. Metal, pigments and spices, 680 x 680 cm. Collection of the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia.
Agorà and Didactic workshops, open to confrontation between disciplines and forms of knowledge. We become the meeting point between aesthetic practices and politics of citizenship. We learn from nature. Nature, its protagonists, stories and achievements, as an evolutionary model to imitate in constructive processes of the new.   The new Kunsthalle spaces are for works from the 1950s and 1960s, but also the extraordinary experience of life in art of Rosanna Chiessi. The cases contain collections of the Fluxus movement and the publishing house Pari & Dispari.
With the presence of the FAB-LAB and the Circus project of Denis Santachiara, the museum makes room for excellence in the fields of crafts and local industry, all the way to the new frontiers of 3D printing. A platform of exchange is created between the world of industry and the experiences of creativity.   The museum by nature conserves and produces memory, it offers things to think about how we were, and to reflect on how we will be. As in all moments of major transformation, we wonder if modernity is against conservation. But maybe modernity and conservation are not so much in antithesis. Conservation was invented as part of a wave of innovation in the period between the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. In the whirl of change it is fundamental to decide what should remain the same. In this project the act of preserving becomes fundamental. Business as usual vs ecological revolution vs modernity vs conservation.