Onofrio Carruba

Interviewing the “man of the year”

Christian Greco1

Well, I know I am biased. As soon as Christian Greco – the newly appointed Director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin – told me he studied at the University of Pavia with Clelia Mora and Onofrio Carruba, I was going to hug him. I was caught by that “paisà” feeling that made me suddenly sympathize with him. My mind went back to that little university cloister where I spent an entire cold winter with a small heater beside me, researching Hittite texts and desperately trying to read their language. It drove me crazy. However, I didn’t abandon the cloister and the Hittites because they are difficult to grasp: I somewhat felt I could not spend all my life in their company, no matter how fascinating they were. I was curious about many different things and I wanted to learn and see them all, and this is the main reason why I ended up working as a journalist, I suppose. However, I always felt guilty for having abandoned the little cloister on a sunny spring day almost 30 years ago. I never told professor Carruba how guilty I felt.

Anyway, the more I interviewed Christian on the story of his life, the more I thought he made a similar choice and, maybe, was driven by a similar thirst for knowledge and experiences. He knows Greek and Latin well, and even taught them in a Dutch high school. He studied Ancient Middle Eastern history before focusing on Egyptology at Leiden University. He worked as a cleaner and a hotel receptionist to make ends meet, and knocked on several doors before being appointed curator of the Egyptian department of the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden. He is not the kind of person who sits on his hands waiting for the chance to come. He looks for it, even in the most unlikely places. He could not end up doing scientific research only, even if maybe he would have liked to. Rather, he is a perfect museum curator capable of shifting from research to communication, to management.

While the conversation was going on, I was steadily feeling less guilty of having abandoned Pavia as well as research. I choose something more practical but equally essential for antiquity and modernity as well: by searching for peculiar stories about our past and writing them down, I stimulate the interest and curiosity for antiquity in my readers; by travelling around the world and reporting about the use and misuse of the past in contemporary places and cultures, I show the pervasive influence of the past in our everyday lives. I feel it is a very important task. It is almost a mission for me. So much for the Hittites and the history of Turkey in antiquity. Thank you, Christian.

Yet, my feelings about him were quite different, before the interview: I thought he was overestimated. After all, many brilliant young Italians have to find their way abroad before their capacities are appreciated in Italy as well. For instance, my friend Alessandro Naso spent years as a professor of Archaeology at the University of Innsbruck before being appointed Director of a prestigious institute within the National Research Council. However, he didn’t hit the news as Christian did, neither he was invited as speaker in the most prestigious national cultural arenas. To be honest Christian, being 39 years old, is sensibly younger than Alessandro, and young people are fashionable in Italy nowadays. Second, the Museo Egizio is much more popular than the Istituto di Studi sul Mediterraneo Antico, which common people slightly know about. Third, Alessandro is a renown Etruscologist, while Christian was mostly unknown in Italy before his landing in Turin. He fell from heaven like a meteor, and surprised us all. That’s why he is the “man of the year”, and not Alessandro or any other brilliant Italian archaeologist. And, to tell the truth, he is making great use of this unique opportunity.

The day I met him, he had just silenced a bunch of politicians in a TV show, and the day before he shocked ministers and cultural leaders at an important national meeting, the Stati generali della cultura. “Let me work independently”, he said firmly. “The overwhelming Italian bureaucracy kills productivity. I cannot wait months for the permission to fix even the smallest potshed in the museum collection. Set me free and at the end, if I made mistakes, you’ll fire me. This is the way things work in the Neetherlands: directors make decisions independently but are subject to regular evaluations, and very severe ones. If they’ve made something wrong, they are out. It works!”. He came as a bolt from the blue. “I’ll become very unpopular for this”, he told me. Maybe not. Nowadays in Italy many people are very alive to such a vision. Others, however, are so entangled in our administrative juggernaut, and so bound to their sectarian mentality, that it’ll be hard for them to change. It’ll be almost impossible, I fear.

logo FondazioneAfter my interview with Christian I had lunch with a friend of mine, an archaeologist who had just emerged from a meeting with his “boss”. It was like a “tale of two worlds”. Christian had explained to me that in the Neetherlands archaeologists are obliged to publish a preliminary report within three months since the end of excavations, while my friend has completed two excavations already, and written the respective reports, but he cannot see them published yet because of academic sectarian vetoes and lack of money. Second, Christian stressed how much research is essential for a museum, so that its results can be continuously presented to the public in lectures and exhibitions. If you keep offering new and valuable contents, people will keep returning to your museum. We agreed on the importance of making people aware of academic considerations and debates. In this way they feel involved, they better understand what archaeology is about, and are stimulated to think about those issues and come out with their own answer. On the contrary, many scholars keep their research for themselves for years and even decades, until all their doubts are cleared. My friend and I recalled the case of the so called Hadrian’s Auditoria in Piazza Venezia in Rome: an exhibit currently on show at the Coliseum promises to show their findings but, as a matter of fact, it just shows the base of a statue and a drawing. There is no chapter on them in the catalogue, and no map anywhere. Those Auditoria are very controversial and there is a harsh debate going on among archaeologists. However, rather than hiding everything, it would have been far more honest and interesting for everybody to explain the problem to visitors with drawings, reconstructions or animations so that they could, in a sense, take part in the debate.

Third, Christian is enthusiastic about the possibility to design the new set-up of the Egyptian Museum (its official opening being on April 1, 2015) and has great plans for it: talking statues, objects that tell their story through augmented reality and any sort of high-tech device, higher attention to the manifold needs and interests of visitors, no concession to the old romantic idea of Egypt as the land of mysteries, which must give way to a postmodern view that places each object within its context. My friend had just come back from Reggio Calabria where he had seen the Riace Warriors in their brand new room at the Archaeological Museum, and he was shocked: “they are placed all alone in a totally white setting – he said -with no explanation on their art, their meaning, their discovery, their restoration. Nothing at all. Neither the bookshop sells any book about them. It seems like people are not allowed to learn anything about these masterpieces. Only pure contemplation is permitted.” Fourth, Christian would like to start, in Turin, a school for museum curators like, for instance, the Ecole du Louvre. He is right, there is no such school in Italy yet. However, there are so few real museum curators, that the rate of unemployment of its graduates would be high. Yet things are changing at significantly high speed, and I am optimistic.

This doesn’t mean Italians are unable to present their museum collections properly, and communicate them to the public effectively. I must say the most innovative, imaginative and ingenious museum communication projects I’ve seen, were Italian, and Italy has several extremely good museums that constantly involve their visitors into new and most exciting intellectual adventures. However, there is no specific profession for this, and those who work in the field rely mostly on their goodwill and imagination. They are all self-educated, more or less as I am. But, as I said before, things are changing rapidly nowadays and, in the near future, Italy will have its own schools for cultural heritage communication, museum curatorship, public archaeology. Christian has the possibility of building something very important for his country, and his magnetic enthusiasm bodes well for the future.

He loves his country, and he admits frankly that he was missing it a lot, while in the Neetherlands. He couldn’t stand the current Dutch attitude towards Italians. “You work like a German”, they were telling him. “No way, I work like an Italian. Italians work hard, you know?” was his answer. Prejudices are hard to die and, if you are a victim of them, they can get very disturbing. They call us “the Garlic Country”. So what? We love garlic. If it wasn’t for garlic, what flavor would our recipes have? Welcome home, Christian. We need people like you who do not indulge in national pride or national commiseration, but are capable to pick the best wherever they find it. Either in Holland or in Italy: who cares?

P.S. I am fully aware of the large gap that may lie between words and deeds. I liked Christian’s words, I liked them a lot. In the future I’ll see if his deeds meet the expectations, and will write my remarks. As a journalist, I feel obliged to keep an eye on cultural institutions and, where necessary, either praise or challenge them. See you next year.