Italy begins to reckon with Fascist-era colonial collections

Italy begins to reckon with Fascist-era colonial collections

Italy begins to reckon with Fascist-era colonial collections

For decades, Italy has worked to recover ancient Roman-era statues, Etruscan vases and other treasures that were looted from its soil and sold to museums around the world. Now, the country is coming to terms with the fact that it, too, has stolen items in its museum collections: The relics of a brutal colonial empire in North Africa that it hasn’t fully reckoned with.

For over a year, a team of museum directors, university researchers and scholars has been conducting a “census” of the collections in the 498 Italian state museums to get a handle on what exactly they contain. The aim is to provide government authorities with preliminary data of the weapons, artifacts, and ritual objects Italian museums may hold, to respond to requests for restitution that have only increased amid a general reckoning over the legacies of European colonial empires and the related racial justice movements.

The survey comes as museums and governments across Europe and the Americas have undergone a sea change in giving back cultural artifacts to countries and communities of origin. These museums reason they can no longer hold the objects in good conscience if they were acquired as a result of historical violence, colonial occupation, looting or war.

The Italian audit, begun under the previous government, is continuing under Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has its roots in the neo-fascist successor party of dictator Benito Mussoli. Mussolini’s Fascist regime is most closely associated with Italy’s North African colonies, which covered Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia as well as a protectorate in Albania. The empire began in the late 19th century, but Mussolini tried to expand it, only to be forced to relinquish it after World War II, with Italy’s final administration of Somalia ending in 1960.

“Even though we had a more ephemeral colonial history than Britain, Germany, France or Belgium, the problem obviously cannot be underestimated by us,” the Culture Ministry official in charge of museums, Massimo Osanna, told a recent conference on restitution. “We must rethink the collections, rethink the institutions and rethink the transparency of the narrative, as well as case-by-case restitutions.”

Osanna has tasked a group of museum directors and academics, headed by Christian Greco, director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin, with the audit. The committee has enlisted a dozen graduate students who are helping curators go through their storerooms and archives to understand what’s there.

The aim is to produce a report to the Culture Ministry by mid-year, and to then organize an international symposium in the second half of the year to discuss the findings.

It seems appropriate that Italy’s experiment in coming to terms with its colonial past, including the recent restitution conference, is based at the Museum of Civilizations, located in one of the huge travertine blocks of Fascist architecture in Mussolini’s utopian neighborhood of EUR, in southern Rome.

The museum itself is something of a marvel, rebranded in 2016 as a compendium of 2 million objects from a half-dozen old collections: The Colonial Museum, Museum of Oriental Art, Museum of Medieval Art, the Prehistoric and Ethnographic Museum and Museum of Traditional Popular Arts.

The most problematic among them is the 12,000-piece collection from the Colonial Museum, which Mussolini himself inaugurated in 1923.

The museum storerooms overflow with imposing busts of mustachioed Italian military heroes; specimens of Libyan cotton, Eritrean sunflower seeds, Somalian beans; and plaster facial masks made on live subjects, relics of the anthropological studies of racial typologies that are today so controversial they aren’t exhibited.

It is here that Museum of Civilizations director Andrea Viliani is embarking on a radical rethink of the museum, its problematic collections and the narrative of Italy’s colonial-era past, starting with a preliminary exhibition opening in June.

And Italy over the years has given back plenty of Holocaust-era and other stolen loot - four returned objects were unveiled in Egypt just this week. It has also undertaken two high-profile restitutions from its colonial past: In 2005, Italy returned to Ethiopia the massive, 160-ton Axum Obelisk, which Mussolini ordered sent to Rome in 1937 after his troops overran Ethiopia. And in 2008, then-Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi handed over to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi the Venus of Cyrene, an ancient Roman statue taken in 1913 by Italian troops.

Roman era,