Managing the cultural heritage

I think that everybody heard about what happened in Pompei- just the last of a long series of cultural heritage losses due to mismanagement.

As I wrote before, I think that the Italian cultural heritage is a shared heritage- and Italy lacks the resources to manage everything: what you find inside the UNESCO list (45 sites) is just the tip of the iceberg.

But I read over the last few days too many articles talking about principles, not practicalities.

Therefore, I would like to share some considerations derived from data (on the actual costs involved in protecting cultural heritage) and experience (on project/programme and service management).

Personal considerations: I do not expect anybody to share my perspective and experience.

A small note: this article is seemingly focused only on Italy- but as witnessed by the recent news about floods, disasters, and so on, what we received from our ancestors and we will leave to future generations requires thinking about a different concept of cultural heritage.

I did not join the jokes about UNESCO acknowledging the cultural value of our food- I think that a cultural heritage ministry should cover something more than paintings and buildings, and focus about a blend of visible artefacts, and the cultural environment that produced those results.

Yes, the land, the food, the lifestyle, and so on.

Therefore, Italy is an easy target (as I travelled across the country quite often): but also other countries should look at how they manage their own cultural heritage.

Last but not least: our cultural heritage is not cast in stone- it is an evolving concept.

And now, first the information, then the considerations.

Protecting our cultural heritage: a small case study

I recovered an old (1974) booklet about “La Basilica sotterranea neopitagorica di Porta Maggiore in Roma”, a I century C.E. religious building that was closed by order of the Roman Senate (yes, the SPQR), reportedly due to the potential political impact.

It was discovered in 1917, when an hole opened under the railroad nearby the main station in Rome, Roma Termini.

A first intervention was done in 1924, followed by others in 1941-1942, and, after the dropping of bombs in nearby San Lorenzo on July 19th 1943, from May 19th 1951 until December 1st 1952 new works were carried out.

The concept? Building a “pillow box” around the Basilica, while working under the railroad, considering that the traffic could not be stopped (more than one hundred trains passing above the Basilica- each day).

The work was even more difficult, as a new set of walls was to be set 4 meters under the Basilica, i.e. 18 meters under the railroad- a marvel of engineering.

The “laundry list”? 320 million liras (according to the official inflation tables from ISTAT approx 5 million euros), 24000 man/days, 100 tons of steel, 5000 cubic meters of ordinary cement, 550 cubic meters of concrete.

If you want- it started by chance (the discovery), became a one-off project (the 1924 intervention), but eventually evolved into an emerging programme, with multiple projects concurring toward the common goal- preserving the Basilica for future generations.

Frankly- I have been often in Rome from 2004 until 2006, and less often but almost on a monthly basis from 2006 until 2008- and I must admit that I never saw a sign or map listing the Basilica (maybe it is just my fault, also if on wikipedia it is listed as closed to avoid further damages).

Between 1951 and 1952 various organizations (from the National Railways to various Government components) were able to work together on a significant engineering project.

But each one of the organizations involved is focused on long-term infrastructural activities and service maintenance (see Method_5of5: project (management) and Method_4of5: service (management) for more information on my perspective on the subject).

And this is a significant difference with the current attitude in Italy: coping mainly with emergencies.

Coping with emergencies

Since the Pompei accident, every day brought yet another article discussing how Italian archaeological sites are falling into decay, from blocks falling off the Coliseum, to other minor incidents.

Including constant flooding due to massive “cementificazione” (i.e. covering riverbeds, hills, etc with concrete).

I remember that I had meetings in Rome when Pope John Paul II died- and I must confess: I was positively surprised by how the emergency (millions of people coming to Rome over few days) was managed.

The “protezione civile” was able to take care of organizing logistics, support, security along with other organizations- ensuring a relatively smooth flow of pilgrims.

Somebody could say: well, it wasn’t really unexpected, and therefore there were contingency plans.

Yes- but preparing a plan and activating a plan do not require the same skills.

Since 1992, Italy has a national equivalent to the FEMA in the USA: the “protezione civile” is structured with a vertical integration within the territory, and has local resources that can be activated if and when needed.

This organizational structure allows a flexible use of local resources with local knowledge, but operating within shared operational rules, and coordinating with local authorities.

The main focus is managing emergencies: i.e. a short-term initiative, but based on the availability of pre-positioned resources.

Any emergency: including those involving our cultural heritage.

Which local authorities? From Regional governments to the local “soprintendenza”, the local branches of the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali – Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.

The “protezione civile” is entitled to do whatever is needed to solve as soon as possible an emergency: including picking suppliers outside the customary public procurement rules.

And this is where the conflict between solving the emergency and managing the territory generated some issues.

Emergency vs monitoring

In any organization, purchasing products and services requires following some procedures.

Any organizational entity that is part of (local or central) governments in any European Union country has a further set of rules to abide to, ensuring a fair competition between potential suppliers.

Whenever you give the power to bypass the rules- usually you have to introduce limits concerning size, space, time, and purpose.

Otherwise- you can read about the current investigations on the procurement practices adopted by the “protezione civile” and others involved in managing the cultural heritage (including Pompei) and the territory.

As shown in the small case study about the Basilica, delivering something with a longer-term perspective and producing significant longer-term effects requires the involvement of somebody able to work on that specific timeframe.

Or, in plain English: somebody able to manage a service has usually a different attitude from somebody used to work on coping with emergencies.

In Italy, you can still find the “fabbrica del Duomo”: as the town church was usually financed by the citizens, once built, a “corporation” was set up to maintain the building- for centuries (e.g. in Milan).

Italy has a spoils systems that shuffles not only the top layer, but often converts into political appointees also bureaucrats.

And this generates two issues: a lack of stability and long-term perspective, coupled with the expediency and opportunistic approach often followed by political appointees (as their first loyalty is toward those who appointed them, focusing on the next election cycles).

The nature of cultural heritage

Managing the cultural heritage is an infrastructural issue: it cannot be managed by jumping between emergencies.

Probably, the neglect of the last few decades will require a permanent monitoring to prevent further emergencies, affecting both the territory and our cultural heritage, but at the same time Italy still lacks somebody looking beyond the next election cycle.

And while this could be an issue anywhere- it is even more critical in a country where governments seem to be constantly focused on crisis management.

A natural candidate would be an expanded “Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali”- but certainly not when the those in charge of the government’s purse reportedly deliver statements such as “La cultura non si mangia” (you cannot eat culture)- to justify cutting resources.

Admittedly, it is not just a matter of giving more resources- it is the lack of a coherent approach to the management of our cultural heritage, and a superficial or missing oversight on how resources are allocated.

Over the last 30 years politicians (and not only in Italy) kept extolling the virtues of the market, competition, and so on- giving examples from the private sector.

But they often forgot (and forget) that in the private sector everybody is usually subject to a constant monitoring on how resources are allocated.

Call it internal audit, governance, and so on: what matters, is knowing why resources are used- and keep everybody accountable.

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