Rome Travel Guide

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

How not to run an art museum: a few lessons for Rome

This artwork at MACRO last year may be a subtle message from
the employees to the patrons... read on
Okay, I know I shouldn't whine, and we try to restrain ourselves and not publish whiny pieces.  There's enough of that to go around in Rome without our piling on.  But several recent art museum experiences have forced my hand.  Here are four current beefs:

1) rude employees
2) explanations only in Italian
3) placards designed not to be read easily:  too small, too high, too low - in just one day, we saw them all
4) anti-social and force-fed audio guides

I'll start with the rude employees, since they disrupt the art-going experience the most.  And I'll pick on the employees at MACRO, the city's contemporary art gallery that we had (perhaps) the bad sense to rate above MAXXI, the state's contemporary art gallery.  They are just consistently rude and, as a result, cast a pall over my entire MACRO experience.

We have always had a soft spot for MACRO, the runner-up in most people's eyes, to the bigger, glitzier, starchitect-driven MAXXI.  But it seems when MACRO tried to imitate its bigger sister, it decided it should get chippier as well.  We loved the MACRO evening when they handed out Campari sodas and let people don hard hats and go down into what would become the main entrance/new addition by Odile Decq.  We've done more than half a dozen posts that highlight this gallery.

No money back... one of these signs - now which one? - warns
you the main building isn't open, tho' it just had its grand

So when the addition finally opened, we were excited to see it.  We trooped over to MACRO, handed out our then 9 Euros each (quite a price rise from the former 2 Euro entrance fee, but admittedly less than the now 11 Euro fee), only to be told as we walked to the new addition that - even though it had just had its grand opening a few days before - it wasn't really open.  And, no, we couldn't get our money back.  Couldn't we see the sign, said the unrelenting ticket seller.  In the photo here you can see that there isn't exactly one sign that stands out.  I guess that sign about the new addition not being open is here somewhere!

That was 2010.  Oh, well, we'll come next year, we said.  And we did, in 2011.  Then the new entrance was open - so open they wouldn't even let you in the former entrance.  One of those, okay, now just to get in, you get to walk all the way around the block (MAXXI pulled this stunt too - and the blocks aren't exactly short) from what you thought was the entrance.  And once you enter, you are treated to the opportunity to watch 6 employees while no one even acknowledges you're at the counter (photo).  Nonetheless, we swallowed our temptation to say "screw you" and walk out, and enjoyed the new building and exhibits - enough, as I noted above, that we rated MACRO above MAXXI in our post, even while taking note of the less-than-helpful employees.

Everyone except the woman in jeans is an employee...count 'em,
and no one is even greeting her.
So now we're at 2013 (I guess we survived 2012 without getting torqued).  And now there was only 1 employee at the counter and one patron - me.  Nonetheless, the woman at the counter managed to be snarly and unpleasant, even though we had combo tickets already purchased for 7 days of MACRO Testaccio and the basic MACRO.  Maybe she was disappointed she didn't get a sale.  We had to keep showing our tickets at each exhibit hall, and they were scrutinized.  "You know, these are good only for 7 days..."  Yes, we know, and it's within the 7 days!   Add to that less than stellar exhibitions (walls of flat work talking about galleries going back decades, but giving up in 2001 and not talking about the current decade, e.g.), and maybe we'll have to revise our 1-2 order for MACRO and MAXXI (MAXXI is on one of the 4 tours in our new book, Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler ; see below for more information).

Sink as art: white when the water is cold.
Turns red when the hot water is on.
I should note these comments are limited to the main MACRO gallery, not MACRO Testaccio.

And we still like the toilets. 

More than all this, it just bugs me that a nasty employee can make me not even want to walk through the exhibit, and affect my attitude towards the art.

Now to those placards only in Italian.  The State's immense modern art gallery, Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Moderna, just north of the Villa Borghese, has an interesting show on Italian still life in the 20th century, including dozens of unframed paintings (wonder what the artists think of that!), "lesser known works," they acknowledge.  But all of the placards and explanations are in Italian.  Fine for us, but what about the other thousands of tourists who might want to know something about Italian art? We commend the CITY's modern art gallery (Galleria dell'Arte Moderna di Roma Capitale on via F. Crispi - a post will come later) for its excellent dual-language placards.  And the State can't bother?  In this show too, some of the placards were too high to read, and some you had to kneel to read.  Really?  Of course, that's not as bad as the placement of some of the art works - still lifes at 10 feet aren't exactly hung to be viewed.  Get a grip, GNAM!

And, finally, those dang audioguides.  Our last experience with those was at the comprehensive Brueghel family (don't be fooled and think you're going to see a lot of the Brueghel master himself - but you do get Heironymous Bosch's Seven Deadly Sins thrown in - and that's worth it) exhibition at Chiostro Bramante, just off Piazza Navona.  I generally don't like audioguides.  Some tell you what you're looking at ("there's a woman in a red hat" - okay, I can figure that out); some are excruciatingly long and off-point.  And they make the crowds cluster around the paintings they cover.  The text of this audioguide was in fact quite good.  Each piece was under 2 minutes and pointed out things one might not have seen or known.  Still, we were forced to buy the audioguides, because there was virtually no printed text accompanying the exhibit.  If you went in without the audioguide, as we first did, you were completely without context.  And, audioguides make museum going such a solitary experience.  How does one talk to one's companion, when you are always tuned into something, and not necessarily the same thing?  It seems so un-social, compared to reading a placard together and discussing a piece.  Sometimes solitary museum going is what one wants, but one shouldn't be forced into it.

End of diatribe.  Get over it, Dianne!

 Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler  features the 21st-century music and art center of Flaminio, highlighted by MAXXI, along with Mussolini's Foro Italico, also the site of the 1960 summer Olympics, and three other walks: the "garden city" suburb of Garbatella, the 20th-century suburb of EUR, and a stairways walk in classic Trastevere. 


This 4-walk book is available in all print and eBook formats The eBook is $1.99 through and all other eBook sellers.  See the various formats at

Modern Rome: 4 Great Walks for the Curious Traveler
 now is also available in print, at, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores,  and other retailers; retail price $5.99.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I agree absolutely: an empty museum is not a public draw. Shows stay up too long, they are not monitored, often the labels fall off, or hold errors, or are badly tranlated, or neglect the English translation, which IS the language of contemporary art. Gallery attendants should know the basics of what they are attending: where might we find such and such, or what gallery are we entering. Thanks Dianne!!