michael naimark




New Media for New Museums First International Retreat

Bologna and Ferrara, Italy

Michael Naimark


"The people of Ferrara, they look different from the people of Bologna; their face structure is different," said Paolo as we were shuttled the thirty miles from Bologna to Ferrara. He seemed to be serious. Paolo Ceccarelli, one of the organizers of the retreat, knows this region of central Italy well, and has a deep appreciation of the character and differences of nearby towns here.

Paolo is now the Dean of Architecture at the University of Ferrara, a small university by Italian standards: only 10,000 students, with 1,000 in the College of Architecture alone. He had spent many years as the Dean of the architecture school in Venice, where there are 10,000 students. The architecture school in Milan has 14,000 students. Colleges are free in Italy, and just about every young person will start in one, though less than 10% graduate. That's the system.

The town of Ferrara, working with Paolo's department, is building a new museum of architecture and urban history; this was the reason for the retreat. The Italian government is interested in innovative musuems and has been seeding challenge grants. Ferrara received one of the first.

The retreat was co-organized by Richard Bender, Dean Emeritus of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley. About twenty people were invited, including faculty members from various Italian universities, museum directors, various Japanese academics and designers, some architects, the Minister of Culture for the region, Doug MacLeod from Banff Centre, and me.

It turned out that many of the participants were involved in making 3D computer models of actual or ancient sites, and most strikingly, were working more-or-less in isolation and wondering why it seems so difficult. Paul Quintrand, a not-young professor at the University of Marseille, had modelled Le Cirque Romain d'Arles. Patrizia Palamidese, faculty at the Computer Science Institute in Pisa, led a team making a computer model of the Egyptian tomb of Visir. Masaichi Naito, NHK's Chief Director of Art and Drama Programmes, produced a reconstruction of Edo Castle. Naohito Okude from Keio University was building both a computer and a miniature model of the Ginza.

In all cases, these models were produced as labors of love, doing massive library research and intergrating pieces of sketches, photos, architectural drawings, numerical data, and textual verse into a 3D virtual reconstruction. And though they were all using SGI machines (where it was duly observed that they have a long way to go to be optimal for such applications), everyone seemed to reassure each other that the bulk of the labor is in the research and integration, an unavoidably human brute-force task. But one with value, since it's only a matter of time before such models will enjoy broad distribution.

The museum directors talked of their new museums. Jerry Margolis of LA's popular one-year-old Museum of Tolerance, a theme museum loaded with "interactives" (his word for interactive exhibits), emphasized how everyone must live with early decisions. Hans-Peter Schwarz of ZKM's Media Museum, due to open in 1996 in Karlsruhe, talked of convincing "the politicians" that having multiple points of view was far better than a strong singular story. Harvard Graduate School of Design faculty Howard Burns and Daniel Tsai are designing a Vicenza-based museum on the Renaissance architect Palladio, and presented their view of non-path-based non-deterministic museum exhibits, wanting all the data collected to be available to researchers as well as the general public.

The future of museums in general was a recurring theme. Felicia Bottino, the regional Minister of Culture, discussed how important museums are even though artifacts abound out of every via and piazza here in the geographic heart of the Renaissance. It's actually the wealth of artifacts that has prompted the Italian government to encourage innovative alternatives in musuems, someone pointed out. It was further pointed out that architecture museums cannot exhibit originals (i.e., architecure) and therefore require some form of mediation.

It wasn't until the last day wrap-up session that the topic of networks was discussed. After all, everyone present was on the Internet. (I overheard the older professor from Marseille offer a paper of his to someone from the University of Tokyo and said "If it's too heavy for you to carry back you can find it on Mosaic.")

It was very clear to everyone that museums must offer unique and powerful site-specific exhibition. But it was equally clear that museums of the future which contain massive databases of local geographic and cultural heritage, assembled with great love and pride, must be connected.

It was agreed by all to meet again.