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The museum of the 20th century

Immerse yourself in a multimedia experience to visit the past, understand the present and conjure up the future.

The Fondazione di Venezia is giving the city, Italy and the world a national museum so that the Italian people may get to know the century that most contributed to forging their modern identity in the conviction that knowledge is an indispensable starting point from which to design an individual and collective future. Italy previously had no such museum. By conceiving and creating the Museum of the 20th century (M9), the Fondazione di Venezia fills this gap and creates a place where Italians can not only rediscover where they come from but also understand how their rich but contradictory past helps build the future.

For Italy, perhaps more so than for other countries, the 20th century was that of the greatest contradictions: rapid and previously unthinkable improvements in the living conditions and wellbeing of the population occurred alongside huge tragedies such as the most destructive wars in historic memory and unprecedented economic recessions. These developments and the devastation impacted profoundly on Italy’s living conditions, habits and culture well into the 21st century. 

This collective journey unfolded over more than a century and is brought to life in an original, innovative and emotionally engaging museum that adopts multimedia and interactive technology to serve historical narration. Visitors are immersed in the changing culture, lifestyles, natural/urban landscapes, sciences and ways of working that typified the acceleration imposed by history on the 20th century and which is ongoing. They will understand the actions by the population, economy and politics behind these changes and that interacted with them.

They will experience the emotion of being in a crowded square listening to great orators; they will feel crushed by the experience of two huge wars; they will realise the harshness of factory work, being subjected to the pace of the assembly line; they can immerse themselves in the clothing, houses and kitchens of their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, reliving their everyday lives; they will see the countryside and the cities change; they will rediscover all the Italian dialects, and so much more. The Museum of the 20th century is a place – some have called it the “piazza” – where Italians and all those interested in Italy can meet, explore their origins and how the things around us developed, as well as how to project them into the future. 

The Museum is a live and constantly evolving organism, as dictated by technology. It will be renewed every year, adopting the culture and methods of a workshop driven by cultural, technological, social and political change, in the knowledge that history is always revisited but from the stance of today’s problems and a strong focus on changes that look to the future.

The Museum will be in the centre of Mestre, itself the barycentre of a dynamic metropolitan area (surrounded by Venice, Treviso and Padua) with a population of more than 2,5 million. Overlooking the great Venetian Lagoon, it is a unique workshop of the huge social, economic, cultural and environmental changes of the 20th century, of which it is both symbol and custodian.

The Museum is centred around eight large theme sections, each offering different and complementary experiences: emotion, engagement, general information, myriads of historical details to be explored at will, the stories of people, families and enterprises. Approach modes will be suggested, based on each visitor’s interests and needs: those interested in the big picture of Italian history; those keen to explore specific aspects, for high school and university students, for children, for Italians living abroad, descendants of those who emigrated and found a new homeland without ever abandoning that of their origin.

1. The way we were and are.
Demographics and social structures

A population is at the root of everything. The history of the 20th century in Italy was created by the men and women who lived in Italy. Section one is devoted to demographic, anthropometric and social changes in the Italian population since Italian Unification.
It highlights the impact of environmental conditions, migratory flows, warfare and economic dynamics on population size and composition, on social roles and on the dynamics of family structures, radically changed over the years.

The Italian population has doubled since 1901 while family units have progressively shrunk. Body shapes and physiognomies have changed radically as has the way people are born, grow, get old and die, all in a context in which the social roles linked to different ages have recorded huge variations.
The durations, forms and founding reasons of family relationships have changed, with transformations occurring in the forms of cohabitation and the very way Italians see and live the family, from engagement to marriage, separation, divorce and the unmarried couple.

2. The Italian way of life.
Consumptions, habits and lifestyles

Visitors are taken on a journey through time, exploring how models of consumption and lifestyles changed in the 20th century. The various domestic surroundings, social practices and standard features of the Italian material culture are reconstructed in immersive scenarios with the aid of 3D technology and virtual realities borrowed from cinematography and computerised graphics.

The home is adopted as a metaphor for evolving lifestyles: it illustrates and sums up many of the changes in Italian consumptions, behaviour and socialising, through all the social stratifications that characterised the different periods of the 20th century. It is the perfect place in which to narrate the evolution of living spaces and domestic life but also changing roles, habits and relations within the family and changes in the production system, cultural references and widespread consumption models.

This section asks visitors to consider how change was partly favoured by the introduction of modern technology, products and production systems and by the influx of mass media – advertising in particular – constantly modifying the use and perception of time and space.

3. The race for progress.
Science, technology and innovation

Technology is a core focus of our lives today but it also influenced Italian lives throughout the 20th century, in a perhaps less immediately obvious but equally decisive manner.  This section takes visitors behind the scenes of everyday life to explore the rich and contradictory mechanisms that drove change. Thanks to a number of interactive installations, visitors will learn about, dismantle and reassemble the things that most profoundly changed the habits, rhythms and lives of Italians – from the light bulb to the washing machine, shower, TV remote control, mobile phone and ATM – illustrating their design genesis and impact on all our lives.

Evolution in scientific research and technological development is seen through the biographies of leading scientists, researchers and innovators. Everyday objects are the key to a narrative that reveals the developments in infrastructure systems that have made the lifestyle to which we have grown accustomed possible: railway networks, electric, water, motorway, radio/TV, telephone and even optic-fibre systems.

Despite their huge benefits, science and technology play an ambivalent role in today’s society. This section highlights the difficulties and inconveniences our lives would have experienced without the technological, medical and scientific conquests of the 20th century plus the negative consequences, from the development of weapons of mass destruction to pollution, that the evolution accelerated or favoured.

4. Money, money, money.
Economy, work, production and wellbeing

The 20th century is when Italians took a “giant leap forward”, leaving behind the poverty that had marked the lives of the overwhelming majority of the population in previous centuries.

The extreme poverty and backwardness that plagued the country at the turn of the 20th century evolved over the following decades; the economy of subsistence that had characterised the lives of millions of farmers, always struggling against hunger, evolved thanks to widespread industrialisation and the subsequent passage to a tertiary society. This brought higher incomes, the joys of mass consumption and widespread wealth, at least until the start of the major recession of its final decade.

Does wellbeing last forever, though? Might there be a return to poverty? How, in the space of 100 years, could there have been a transition from farm worker to factory worker, factory worker to office worker and office worker to temporary worker?

Section four raises these issues, highlighting the disjointed – in terms of time and geography – process of “modernising” the Italian economic and production system by juxtaposing two theme areas: one telling how the Italy of work and production changed and the other illustrating the social repercussions generated by these changes over time. 

5. Let’s look around us.
Landscapes and urban settlements

The economic and social changes of the 20th century altered not only the habits of Italians but also the spaces they live in and the landscapes they see. No place or panorama has not changed – and sometimes radically so – in the last 120 years, often being anthropized but sometimes recovering nature.

Section five takes visitors on a journey through the countryside and the cities, the Alpine forests and the coastal areas, the natural and artificial spaces, explaining how and why the areas people live in have been shaped, governed and sometimes irreparably altered.

The visitors’ gaze can rest on the many features connoting all the Italian landscapes, from the 100 bell-towers of its old villages to the conurbations of the Lombard megalopolis, from the imposing post-war urban developments to the radical changes in mountain and coastal zones, highlighting historical hiatuses and crucial moments of major transformation.

6. Res publica.
The State, institutions and politics

The square is the epitome of the public space but also a metaphor for our belonging to a community.

This section takes this metaphor as the starting point from which to narrate the collective events and phenomena that marked the political and institutional evolution of Italy and the tensions that arose between acquiring citizenship and learning the – not always easy – rules of democratic cohabitation.

What does it mean to be citizens? What are the duties and the rights? What are the onuses and responsibilities of being a part of a society?

At what moments in time did the mass participation of Italians change the course of history? What charismatic leaders guided the country?

At a time when the younger generations seem no longer aware of the long and difficult path that led to the acquisition of political and social rights, this section immerses visitors in scenarios from the crucial phases of that epic journey. From the monarchy to the republic, from peace to war, from totalitarianism to democracy, the key moments in the “great sweep of history” are relived through the eyes of the millions of Italians who experienced, suffered and celebrated them. 

7. Forging the Italian identity.
Education, training and information

At the time of Italian Unification, the Italians were more like the pieces of a large puzzle than one people: all were different and hard to put together.

The first mission of the fledgling unified state was to promote the teaching and learning of a common language which would further knowledge of each other and spread a national culture, creating a sense of shared belonging.

Completing this process involved lengthy timeframes and encountered numerous difficulties but it was achieved with the help of schools and other nation-building agents: the church, army, politics and mass media.

Learning a national language and the slow process of mass education that eradicated illiteracy are a continuous thread running through the visitor route but the intentionally labyrinthine organisation of the section also prompts the public to reflect on the reasons behind the endurance of the many dialects, the “language” of loved ones and tradition, origins and roots. 

8. The Italian identity.
What makes us feel Italian

What makes people feel Italian? What prompts people to feel they are members of a national community and to see themselves as similar to or different from their neighbours? Clichés, stereotypes, habits, mannerisms, common sayings and actions but also a culture, the expression of the Italian genius that distinguishes Italians from the rest of the world and unites them, with or against other peoples.

This section encourages visitors to wonder about the Italian identity today, starting from the production and consumption of culture. A large encyclopaedic installation narrates Italy’s literary, artistic, cinematographic, musical, television and sporting events. A specific installation illustrates the role of religions in forging the Italian identity.

With considerable self-irony, it examines the stereotypes and prejudices with which Italians have narrated themselves: those of the many regional identities, the ways they interpret foreign identities and the – not always flattering – terms with which foreigners describe Italian faults and virtues.

Temporary exhibitions and the auditorium-cinema

The cultural offer of M9 comprises a large space for temporary exhibitions on the third floor of the museum building and, unique in Italy, a ground-floor auditorium/cinema with a 4K screen and 200 seats with VR visors for virtual-reality screenings.

2,610

Permanent exhibition
(first and second floors)

1,400

Temporary exhibitions and events
(third floor)

280

4k cinema/auditorium, 200 seats with VR visors
(ground floor)

8 theme sections

narrating the 20th century

106 ITALIAN ARCHIVES

provided digital materials

60 INSTALLATIONS

multimedia and interactive

47 CURATORS

including historians, sociologists, architects, writers

5 multimedia and interaction design studios

designed the installations