Thanks to the Public Catalogue Foundation, people in the UK now enjoy unprecedented online access to their cultural heritage. In association with Britain’s public museums and a host of other institutions, the PCF have catalogued and digitised the nation’s entire collection of publicly owned oil paintings. This achievement stands in stark contrast to many of the major museums in Europe and particularly in Italy, who lag far behind the rest of the West in terms of online content. We are often reminded that the world is shrinking – yet Italy still feels somewhat out of reach.
Take the Uffizi in Florence, for example – one of the first public art galleries in Europe, home to probably the finest collection of Italian Renaissance paintings in the world and a monument to mankind’s ingenuity and creativity. And yet, now well behind the times, the museum failed to secure the Uffizi.com domain name. Instead, the official site at the Polo Museale Fiorentino remains frustratingly hard to find, tucked away in the search results and not clearly signposted.
Consequently, the casual browser would be forgiven for assuming that the museum was in fact a second-rate tourist information office. Rather than being greeted by a world renowned collection of paintings, the top result on Google is instead littered with cheap adverts and special offers – often confusingly for attractions not even in Florence, such as the leaning tower of Pisa or Leonardo’s Last Supper. These pseudo-sites are an infuriatingly common occurrence. Similar shoddy façades obscure digital access to the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples and the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.
And what of Rome, the eternal city, cultural epicentre for over two millennia, birthplace of the Christian Church and home to the Stanze di Raffaello, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and more Bernini sculptures that you can shake a stick at? Well…the Galleria Borghese has apparently decided to catalogue its collection with a mobile phone (these washed-out images hardly do their creators justice) and the Vatican Museums’ website now looks older than the Colosseum.
The latter includes a ‘helpful hints’ section, with information for visitors such as: ‘It is obligatory to leave alcoholic drinks in the cloakroom before entering the Museums’. No doubt wise words – but what if you wanted to find out when Titian painted his Portrait of the Doge Niccolò Marcello or the dimensions of Sassetta’s Madonna of Humility? Good luck.
Amid the sea of clip art and inactive links, there are a few beacons of hope. Many of Italy’s contemporary art museums have embraced the modern world. Cataloguing Italy’s public collections is an immense task and of course, there is no substitute for visiting the actual museums. However, improving access and finding new ways to engage with cultural heritage ought to be the lifeblood of any museum. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but someone had to lay the first stone.