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Minister hails revamped Egyptian Museum as shining example

Turin-style reforms could take place across Italy as soon as a dozen new directors are appointed

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Dario Franceschini, the Italian culture minister, has hailed the newly refurbished Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum) in Turin as an example of how Italian museums, which have been called backward compared with their UK and US counterparts, should be managed. The museum of Egyptology and anthropology, which opened in 1824, has undergone an extensive, €50m renovation, half of which was paid for by the banking foundation Compagnia di San Paolo. The refurbishment was unveiled in April.

“The new Egyptian Museum is a model,” Franceschini told the Italian news agency Ansa. “Co-operation between the public and private sectors has made it possible to safeguard a great quantity of antiquities and lay down the foundations for a new museum based on research.”

Franceschini’s endorsement is timely: last summer, he announced a series of “revolutionary” reforms, designed to enable leading museums such as the Uffizi in Florence and Venice’s Accademia to gain independence on a par with many European cultural institutions. The minister said: “The chronic lack of autonomy of Italian museums… greatly limits their potential.” He also aims to cut costs and to streamline his administration.

The Egyptian Museum is run by a private foundation—the first of its kind in Italy—established in 2004. Christian Greco, the museum’s director, who previously worked in the Netherlands and joined in March 2014, believes that the model is “effective because of the balance between private and public [funding]. It is worth noting that our different departments—including ticketing, private events and the bookshop—provide 80% of our budget [income].”

In its accounts for 2013, the museum lists sources of income from public bodies, including €189,135 from the city and €80,462 from the Piedmont regional authority (these sums were transferred from the “renovation fund”).

Greco says that he “aspires to combine the public-private approach seen in the UK and the philanthropy-led model of the US”. An important innovation was the formation, in 2007, of the Scarabei, or “beetles”—a non-profit donors’ association that has helped to fund restoration projects. But Greco strikes a note of caution, saying that museum professionals must remain independent when private backers are on board.

In January, the culture ministry announced that it was seeking directors to lead 20 museums and heritage sites, including the Capodimonte Museum in Naples, the Uffizi and Il Polo Reale di Torino (Royal Museums), a cluster of state-funded galleries in Turin. The directors, who do not have to be Italian, will be appointed through public competitions (an advertisement appeared in the Economist magazine). The ministry declined to say if any posts have been filled.

According to the ministry’s website, each museum will establish its own governing body and statute within six months of its respective director’s appointment. The museum heads will be able to make key decisions, such as changing ticket prices or service contractors, which takes the power out of the hands of civil servants. Operating at arm’s length from the state has paid off for the Egyptian Museum, which also secured funding from other private sources for its overhaul; another banking foundation, the Fondazione CRT, gave €5m, the city contributed €10m and the Piedmont regional authority gave €7m.

The refurbishment, which began in 2010, took place across four floors, but the museum did not need to close. Previously disused areas, including a 19th-century staircase by Alessandro Mazzucchetti, are once again publicly accessible, thanks to the efforts of the Italian architectural firm Isolarchitetti.

The museum’s chronological display covers a period spanning 4,000BC to AD700. One highlight is the Coffin Room, which houses funerary items dating from 1,100BC to 600BC. The 2km journey through the museum ends on the ground floor in the Gallery of Kings, conceived by the Italian production designer Dante Ferretti.

“There is sometimes a tension between chronological and thematic presentations, but the display in Turin is mainly chronological, with some impressive thematic sections,” says Neal Spencer, a keeper in the department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, London, and a member of the Turin museum’s advisory board.

“What is striking is the number of intact tomb groups on display, such as the Tomb of Kha [dating to 3,500BC],” he says, adding that the redevelopment puts the Egyptian Museum in the “first rank of world collections”. The new displays include loans from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Berlin’s Neues Museum. “Christian Greco and the new team have opened up a dialogue with the world of Egyptology. We are already discussing potential exhibitions and research projects,” Spencer says.