Museums and art education: Rome GNAM’s curatorial path

by Giulia Carletti

Children stand in front of Klimt’s masterpiece in one of the first rooms. Courtesy of the museum.

Nineteenth and twentieth century art enthusiasts will find their temple in the eternal city, at Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea (GNAM).

Art education in museums is an ever-changing reality, which is in a continuous development and updating through innovative guide-systems, media stations, and workshops and activities inside the musuem. However, sometimes, the most effective and direct means to educate visitors into the world of art history is the very criteria under which the collection is displayed.

Founded in 1883 in Rome, GNAM was born out of the efforts and the foresight of strong personalities, and from the need for an Italian national art. Today, the Museum hosts the hugest collection of contemporary art in Italy.

It was not until Palma Bucarelli’s governance — from the mid 1940s until 1975 — that the GNAM entered its golden age, experiencing a fertile expansion and a new cultural awareness. International and contemporary leading artists such as Picasso, Pollock, Mondrian, Burri, Capogrossi, and Manzoni began to be exhibited and to be part of the main collection. By the end of the century, GNAM had acquired the status of “Museo Madre” (“mother museum,” or “chief museum”), as collector of 19th and 20th century art.

GNAM’s main entrance at Viale delle Belle Arti, photo by @artribune.

In 2011, GNAM’s curatorial path changed under the supervision of superintendent Maria Vittoria Marini Clarelli into a new one, which better suited the Museum’s role as a national-cultural institution. The path, organized on two floors, follows a chronological line, displaying the artworks from the 19th to the 20th century. Each room’s topic revolves around art movements and issues, artistic trends, and single artists — in the “monographic rooms.” However, the thoughtfulness of GNAM’s curatorial project lies in its effective didactic approach.Accordingly, the Museum does not seek to show a mere chronological history of modern and contemporary art, but it rather uses such chronological criteria to provide the viewer with the critical tools, necessary to evaluate and appreciate a modern and contemporary work of art.

Alfredo Pirri, Passi, 2011, photo by © Toni Garbasso. Courtesy of the museum.

The entrance hall houses the site-specific installation Passi by Alfredo Pirri, made of a broken glass pavement and recreations of classical statues, through which the viewer performs a quasi-cathartic act before accessing the collection. The huge central hall shows those same artworks that mostly created scandal within the art world when acquired by GNAM in the 50s and 60s. Duchamp, Fontana, Burripervade the room with their disruptive yet eternal work, making the viewers question the ever-debated concept of art. Here, the museum challenges the viewer’s thoughts on what art should actually look like. In other words, whereas the classical notion of art is considered surpassed by the art world, it might not be regarded as such by common viewers. This is why the huge entrance hall is also the last one, in which viewers end their journey through the whole history of modern and contemporary art, from Neoclassicism to the Avant-gardes, from Modernism to Arte Povera, ready to look at those same works with a newly fresh gaze.

Central hall with works of Duchamp, Burri, Capogrossi, etc., photos by artribune (2011). Courtesy of the museum.

This curatorial path shows how the entire collection of the GNAM aims thus at giving a vaster public — not necessarily an art-cultured one — a new perspective on the same works of art that it experienced at the entrance. In this way, viewers are invited — somehow — to leverage on art education in order to find out what it actually means to critically think about art.

If you happen to be in Rome, you definitely want to live this culturally and spiritually rich experience, admiring the all-encompassing collection of GNAM.

Originally published at