Street “Auras” in a City’s Museum

Street “Auras” in a City’s Museum (October, 2005 The Netherlands) by Blerina Berberi

Based on the recent issue in Florence regarding the damage of public sculptures, this research discusses the importance of preserving art and culture, conservation, the context of the museum, authenticity of artworks and deliberates some controversies in the discipline. Our beloved world has many places of attraction. Among them, cities, museums, galleries and other arts centers are the main tourists’ contemplation sites. Yet, as everything made in time ceases to exist in the future, a special attention is displayed toward the conservation and preservation of our culture, arts and any other tangible or intangible upbringings of our heritage.
All these “goods” are either publicly or privately exhibited in various locations. However, artists through out their times, commissioned by whoever, have considered public spaces where parts of our daily life mingle, as suitable settings for their artworks. Thus, cities, like Florence, are more than just nice to visit for their artworks in museums, galleries and other places, but also offer the freedom of having a coffee at the piazza and looking at sculptures of great masters, where some authentic or others not. Nevertheless, time, forces of humans and nature deteriorate the quality of artworks in public streets. But what has to be done to preserve this heritage, or first, why should we?

1. The Value of Arts and Culture
Cultural goods are associated with our human beliefs, attitude, values, etc., and other reasons which render these artistic products, not just merely as decorations but as something more. Nevertheless, states, societies, human history, etc., are made distinguishable or narrated in such cultural and artistic products. Apart from being inspired by these goods, it can also be the case that some classes claim a status by possessing any of them. The reason is that cultural goods are part of the economy and market, thus are often converted in financially profitable assets and not
to forget most of them aren’t cheap to buy.
Some economists, like Throsby, state that values of cultural goods, such as aesthetics, spirituality, history etc, can be seen in economic terms as primarily profitable. Throsby states that artworks are the cultural capital of a nation or the world so they do have public-good characteristics. But they can be also seen as financial assets, such as a store of wealth, etc. He also claims that future consumption of cultural goods is dependent on the present satisfaction and the accumulation of knowledge and experience in arts and culture. Also culturalists, like Klamer, acknowledge that cultural goods provide not just pleasure but also income. Klamer states that investments in culture are always supported by the argument of the increase of tourism thus generate profit. However, he explicitly claims that cultural goods function best in spheres, unlike market, where the valuation is primarily social and cultural.
Therefore, cultural values, which are distinct from economic ones, stand higher than any monetary value being flogged at Christie’s. Furthermore, even though the interpretations of many cultural goods may change, we still want to preserve some of these goods, as consisting part of our human identity. What about Florence?

Florence is the city of admiration of great works of art, both outdoors and indoors. Recent stories tell that a man who climbed the 16th century Neptune, by Bartolomeo Ammanati, just to have a picture, broke the hand of the sculpture standing at Piazza della Signora. Also other works by Bernini and Sansovino have been deteriorated by human actions. Yet the protection of artworks in public locations is not always possible, as costless. Public sculptures in Florence, were intended to stay out in the streets. But the modern theories of conservation and pacts signed for the protection of the past heritage require the preservation of such artworks in different settings. Why? Because there are of great importance, they give the identity to the city, country, society and its past. From the cultural aspect they are also part of humanity’s creation, by which internationals are delighted and ready to visit these places, eventually generating financial profit for everyone involved in arts with such assumptions. So how do we conserve, slow the deterioration process of the public art in Florence? A 24/7 surveillance is highly expensive, thus some artworks have to be displayed indoors, such as in public museum, while in the mean time replicas will be standing in the place of the authentic works.

2. Conservation as Displacement
Documentaries of mummies being preserved in museums present the same case as in Florence. The displacement of artworks for preservation is important because they hold our cultural values and as the Venice Charter, 1964, Article 3, states monuments should be restored and conserved in order to keep them safe not just for aesthetic purpose but also for historical evidence4. Thus great masters’ sculptures in Florence are not just beautiful and attractive but they also indicate certain individuals, movements, beliefs and more specifically the history of the Renaissance period that we all want to remind and contemplate on. However, Article 7 states: “A monument is inseparable… from the setting in which it occurs. The moving of all or part of a monument cannot be allowed except where the safeguarding of that monument demands it or where it is justified by national or international interest of paramount importance.”
So far, according to the International Charter for Conservation, Florence’s art that remains unprotected in the streets would be legally allowed to move in public museums. But what about artists’, and commissioners’, intention? Their works were primarily displayed in the streets so their artworks would publicly be admired in the streets of Florence. But, as mentioned also earlier on, the artists during Renaissance have had not a great concern for the deterioration of the sculptures apart from choosing the best everlasting material for the work, since the theories on conservation are quite modern. Also, Wetering, states that being aware of artists’ wishes and intention, does not mean that conservation has a not certain autonomy which is independent from artists’ intention. He states that we’ll never understand completely the truth about the artist’s intentions, therefore in this case in order to protect the authentic works, which are being damaged, looted, decreasing in number, some sculptures would have to move indoors. But what are the consequences or litigations related to such a displacement from the context?

3. Streets and Museum Space
Like the streets of Florence, art museums preserve our historical and cultural memory, values and truths. Apart from that, museums have also different departments in conservation, preservation techniques, ethics, etc. Nevertheless, changing the context of an artwork is also considered as changing the meaning and/ or perception of the work. Shifting from the streets to the museums, there is a difference. Both locations represent our cultural values, yet in different ways. Therefore, the placements of Florence’s sculptures in the museum in not just a storage where things behind glass are exhibited. So will Florence’s 16th century street sculptures be perceived differently in the public museum? Carol Duncan considers the act of visiting a museum as a ritual, and the museum itself the place where the individual enacts the ritual. She states that art museums resemble places like temples, and some of them even have the façade of Greek temples. Furthermore, she claims that even the interior, such as niches, of museums the interior is designed with more space and exclusivity to artworks in order to emphasize contemplation on each work. Nevertheless, different rules are set in museums where some behaviors, as speaking out loud, are not tolerated. According to Victor Turner, what we experience in a museum is liminiality, which is a “betwixt-and-between the normal, day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending”. Therefore, we head for different feelings to artworks in a museum due to the mental state that is formed in this space. Also others have referred to the museum as the place where “time is suspended”. Moreover, Edmond Leach stated “…every culture mounts some symbolic effort to contradict the irreversibility of time and its end result of death”. So Duncan concludes that Leach is right, since our ritual in visiting museums reflects the same concern by way of contemplation of the cultural goods in a suspended time.
The role of the museum and its impact on the observer has produced different theories, and among them it is frequently stated that museums are places where we all have a sense of enlightenment. Be it historical data or just some beautiful sculptures, observers are always enlightened not just by the information but also form the emotional experience inside the museum. Consequently, if Florence’s sculptures are placed in public museums, the public will perceive these artworks differently, or better say as more valuable. The reason is that we all have the assumption that the finest and rawest “memories” of our humanity are mainly collected in such places. So here, is a good perspective in changing the location of the sculptures from the streets of Florence to the public museums where a different attention will be given to the artworks. Still, this might have not been the artists’ intention but at least more future generations will the able to see the original works of the masters. However, Florence still does not want to loose its image of the city full of streets of sculpture. Accordingly replicas will stand in the original places of the authentic works. Yet, Why should we place replicas in streets and authentic ones in museums?

4. Preserving the Aura
Placing replicas in the streets of Florence means that reproduction of the originals will take place. The act of placing the authentic works indoors, while their replicas in the streets, already suggests the authentic works are worthy of being preserved, since no one would put the replicas in the museum while the originals in the street. Why? The most attacked and referred writer on the authenticity of artworks and their special “aura” is Walter Benjamin. He stated that reproductions, which are the plurality of something unique, do not have the aura of the original artwork. This means, the replicas placed in the streets of Florence, are of a different value compared to the authentic ones. Furthermore, the distinctive values of an “authentic” artwork are uniqueness and permanence 10. Thus it seams that something authentic definitely needs conservation due to its permanent state, so that it can be longer appreciated as such by the coming generations. Furthermore, Walter states that as an image is produced the aura of the original work diminishes with the increasing number of copies made. But can other sculptures be placed instead of 16th century replicas?
Florence, has distinguished itself by the great developments of Renaissance and every artwork that belongs to that period defines the identity of the city. Thus Florence, in order to preserve its image that has echoed around the world, instead of starting to form a new identity, needs to place replicas in the streets. But according, to the Charter of Venice, replicas should be recognizable as such in comparison to authentic works. Nevertheless, an exact copy of the original replaced Michelangelo’s David, and it can be expected that the same will apply to the other endangered sculptures in the streets of Florence. Would Florence of the future become like another Las Vegas Italian city, just with “hidden” authentic works in the museums? I guess this is a somehow far-fetched, by Florence would look the same while experienced differently based on personal request for authenticity.

Cultural goods determine our identities societies and differences beliefs, and do always get our special attention, no matter where they are. But as masses of tourists visit cities with many outdoor artworks, the conservation of such objects is difficult. Thus due to their authenticity, and aura, the originals should be placed in public museums most of the times. However, as Duncan considers visiting museums as civilized rituals, where a different state of mind exists, the placing of street sculptures in museum will change the way they are perceived by the audience. The results can be both positive and negative; therefore, Florence has directed another issue to resolve such cases of irresponsibility. Finally, Paolucci, Florence’s arts and heritage chief, states that the existing form of tourism, which is not respectful to cultural and artistic places, is harmful to the city. However, the solution is not penalties…

“Education”  will establish the future conservation of our human treasures.

– McMahon, B., Italy’s streets of art at risk from vandals, September 25, 2005. In Observer:,3858,5293778-102275,00.html
– ICOMOS, The Venice Charter, International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of
Monuments and Sites, 1964. Retrieved from:
– Duncan, C., Civilizing Rituals, Inside Public Art Museums, 1995
– Throsby, D. The Production and Consumption of the Arts: A View of Cultural Economics. Journal of
Economic Literature, March 1994, 1-29
– Klamer, A., Social, Cultural and Economic Values of Cultural Goods, September 2001.
– Benjamin, W., The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (1936), Transcribed by Blunden,
A., February, 2005
– Wetering, van de E., The Autonomy of Restoration: Ethical Considerations in Relation to Artistic
Concepts (1989), in Historical and Philosophical Issues in the Conservation of Cultural Heritage,
Readings in Conservation, The Getty, 1996.



Comments are closed.