Museo Civico Medievale

Tuesday before the evening performance, I decide for another museum, this time the Museo Civico Medievale, which I thought could be a good accompaniment to the Museo della Storia di Bologna I visited with Dasniya last week. Again set in a palace, this one being the Renaissance palazzo Ghisilardi, built in the late-15th century and containing one of the city’s towers, Torre dei Conoscenti. It’s very beautiful, with delicate arches; the upper floor ones being half the size of the lower. The museum itself is somewhere between Museo della Storia di Bologna and Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna, having the grumpy, stalky attendants with their coats and books thrown on their chairs of the former, and the smart, room-by-room exhibits of the latter.

It also has the not-so-good audio guide of the former, a combination of the same narrator (probably employed for a bulk job on all the museums) suffering from frequent, abrupt finishings mid-exposition, and either cryptically placed numbers beside exhibits or entirely absent. I discovered though, instead of searching for the numbers, I’d just enter the subsequent one and look around until I recognised what was being discussed. In this way, I found myself quite well-educated on around a third of the exhibits otherwise unmarked.

Besides that – and I found myself enjoying it for the perverse anti-social quality – it is a solid and delightful museum on its own, and in combination with Museo della Storia di Bologna gives a comprehensive introduction to the city for someone like me, an outsider with no knowledge.

It caught my attention over the many other museums for the medieval focus, covering roughly a period from 10th to 15th centuries with some overflow prior – a significant period in the city’s history, and much can be understood by examining this span. Curiously, it starts with two rooms that are not exactly this focus; the second though contains collections of from the 15th century including one cabinet full of Chinese and Japanese works. Outside that door are three Jewish gravestones and one Muslim, which were left homeless due to a papal edict.

Getting into the museum proper then, I find unlike almost every European pre-modern museum filled with religious clutter, this one has rooms and rooms celebrating the university, or more precisely the deaths of its professors. A lot of religious stuff too, though I found the beauty of it, both aesthetically and in the craft of construction caused me to put aside atheist tendencies and be overcome by the sublime. Some of these works are deeply poignant; others joyous. It’s not possible for me to devalue them merely because they have a religious theme or content.

Later, there is a small statue of Mercury, and one of Archangel smiting Lucifer – very similar to the one in Madrid. Then I arrive at war.

Into a red room, suits of polished armour, lines of pikes, hatchets, broadswords and rapiers, helmets, chain mail, jousting lances, mauls, shields, flanged maces … one suit was especially impressive, an asymmetric jousting armour with three massive, square bolts and their threads protruding from the chest, and a solid facepiece except for three tiny holes.

Continuing into the room with 15th century guns, and I was about to get kicked out. I think they are Snaphances or something similar, long-barreled, with a highly-decorative stock and ornate firing mechanism. I ran out of time here, being shooed out by the attendants, grumpy as ever. It had taken me around 2 1/2 hours to get through 17 of the 22 rooms, and missing also a proper wander around the palazzo.

I was thinking also about what makes a ‘good’ museum, and why I might not want every museum to be ‘good’. The Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna is not exemplary by current ideas of what a museum should be and do, being as an acquaintance described it, “a museum of a museum”, yet in its inaccessibility, it also provides for something other than a single superficial visit, a tourist itinerary. The museums I’ve seen recently seem to sit precariously on incomplete history, colonialism, kitsch, populism, a meta-narrative of the subject they attend to. At one and the same time, they also are beguiling and disarming in their love of their subject, the concise summary of the work of uncounted people over centuries. Perhaps one of my basic propositions – however critical I might be of a specific museum or museums, or how museums as a whole currently function – is that I do not question whether there should in fact be museums. Museums, books, art, culture, music, dance, idleness, walking, getting lost … without the arts and culture, humanity is in poverty, and for most of us it is only museums that provide direct access to this from our past.