Narrating the normality of diversity

A story in music for the History of Psychiatry Museum

In the transition imposed by Covid-19, the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia wanted to strengthen their actions aimed at accessibility and engage new audiences by focusing on the theme of fragility and care with the goal of highlighting the History of Psychiatry Museum in the former San Lazzaro Psychiatric Hospital, one of the most emblematic venues of the city’s museum system.

To facilitate the sharing of content and experiment with new models of cultural experience and museum dissemination, an innovative communication project has been created that consolidates the concept and experience of the museum as a workshop. For this project, museum professionals worked together with a musician from the independent scene to create an alternative form of storytelling to break down the wall of stigma, to tell the story of the normality of the diversity preserved in the collections of the History of Psychiatry Museum, addressing bold, painful and difficult issues and helping to reduce the distance between what is customarily accepted and what contradicts the norms of the mainstream.

It is a challenging project that focuses attention on the value of fragility and imperfection as an entirely natural condition of the human being. It also aims to break down the rigid barriers of the arts and knowledge by creating a collective cultural space in which the works, and in this case, the documents, leave the museum and mix with other works, interacting with other audiences, even the most distant ones, breathing life into creativity and boundless possibilities.

A project that aims to be disruptive, at a time when everything is visual, by conveying its message entirely through listening, without images, in order to touch a deeper and more intimate dimension.

The City of Disorder, a museum communication project

Through the co-production of a musical work dedicated to the History of Psychiatry Museum, the intention was to make known the extraordinary experience it preserves centred on diversity, a theme that is now more topical than ever in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought the experience of segregation, infirmity and care into everyone’s daily experience.

Along with this, we also wanted to promote the Civic Museum system of Reggio Emilia and highlight the uniqueness and appeal of its collections and their potential impact in the fight against stigma and in the social action of art that breaks down all barriers. Curated by Georgia Cantoni (Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia), with texts by Chiara Bombardieri (Carlo Livi Scientific Library) and music by Nicola Manzan, the project consisted in the production of an original work created by transposing into music the medical records of the patients of the former San Lazzaro Psychiatric Hospital of Reggio Emilia. The project was promoted by the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia and the AUSL Reggio Emilia (local health authority) in conjunction with the Carlo Livi Scientific Library, repository of the archives of the former psychiatric hospital.

Nicola Manzan e i graffiti del portico del Padiglione Lombroso
Nicola Manzan and the graffiti of the Lombroso Pavilion, now Museum of the History of Psychiatry, photo by Federico Marin

The archival documents served as the source of a musical dramatization that sketches portraits of lives lived on the margins and, even more, tells of the fragility of human beings. The asylum is seen as a city closed in on itself, as a “city of disorder”, with its rules and its life that is in a certain sense self-sufficient, where the citizens are those who are “different”, but who reflect the fragility of the life of each of us, embodying those archetypes of the human being in which we can all see ourselves.

This communication action is designed to engage a specific target audience of contemporary music, young people, and foster links between the community of artists and creatives and the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia, i.e. the 18-45 age group and professionals in the cultural-creative sector involved in deepening their knowledge of the cultural heritage of the city and the museum as a space of cross-pollination between experiences that also originate outside the museum.

The underlying objective is to position the History of Psychiatry Museum of Reggio Emilia on the national scene, helping to enhance its image as a point of reference in Italy for its specific themes.

La Città del Disordine. Storie di vita dal Manicomio San Lazzaro (The City of Disorder: Stories of life from the San Lazzaro Asylum) is presented in different media. First of all, a CD for the commercial distribution of musical pieces that was released on May 7, 2021 by Kizmaiaz Ed. Musicali and Dischi Bervisti. The work is also distributed on other media, such as vinyl and cassette tape, as well as on the Internet, and an excerpt is included in the History of Psychiatry Museum’s audio guide as a soundtrack accompanying the texts. A live performance of the concert took place in several cities throughout Italy and was hosted by the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice for a discussion with students and the public.

Nicola Manzan, foto di Fabio Rossetti
Nicola Manzan, photo by Fabio Rossetti

Through production and research and by investing in our heritage, we wanted to focus on the creation of a musical work with dedicated original content in order to broaden the audience by means of a co-production with a publisher from the independent music scene. The product is aimed primarily at an audience that is highly targeted based on specific interests and in part already widely “loyalized” in relation to the subject, in particular young people. The idea was to convey the museum contents through channels of communication, promotion and interaction that are unusual for museum institutions but extraordinarily effective and active in their ability to dialogue, take hold, and engage those involved in the world of music, alternative clubs, and so on. In this way, communication and the consequent impact are mutually enhanced, bringing together, dialoguing and growing different milieus and audiences, all sharing an experience of mutual enrichment that comes from having undertaken alternative paths other than their own. The strategy is therefore also designed to engage emerging and professional figures in the creative sector and cultural institutions, especially museums, as well as the public already addressed by the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia, and the local and national community.

Nicola Manzan, foto di Fabio Rossetti
Nicola Manzan, photo by Fabio Rossetti

The City of Disorder is part of the broader project called #IspirazioneMuseo (Inspiration Museum), aimed at developing a new generation of professionals who see a museum as a living and authentic place of professional growth, so that it is natural for them to express themselves through it in various arts and activities. We want to focus on the contents that already belong to the Civic Museums conceived as “museums of wonders”, in the sense of the “differently beautiful”, the unusual, and the imperfect, inviting leading players of reference at the national level to work on these themes. The knowledge that breaks down barriers and stereotypes educates toward an open mind that overcomes prejudices against what is different and anomalous. In this way we want to connect to the key issues of the city’s policies for social inclusion, those concerning “fragility” not only as an emergency but assuming it as a basic human condition. 

The audio guide for the History of Psychiatry Museum

An audioguide created for the History of Psychiatry Museum has been published on the City Museums of Reggio Emilia website and can be used via mobile devices. This tool aims to broaden the possibilities of access and use of the content, both inside the museum and remotely.

La facciata del Padiglione Lombroso
The façade of the Lombroso Pavilion, now Museum of the History of Psychiatry, photo by Federico Marin

The texts that guide the visitor through the spaces of the museum are accompanied by the musical notes of The City of Disorder in a symbiosis of poignant sensitivity.

The result is a product that is itself a performance, an immersive tool, emotionally effective in impressing words, concepts, and meanings in the mind and heart of the listener, making contact with the museum something personal and inner-looking, intimate in its experience.

The project The City of Disorder is also based on the consideration that the work carried out by small museums resembles, in its itineraries, what can be seen happening on the independent creative scene – musical in this case –, both sharing an “artisanal” approach that cannot rely on complex organizations and resources, and for this very reason is fuelled by a strong drive to experiment and an unparalleled courage to undertake freer and more innovative actions. Focusing also on this affinity, we are confident that it is possible to create further synergies of language, leading to more and more contemporary and fruitful museum communication in which experimentation and quality are the driving force for creating new points of contact, new approaches, new culture.

Georgia Cantoni

Georgia Cantoni

Head of communications, web area and new media at Reggio Emilia Civic Museums network. She is Curator of ethnographic collections at Reggio Emilia Civic Museum and Honorary Inspector of the Archaeological Superintendency for the area of Reggio Emilia. She is among the curators of "Pd’A - Pagine d’Archeologia", magazine of the Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia, and Coordinator for the Reggio Emilia Civic Museums network for the project Google Arts & Culture.