A few months before the pandemic disrupted motivations of all our cultural habits, CAMS – University Center for Scientific Museums of the University of Perugia asked me to produce some promotional videos to show the great variety of collections included in their eight museums.
CAMS collections range from natural history to classical sculpture, passing through human anatomy, zoology, history of agriculture, mathematics exhibits and two gardens, botanical and medieval. With this enormous variety in front of my eyes, I immediately looked for a theme or an image that would tell a unified story.
What do these collections tell as a whole? Worlds far apart, what do they have in common?
In accordance with curators and managers of the Center, I thought these different worlds were all there, accessible to all: a flight of stairs is enough to go from a journey into the human body to an adventure in Africa. Worlds at Your Fingertips became the title. This also suggested to me who – or what – should be the protagonist: the hands.
After all, one of the things that most strikes the visitors of CAMS is the fact that the collections are literally at hand, with samples displayed in the middle of the path, outside the display cases and often visitors can manipulate or touch them. It is not just the ludic hands-on concept of interactive exhibits: it’s a real tactile experience on plaster busts, phrenological skulls and mammoth fossils.
Hands would therefore have been the protagonists. Which hands? For each of the eight museums I needed a pair of hands that reflected the concepts contained in the exhibition, that were consistent with it; hands of visitors, hands of technicians at work, hands with experience close to the samples. When I identified what kind of hands I would like for each museum, all that remained was to carry out a real handsscouting session – “Do you know a man with tattoos from forearm to fingers?” or “Do you have mechanical workers at CAMS?” or “Perfect! Your hands look like a witch “.
Finally, I could turn the camera onand begin to shoot. The series consists of 8 per 30-second promotional videos, one for each museum, plus a longer video clip that collects them all.
Closed doors and steady hands
After less than a month from the videos release, CAMS museums, like the whole country, closed their doors. Suddenly those Worlds were no longer within reach. Indeed, the world was evolving in a direction in which hands became a new taboo: touching objects, shaking hands were all behaviors no longer legit. Many other elements that were included in videos continued to work, such as samples, textures and keywords.
What, however, could no longer work at that time was precisely the advertising approach. This series tells the viewer: “Hey, here are worlds to visit, come and visit us!”. But in the world of lockdowns and red zones, this promise cannot be kept.
Like all cultural heritage operators, we then tried to outline a way to bring content to people at home. The new series of videos, again a cycle of eight, had to be closer to the content, more explicit in telling details. Wanting to stay in the short format, the virtual guided tour or the complete story of each museum were excluded. Also, I’m honest with myself, hardly when I leave a visit I remember everything I’ve seen; more easily I go home with a single specific story in my mind, a specific character, a story, which however often manages to anchor the whole experience lived in the museum.
“Here, we need something like this” I thought. Along with Sergio Gentili, head of the Casalina Center, we came up with the idea of telling “only one sample” for each museum. One specimen to symbolize them all, an extreme synthesis operation. A specimen for all became the title of this second series of short videos about CAMS. Eight samples, eight anecdotes and eight keywords that enclose them.
The pandemic forced cultural institutions to review their communication within a few weeks. Suddenly everyone felt the need to be online, to bring their content to people’s homes. Communication tools such as videos rapidly shifted from being a museum invitation to being the museum. We all realized very abruptly how important a genuine, more direct contact with our audience is also through a media such as video, which very often was intended only as an informative, one-way communication.
Looking beyond the objective difficulties of the moment, I believe that this new imprint, more oriented towards the public and keen to dialogue, could really help cultural institutions communication even when we’ll return to visit museums and galleries. After all, it is exactly what you do in presence, why not do it on video?