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Vatican Museums sold out

· Topping the five million mark in 2011 ·

The Vatican Museums have surpassed the goal of five million visitors. At midnight on 31 December 2011 it was reported that the number of people entering the Vatican Museums in 2011 had reached 5,078,004. These are objectively impressive data. It is enough to say that the Uffizi, the most famous and popular art gallery in Italy, manages to register “only” 1.5 million visitors a year.

In Europe the Vatican Museums face comparison with the Louvre (by far the most visited with eight million tickets sold), with the British Museum in London, the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Prado in Madrid. We have said and written countless times that it is a mistake to measure the importance of a public art collection on the basis of the number of visitors. More than anything this grossly vulgar “pop” evaluation contradicts the distinctive, fundamental character of Italy’s history of art which is evident in its unique, extraordinary and fascinating “museo diffuso” (widespread museum). This applies to the Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, the Brera and Capodimonte, but it is distributed equally in the squares and streets, in the cities and rural towns, in the shadow of every steeple, in every valley and behind every hill.

It is nevertheless a fact that there are great museums (no more than ten in the whole world) that have a fatal, irresistible attraction for the migrants of the so-called “cultural” tourism. The Vatican Museums belong to this small category. Their fame is such, linked to iconic names such as Raphael and Michelangelo and, to the same extent, to the impressive prestige of the Apostolic See, that it explains the annual number of more than five million visitors.

The phenomenon raises logistic problems concerning our “policy” that are not easy to solve. Five million visitors means ten million hands that touch or might touch, ten million feet that day after day walk across the polychrome flooring and the most famous archaeological mosaics in the world.

Five million people include an unknown but certainly significant percentage of psychologically unstable people, mythomaniacs and tendentially dangerous people, to themselves, to others and to the works preserved in the museum. Five million marks the threshold beyond which the philosophy of protection must necessarily be adjusted. The surveillance will need to be continually updated, made more professional because human vigilance has always been and is still today irreplaceable. At the same time we must always increase and improve the use of the latest digital and information technology in order to guarantee top level efficiency in the protection of the patrimony.

The reception services (the cafeteria, snack bars, bookshops selling postcards and souvenirs) will need to be equipped in order to offer a better service to such a differentiated, vast number of people.

Visitors to the Vatican Museums (people from all walks of life and origins, from all cultures, of every religion and of no religion) need to understand what they see. The didactic service is therefore fundamental. We have sought to increase and improve it in recent years with thematic itineraries also to help those with impaired vision and hearing. Meanwhile the new signage system is being completed. It is equipped with good quality, easily understandable displays which indicate the various routes but also point out the historical and artistic characteristics and excellence of each collection housed in the museums.

The inevitable wear and tear caused by five million visitors must be confronted in a methodical and organized way. The practically uninterrupted flow of visitors goes through and wears out the galleries and exhibition halls, staircases and gardens, bringing with it refuse, humidity and dust, fading the frescoed walls, and deteoriating plaster reliefs and mosaic and inlaid flooring.

Campaigns began two years ago for dust removal, revision and maintenance of the routes — a service directed by the Office of the Curator and staffed by professional restorers — countering with acknowledged success the phenomena produced by the massive strain of people on the works of art. In sum, we are aware that joining the “five million club” means for the great museums of the world facing up to as yet unknown problems and trying out new solutions.

It is consoling to realize that the international rating of the Vatican Museums remains very high. The Cultor College, an international observatory which rates public art collections (not only banks, nations and sovereign debts have ratings agencies) places the papal museums in the third place after the Louvre and the Metropolitan in New York. The estimated 80 points awarded to the Vatican Museums (as compared to the 120 of the Louvre, the 97 of the Metropolitan and the 70 of the Uffizi) represent a balanced mix of factors such as, among others: the fame of the collections, the fascinating setting, the quality of the reception and the professionalism of the services provided.

My hope is to further consolidate and improve a rating that places us third in the world. The task is difficult but we have the resources, the energy and the talent to succeed.

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St. Peter’s Square

Sept. 19, 2019

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