Mr Disegni, you were recently appointed president of MEIS (which is the foundation behind the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Holocaust) by the Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities, Dario Franceschini. You’ve taken over from writer Riccardo Calimani who headed up the museum over the two previous appointment terms. Could you tell me about this museum located in Ferrara?
The museum was established with a law by the Italian government in 2003, which was later modified in 2006. Its fundamental aim is to tell of the history and culture of Italian Judaism. There’s a legacy of knowledge, ideas, activities, and experiences that has characterised the more than two-thousand year presence of Jews in Italy, and the contribution of the Italian Jewish community in the growth of Judaism in our country.
How many Jews are there in Italy?
The Italian Jewish community is really small today with just a little over twenty-five thousand people, but the community stands out for its great cultural and intellectual spirit.
Why was Ferrara chosen as the location of the museum?
Ferrara was an important centre in Jewish life and culture. The decision taken by the Italian Parliament to house this museum in this city – and, in particular, in a former prison where Italian anti-Fascists and Jews, such as writer Giorgio Bassani, were imprisoned – was most certainly meant to be symbolic. A place that was a centre of segregation in the past, today aims to become a centre of culture, awareness, research, and a meeting place for different civilisations and religions.
And what about the Holocaust Museum?
The museum was initially established as the National Holocaust Museum, but later the idea took hold that it was essential to tell the entire long history of Italian Judaism, of which the Holocaust is only one tragic chapter. The Holocaust will be part of the narrative in the last chronological section of the museum. This section will be curated in close collaboration with the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center in Milan.
As President, what role will you play?
The fundamental task given to me by the Minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities, and to whom I’m very grateful for having nominated me, will be to oversee – along with the Board of Directors, the Scientific Committee, and the Director – the completion of the worksite and the definition of the cultural and museum project.
Who is the museum’s director?
Currently, the position is vacant, and that’s why the first order of business for the Board will be to launch an international selection process for finding a director, and this is fundamental for the organisational structure of the museum.
How is this museum being financed?
The museum, which was legally established as a foundation, has received significant contributions from MiBAC, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism. Last summer, Minister Franceschini included MEIS in a strategic plan for important cultural projects, allocating seven million euros for the last bit of works to the museum. For day-to-day operations and its various activities the museum must not only rely on contributions from the Ministry but also on funds from private donors, institutions and foundations in Italy and abroad.
You mentioned Giorgio Bassani, and this year marks one hundred years since his birth. It’s also important to point out that the complete works of Primo Levi have just been published in English in the United States. Do you have any initiatives planned to remember these two great representatives of Italian Judaism during the times of the Racial Laws and the Holocaust?
Certainly. For Giorgio Bassani, various initiatives are being undertaken in Italy and abroad. For Primo Levi, his collected works, which have just come out in the United States, will be presented in New York in May at the United Nations headquarters. Starting on 24th January MEIS will host the exhibition “The Worlds of Primo Levi” at the Castello Estense in Ferrara. The show, realised by the International Centre of Primo Levi Studies, was held last year in Palazzo Madama in Turin and was very successful with the public.
Do you have any relationships with other important Jewish museums around the world?
That is one of the fundamental objectives of the mandate of the Board, which is to have MEIS enter into the large network of Jewish museums around the world. I think it’s important here as well to create a network with all of the other Italian and international cultural institutions that study Italian Judaism.
This year marks five hundred years since the creation of the first ghetto in history – the Venice ghetto.
Yes, and starting in the month of March the Jewish community in Venice will promote many important initiatives, including an exhibition on Jews, Venice and the Mediterranean which will be held at Palazzo Ducale.
Mr Disegni, you’ve had various roles in your professional life, from prestigious foundations and cultural institutions like the Egyptian Museum and the National Museum of the Italian Risorgimento in Turin, for example, to roles in the European Community and Jewish cultural institutions. Do you think being President of MEIS is the culmination of your journey?
It may very well be. In any case, it’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced so far. The objective I’ve given myself is to work so that the museum can make an important contribution, with a clear and accurate portrayal of Italian Judaism and its longstanding, profound ties to the country. And so that it can become a place of coming together and discourse among the various cultural and religious institutions that make up the mosaic of our society today.
6th January, 2016