“Brera: another story”. Intercultural trails in the museum

Brera National Picture Gallery | Milan

Brera: un'altra storia

“Brera: another story” is an education project aimed at an adult audience, jointly promoted by the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities (DG for the Valorisation of Cultural Heritage) and Brera Picture Gallery, Milan.
The idea underlying it is that every museum is a “jewel case” full of the many different stories that artworks embody: those of the works of art themselves, those of the artists who created them, but also those of the visitors questioning them and finding unexpected resonances with their feelings, memories and life experiences.
The crucial ingredients for this highly experimental project are:
• the policies recently adopted by the DG for the Valorisation of Cultural Heritage with a view to promoting innovative forms of cultural participation (next to Brera’s project, another example is the call for proposals launched in spring 2012
), which secured vital financial support for the planning and carrying out of new intercultural trails across the collections, as well as for the development of permanent multilingual audio-aids for the museum visit
• the intercultural expertise and sensibility developed in the past ten years by Brera Picture Gallery, which, prior to this project, developed a sound intercultural competence through the ground-breaking project “A Brera anch’io. The museum as a vehicle of intercultural dialogue”, launched in 2004 and now an integral part of the educational offer addressed to primary and secondary schools in Milan and its province

• the active involvement of a group of museum mediators with an immigrant background in the development of new, shared narratives around museum collections; they were selected on the basis of their previous experience and training in the framework of heritage education projects in an intercultural perspective (four of them work on a regular basis with the Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Bergamo
, while the others are based in Milan, some of whom have been involved in the project “TAM TAM – The Museum for All” 2011 and 2012, jointly promoted by the Museum of Peoples and Cultures and Fondazione Ismu – Initiatives and Studies on Multiethnicity)
• the contribution of external experts in storytelling techniques applied to museum contexts and in intercultural heritage education issues.


• Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities – DG for the Valorisation of Cultural Heritage
• Brera National Picture Gallery, Milan.


Project Team:
– Emanuela Daffra and Paola Strada (art historians, Head and Deputy Head of Education Services, Brera Picture Gallery)
– Simona Bodo and Silvia Mascheroni (art historians and researchers with a particular interest in intercultural heritage education issues)
– Maria Grazia Panigada (expert in theatre and storytelling techniques applied to cultural heritage mediation)
– museum mediators: Francesca Cambielli (Italy), Connie Castro (Philippines), Biljana Dizdarevic (Bosnia), Anita Gazner (Hungary), Rosana Gornati (Brazil), Dudù Kouate (Senegal), Margaret Nagap (Egypt), Almir San Martin (Peru)
– Alessandra Gariboldi (expert in the evaluation of heritage education projects)
– Erminia Sciacchitano (Head of Research and Development Unit, DG for the Valorisation of Cultural Heritage).


Funding bodies
Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities – DG for the Valorisation of Cultural Heritage.


The challenge for the project team of “Brera: another story” was to develop a highly innovative cultural offer in a highly traditional State museum of ancient art, as the goals set for the project reveal:
• to open the museum to a currently under-represented audience (adults with an immigrant background)
• to tap into the intercultural potential of collections
• to acknowledge museum mediators as key actors in the reinterpretation of the museum’s heritage in an intercultural perspective
• to promote new ways of looking at the collections in a cross-cultural audience (whether regular or potential, “native” or “migrant” visitors).
In fact, the social relevance of the project lies in the promotion of different levels of accessibility, by fostering a new familiarity between the museum and “new citizens”, by encouraging the participation of Italian non-visitors (with particular reference to youths), by promoting in regular museum-goers new ways of looking at the collections, and ultimately by going beyond policies targeting individuals and groups according to their racial origin and ethnicity.


Target groups
The project is addressed to an adult cross-cultural audience.


Duration of the project
February 2012 – February 2013.


Project description
The project was organised in the following phases:


February-October 2012: development of the intercultural trails
Museum mediators, the staff of Brera Education Services (art historians also with curatorial responsibilities for the museum and the Superintendency for historical, artistic and ethno-anthropological heritage in the provinces of Milan, Bergamo, Como, Lecco, Lodi, Monza, Pavia, Sondrio, Varese) and the external experts involved jointly developed the intercultural trails through a participatory approach:
– mediators chose the artworks with which they wanted to engage, both on a cultural and on an emotional basis; through storytelling they explored the relationship between their personal biographies and the biography of objects
– the art historians of Brera Picture Gallery provided the key information on the artworks (and artists) selected by museum mediators, and oversaw the development of the trails from an art-historical perspective
– the expert in theatre and storytelling techniques supported mediators in the development of storytelling skills as a means of building bridges, creating a new “resonance”, revealing unexpected links between artefacts and individuals, and assisted them in developing and performing their narrations
– the experts in intercultural heritage education issues supported the whole process by emphasising the intercultural dimension of the mediators’ narrative trails, aimed not so much at transmitting content/notions about cultural differences, as at nurturing in all participants – whether “natives” or “migrants” – those attitudes, behaviours and competences that are ever more crucial in a world of increasing contact and interaction between culturally different groups (including cognitive mobility, the ability to question one’s own points of view and to challenge stereotypes, the awareness of one’s own multiple identities, an attitude for listening…).
The first step of the storytelling workshops in the exhibition spaces was to focus on the description of paintings: through a series of exercises, the storytelling expert  tried to expand the mediator’s observation skills as well as to enrich their personal approach to the work of art.
The narrative tool was then applied to specific artworks, selected by mediators as they held a particular significance for them, revealing sometimes unexpected links with their personal history, past and present, or with their knowledge systems and memories.
The development of the narrative trails around the selected objects (mostly paintings, but also sculptures and, in one case, a set of vases from ancient Egypt belonging to the Vitali collection) unfolded in  two directions: on the one hand, an in-depth study of the artworks, the artists who created them, the age in which they lived; on the other,  an effort to explore and uncover the links between the chosen artworks and the memories, life experiences and cultural background of museum mediators.
This “autobiographical” side of the planning process was developed with the support of project coordinators, and carried out by museum mediators both individually (at home) and collectively (in the exhibition spaces) in order to share the narrations as they gradually took shape.


October-November 2012: Experimentation of the intercultural trails
The trails were carried out by mediators both individually – focussing on the artworks selected by each one of them – and in groups – i.e. organised around  key thematic strands with a highly evocative and intercultural potential: “Important moments in life”, “An encounter”, “Places”, “Heaven and earth”, “From mother to son”, “Different gazes on the Sermon of St. Paul in Alexandria of Egypt, by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini”.
The artworks involved (23 in total – i.e. 3 or 4 for each mediator) ranged from masterpieces of Brera Picture Gallery such as Mantegna’s “Dead Christ”, Piero della Francesca’s “Montefeltro Altarpiece”, Bramante’s “Christ at the column” and Raphael’s “The marriage of the Virgin”, to  less known paintings such as Federico Barocci’s “Martyrdom of Saint Vitale”  and Giovanni Segantini’s “Meadows in spring”, or the wax sculpture “La dame à la voilette” by Medardo Rosso.
Each trail, free of charge, was open to a maximum of 12-15 participants, so as to facilitate interaction between visitors and museum mediators. Right after the visit, a questionnaire was distributed to each participant in order to gather some key quantitative and qualitative evidence of the visit’s impact (see below).


September-November 2012: Finalising the narrative texts
Before and in parallel with the experimental trails, mediators were assisted by the museum educators / art historians and external experts in writing and finalising texts for an intercultural audio-guide to the collections which, however, never saw the light .


December 2012 – January 2013: video shooting of some of the intercultural trails
A professional video-maker was entrusted with the visual documentation of the project: each mediator chose one artwork and was filmed while performing the relevant narration.
In addition, a trailer and a documentary devoted to the project were produced by Storyville.


October 2012 – February 2013: Project evaluation
The evaluation design was conceived as an on-going participatory process meant to include the different perspectives and expectations of:
• project team members
• participants in the experimental trails
• museum management and staff as a whole.
For this multidimensional approach to be effective, evaluation was entrusted to an external expert, who was involved in all the project phases and took part in most of the project team’s meetings and workshop sessions in the museum’s exhibition spaces.
The external evaluator used a mix of tools designed in order to achieve different assessment objectives, as well as to reflect the complexity of the project. More in particular:
• a qualitative visitor survey was carried out, with questionnaires filled in by all participants (256 people for 20 guided tours) right after the experimental trails; the aim of this survey was to understand the visitors’ perception of the experience, trying to explore and better define its impacts (appreciation of the narrative approach as well as of some key aspects of the visit, whether emotional, cognitive, social, etc.)
• in-depth phone interviews with 15 participants, held 30-60 days after the visit; interviews focused on medium-term impacts, trying to verify in which ways and to what extent participants were affected by the experience in Brera (were their feelings and thoughts about the visit still the same? did participants talk to anybody about their experience? etc.)
• individual in-depth interviews with each museum mediator, to evaluate both process (e.g. planning workshops, drafting of texts for the multi-lingual aids, interaction with other team members) and outcomes (e.g. experimental trails, interaction with visitors)
• collective focus group with the 8 museum mediators aimed at understanding, in a research-action perspective, how they perceived the whole process, and at discussing possible ways to solve the main critical points emerged during the project
• feedback discussion on process and results with the project team (museum educators and external experts)
• work-time report analysis
• participation of the external expert in most of the experimental trails, to observe participants’ behaviour as well as to monitor organizational problems.


Lessons to be learned

“Brera: another story” is the result of a fruitful collaboration between internal and external expertise, with a planning process based on a participatory approach which allowed the working group members to bring into dialogue their different perspectives, experiences and knowledge bases.
The key methodological tool used to promote this dialogue, as well as to explore new ways of looking at Brera collections, was storytelling. Narration is a fundamental component in human relations. It is naturally connected with the need and desire to communicate feelings, thoughts, insights and hopes. The act of telling is always incomplete and therefore “open”, with an extraordinary potential to trigger encounters between individuals: what we are listening to “resonates” with our own emotions and memories. This inner process is rather similar to the one we experience in front of a work of art, where observation gives rise to emotions, and the human dimension of the artist’s creation interweaves with  the observer’s lived experiences.
Such reflections underlay the planning and implementation of the intercultural trails in the museum, in which the essential cognitive and art-historical contents are interwoven with a strong narrative and autobiographical dimension.
The potential of the idea to use storytelling in Brera Picture Gallery as a key tool to reinterpret its collections in an intercultural perspective was amplified by the active involvement of a group of museum mediators with an immigrant background, not as mere “guides” for their respective communities, but as “new interpreters” to all effects of the museum’s heritage. Their diverse backgrounds, knowledge systems and insights provided new keys to the interpretation of collections, adding to the  complexity and richness of meanings “hidden” in each work of art, and waiting to be unveiled.

Through joint training and planning workshops always carried out in the exhibition spaces, museum mediators, Brera’s education staff and the external experts developed shared competences in an intercultural approach to heritage mediation as well as in storytelling techniques: coming from different institutional and professional contexts, they created a common ground which will be crucial to develop future intercultural projects in the Museum.
This process led to the development of intercultural trails intended to help all visitors to explore and understand the complex layers of meanings, as well as the evidence of past and present cross-cultural encounters, embodied in the museum collections.

Running a highly complex, time-consuming project requiring specific expertise in a State museum was a major challenge for museum educators,  who are also entrusted with curatorial functions as well as with the tasks of the local/regional Superintendency (preservation of the heritage of a given territory). It is crucial to make an appropriate and realistic pre-assessment of the working time and commitment required for museum staff to properly oversee and run the project, which implies a firm support from upper management.
In fact, “Brera: another story” would not have been possible without a considerable involvement of external experts. Any museum with features similar to those of Brera Picture Gallery (i.e. a State museum lacking autonomous status), or without a structured education service, wishing to promote a similar project, should take this into account, and determine whether resources are available to involve external experts, and with which roles and responsibilities.

Given the emphasis on the creation of intercultural trails based on the intersection between personal histories and the cultural history of the selected artworks, the whole project team (museums mediators, Brera educators, external experts) was very much involved in the process not only on a professional, but also on a personal level. This peculiarity of the project demanded a particular thoughtfulness and care in interpersonal relationships, which represented an extraordinary richness for all parties involved and a significant training opportunity on how to develop an “intercultural” way of working together, involving different knowledge systems, skills and life experiences.
On the other hand, these factors had an impact on the project in terms of efficiency (the effort required by project coordinators was far greater than originally expected) and rapidity of action.

Roles and responsibilities of project team members were also an issue, as mediators (all with previous experience in other, smaller museums) were not sufficiently briefed on the specific institutional features of a major national art museums, with all its peculiarities, strengths and constraints. This led to some misunderstandings on the degree of interaction between art-historical expertise and personal autobiographies, and therefore  on the issue of “authorship”.
In particular, a huge challenge for the museum educators was not to “betray” artworks and their history by tipping the balance too much in favour of the museum mediators’ personal narratives. Therefore, observations, reflections and wording for the trails and audio-guides had to be carefully weighed and balanced by project coordinators.
An important lesson for future projects is that museum mediators must have a degree of language literacy in line with their roles and responsibilities, as well as being appropriately informed not only about collections, but also about the “culture” and history of the museum.

More in general, difficulties encountered within the planning process are partially a consequence of the ground-breaking nature of this kind of project for a State museum of ancient art, which involved a high degree of unpredictability.

Questionnaires highlighted a high appreciation of new ways of looking at the collections, especially on the part of Italian visitors.
On the other hand, most migrant visitors (coming from 26 different countries) did not recognise the innovative quality of narrative trails: some of them had not visited a museum before (8%) or were not regular museum-goers, and therefore had no/few terms of comparison; some also took for granted the emphasis on storytelling as the key methodology for the trails, as their cultural roots are based on oral tradition. However, all of them thoroughly enjoyed the experience, also in the case of recently arrived migrants/refugees with poor language skills, which were compensated by the importance of feeling welcome in the museum, coming in touch with the beauty of artworks, taking part in a cultural activity.

Other critical aspects:
• as the narrative trails were constructed with a cross-cultural audience in mind and conducted in Italian, it was sometimes difficult to ensure that language comprehension was adequate for all visitors; multi-lingual aids will in part solve this problem, but in the case of guided visits there may be the need to target trails to different groups according to their level of language literacy
• museum staff not directly taking part in the project (from upper management to front-of-house staff) was not sufficiently involved
• Brera Picture Gallery does not have dedicated spaces for visitors to relax and socialise (e.g. museum cafeteria); the project was affected by this impossibility to provide a context (time and space) for a follow-up to the visits so as to facilitate participants’ desire to share their feelings and thoughts with others
• there was no budget specifically earmarked for communication: most participants in the experimental trails, especially those with a migrant background, learned about the project from museum mediators and more in general by word of mouth.


Publications / other resources

All narrative trails are published in: Bodo S., Mascheroni S., Panigada M. G. (a cura di), Un patrimonio di storie. La narrazione nei musei, una risorsa per la cittadinanza culturale, Mimesis Edizioni, Milano, 2016.


Contact details

Ministry for the Heritage and Cultural Activities
Directorate General for the Valorisation of Cultural Heritage
via del Collegio Romano, 27 – 00186 Roma
– Erminia Sciacchitano
Head of Research and Development Unit

Brera National Picture Gallery
Soprintendenza per i beni storici artistici ed etnoantropologici per le province di Milano, Bergamo, Como, Lecco, Lodi, Monza, Pavia, Sondrio, Varese
via Brera, 28 – 20121 Milan
– Emanuela Daffra, Head of Education Services
– Paola Strada, Deputy Head of Education Services,

Project description published in: March 2013

Target Groups

Adult cross-cultural audience: "new citizens", Italian non-visitors as well as regular museum goers