What you do on your holidays?

Well, what do you do?

We’ve just come back from a wonderful 10 days in Tuscany, celebrating the 50th anniversary of excavations at Poggio Civitate (Murlo). We stayed with great archaeology friends in a beautiful place, witnessed a 3D reconstruction of an Etruscan architectural terracotta made entirely from cheese, ate far too much food and let Silvia stay up too late.

Pyrgi tablets
Pygi tablets, picture by me, (C) Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici Etruria Meridionale. Shiny shiny.

We also visited a remarkable exhibition. Etruschi: maestri di scrittura (Etruscans: masters of writing) is currently on at the wonderful Accademia Etrusca at Cortona. It was incredible- iconic Etruscan artefacts all gathered together into a beautiful show. The Pyrgi tablets! The Zagreb text! That image of Charun with hammer and snakes on a pot. Even pots from my PhD thesis were there. Now, you’d think that with objects like this on show the place would be a sellout.

Not so much, actually. In fact, we were the only people in the exhibition when we visited, in the middle of the afternoon on a day on which Cortona was packed, and I mean packed, with tourists. We queued for gelato at the artisanal place for 30 minutes it was so busy. Yet in the entire museum there were two other families that we saw. I mean, it wasn’t a bad thing: Silvia was able to rampage on the access ramps and bash her doll on the hallowed stone floors over which so many esteemed archaeological feet have walked. But this is not good for promoting Etruscan archaeology. Or, let’s be bold, archaeology at all.

S Cortona
Silvia looks pensively around Etruschi: Maestri di Scrittura

Why is this happening? Well, maybe the €20 pp entrance fee had something to do with it. I thought it was well worth it, husband was less sure. Surely, that’s the amount that many of these privileged holidaymakers would spend on a bottle of wine? It’s certainly the equal of what I’d budget for a nice lunch per person, and you get several hours (we spent 2, even with a toddler) of beautiful things and new knowledge for your cash. Is it promotion? I don’t think so: I’ve seen references to the event scattered in the… ah. In the Italian press. Maybe foreign language media outlets aren’t promoting exhibitions like this. But if you were wandering around Cortona, which many tourists were, you would end up in this beautiful square where the Accademia is, see the poster and surely think: yes, I’ll go in. Anecdotally at least, people didn’t. I’ll be keen to see the final visitor stats, and I’d love to know where everyone came from.

The major reason behind this is a concept I’ve been pondering in preparation for an  Accordia Lecture I’m giving at UCL in November (gulp). From my old job in archaeological tourism, and writing my new book (off to expert reviewers this week- double gulp) I’ve been thinking a lot about the way the public encounters the Italian past. I believe there is a real problem with what I’m coming to term period-blindness. Visitors connect a place with a particular moment in its history: Cortona is a medieval hilltown, not an Etruscan citadel in their minds. As such, they are not ready to invest their time and money in exploring alternative pasts for the places they visit. They do not want their narratives to be disturbed by archeological palimpsests.

Further (anecdotal) evidence for the existence of this concept (which will be much tidier and better theorised by the autumn, honest) slapped me in the face just as we were leaving for the airport. We’d stayed in Florence for a single night- my husband had never visited. Our beautiful fancy pants hotel had a helpful list of museum opening hours and locations. Museums of the city, large and small, were included. Except one: the Florence Museo Archeologico, home of the stunning Chimaera of Arezzo, only a stone’s throw from the big showstopper sites in its own lovely square. Not there. I asked why not, and the desk staff had no idea such a museum even existed. I realised as we drove back to the airport that I had seen queues of over 90 minutes for other Florentine hotspots. Every museum we walked past had a line. Except “my” one.

What can we as an archaeological community do about this? Well, if you come to my talk in October I’ll be fishing for ideas and sharing my own.