By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
SEPT. 15, 2014
ROME — Beginning this semester, students at the University of Missouri will get a hands-on opportunity to study ancient artifacts through a pilot project with the Capitoline Museums in Rome.
The museums have lent 249 Roman-era artifacts of black-glazed pottery to the university for students to research and catalog. Culled from the museums’ cavernous deposits — the repository covers roughly 150 years of modern excavations in the Italian capital — the as yet unstudied artifacts will give students at the Midwestern university tangible exposure to Mediterranean archaeology.
In exchange, the objects will return to the museums with a scholarly pedigree that the Roman institution could not afford on its own.
The initiative is a novelty in Italy, a country that has traditionally kept a tight hold on its cultural patrimony, and also marks a new outreach effort on the part of the Culture Ministry, which facilitated the export of the artifacts. Crucial sponsorship came by way of Enel Green Power, the clean energy unit of the Italian utility Enel, which financed the initiative.
“Our primary interest was in creating highways of knowledge between countries, because it’s a way to give back to the community,” said Francesco Venturini, the chief executive officer of Enel Green Power, which developed the project as part of the company’s commitment to corporate social responsibility.
The university had plenty of material to choose from. Only a part of the nearly 100,000 artifacts in the Capitoline’s deposits have been properly analyzed and cataloged.
“What’s exciting is that these are unstudied or inadequately studied pieces because they’re part of a backlog created in the 19th century,” said Alex W. Barker, the director of the university’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.
The project is a “huge opportunity,” he added, that permits the university to “engage students with primary materials that they might otherwise not have access to” and that delivers results “of benefit to our Italian colleagues” and to scholarship in general.
The materials arrived in Missouri at the beginning of the month and are being stored at the museum. The formal analysis of the pieces — a detailed examination to determine class, typology, manufacture, period, style and context — will be undertaken by senior graduate students in concert with professors. “It’s the one-on-one training that is important in Ph.D. programs,” Dr. Barker said.
Supervised undergraduate students will assist the museum staff in analyzing the artifacts using various techniques available at the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Missouri Research Reactor. The lab is considered one of the most advanced of its kind in the United States, and has helped analyze more than 145,000 archaeological specimens from around the world over the past 25 years. Students and professors will decide how best to structure the data gleaned from the analysis, adhering to standards used by both American and foreign scholars.
“These are costly tests that we would have never been able to afford on this side of the ocean,” said Antonella Magagnini, a senior curator at the Capitoline Museums who helped develop the research project.
“This kind of large-scale loan for research purposes is unprecedented” in Italy, said Claudio Parisi Presicce, the director of the Capitoline Museums, noting that the sheer volume of unstudied materials — whether in bronze, glass or marble — meant that “the potential of this project is enormous.” The museums, he added, hold countless examples of objects used in daily life, “so it’s a rich font of information about the ancient world.”
Once studied and returned to Italy, the objects could go on display in a long-awaited, but yet to be built, municipal museum about ancient Rome.
Formally, the collaboration between the museum and the university is to last two years, although it seeks to be open ended in spirit. “Hopefully we’ve made things simpler for other projects and other universities,” Dr. Barker said.
Several institutions have expressed an interest in initiating similar exchanges. Enel Green Power is sponsoring a project at the Rhode Island School of Design that will start in October, while collaborations will begin next year at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas at Austin. Enel Green Power is also in preliminary talks with the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford, New York University, Yale and Harvard.
Enel Green Power will invest about 100,000 euros, or about $130,000, in each project, and will choose universities with innovative ideas for studying the artifacts, Mr. Venturini said. “Our objective is to extend the exchange to different institutions. We don’t see this project ending if it works,” he said.