What do you think is the most important outcome of the MeLa project? Based on the current European socio-political scenario and following the escalation of conflicts and tensions that have characterised the two years since the end of the MeLa  project—terrorist attacks, refugee crisis, BREXIT…—do you believe the results that were achieved to still be relevant?

Although walls, barriers and fences have been erected in Europe in recent years and several politicians are working to consolidate new nationalism and separatism, we are actually living in an increasingly globalised world, in which the flows of people, goods, information and ideas determine processes that seem unstoppable and go beyond any artificially imposed constraint. It is a scenario that offers us unexpected interchanging modes, whereby the comparison of cultures, ideas, memories and identities coming from different backgrounds is undermining the social homogeneity that has long been a feature of geographical areas that are currently facing difficulties with the relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’.

The traditional relationship between places, identity, and memory is no longer unique: mobility and migration occur in a time-space compression leading to a deterritorialisation of identity, to a separation between people and their hometown. At the same time a new territorialisation of—and within—areas is taking place according to multi and trans-cultural groups who are confronted in a cosmopolitan pluralistic space built on metropolitan/territorial networks and nodes that overlap with traditional national areas. As Ackbar Abbas, former Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Globalization and Culture of the University of Manitoba, wrote: ‘migrancy means (…) not only changing places; it also means changing the nature of places.’

In this context, an innovative approach to the use of cultural heritage is required that goes beyond it belonging to a single territory, to a specific language or an ‘imagined community’, and that, by contrast, is able to represent segments of social structures that are widely diversified by age, culture, gender and ethnicity, etc. This means reorganising codified relations on a new basis among assets, cultural institutions, social, urban and architectural space. Museums as institutions aimed at favouring inclusive forms of cultural relations within communities (i.e.: ‘places where cultures meet’) are strongly committed to the task of representing these aspects of contemporary society and its complexity.

It is increasingly necessary to develop a culture of complexity. Museums should represent complexity as a constantly evolving research field; museums cannot simply accumulate data and objects, but must redraw the matrix that holds together heritages, knowledge, and principles that are constantly changingIn the light of global transformations occurring in this new millennium, museums are scheduling a very hectic agenda, including the recognition and representation of issues and themes in a contemporary perspective: minorities and ‘other’ cultures, as well as the inclusion of ‘difficult’ or ‘contested’ topics like wars, conflicts, segregation, racism, diaspora, violence, etc.

At the same time museums as places that are ‘inhabited’ by their visitors, are the mirrors of identity. By using museum spaces, people manifest their presence as active subjects as they tend to develop a special relationship with the displayed content, researching the relevance for their activities and experiences in everyday life; the inside of the museum should outreach the exterior. Forms, spaces, and languages of museum displays and architecture characterise the civic identity of the institution as they express its position in the system of urban contexts as ‘devices’ for representing differences and specificities of the contemporary social body. This means defining values and meanings within a new space of social exchange as well as an idea of culture as a participatory and creative community practice.

These issues, which were the focus of the discussions of the MeLa research project, continue to be a benchmark for an innovative vision of the role of museums today and in the close future, as stated since its beginning in 2011: ‘Adopting the notion of migration as a paradigm of the contemporary global and multicultural world, MeLa reflects on the role of museums and heritage in contemporary Europe. The project investigates how and at what extent changes in population flows and demography, the impact of new media, the consequent layerization, complexification and fragmentation of societies and identities, and the recognition of the centrality of such changes to the human experience of life and society in modernity, do, could and should affect contemporary European museums, meant as cultural spaces and processes as well as physical places.’ Various current European research programmes in some way articulate and deepen the issues that were first investigated by the MeLa project: for instance the relationship between identity and place, the role of artistic intervention in developing cultural heritage, the complex issues relating to representing wars and conflicts in museums, both in terms of museographic narration and display.

Interview by Francesca Lanz, Christopher Whitehead and Michela Bassanelli

*Luca Basso Peressut is Professor of Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design at Politecnico di Milano, Deputy Director of the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies and Coordinator of the Academic Board of the Doctoral Programme in Architectural, Urban and Interior Design. Since 1993 he has taken part in numerous national and international research projects related to museum studies and museography. He coordinated the research project MeLa – European Museums in an Age of Migrations which he coordinated from March 2011 to February 2015.