Milan and Africa

A visit to the third room of the permanent exhibition "Global Milan"

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

A transition

The second and third room are linked by a corridor hosting a projection that uses historical drawings to illustrate the evolution of Europe's relations with the rest of the world: from explorations to commercial imperialism and finally to militar imperialism and colonialism.

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

Milan and Africa before colonies

After the corridor, a small display focuses on the contact between Milan and East Africa. Giuseppe Vigoni, future mayor of the city, participates in the first explorations of the area in 1878-79, coming back with the first African objects of the future civic collection.

He also brings back notes and drawings, and the conviction that the economic exploitation of those rich territories needs to be achieved only by commercial means, not warfare. 
In 1882, though, an Italian naval company buys the Assab Bay in Eritrea, which becomes a starting point for territorial expansion. Italy thus enters in the European "scramble for Africa".

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

Section 1: African art and material culture

After a brief written introduction recalling the history of European colonialism in Africa, two displays provide glimpes into the material culture of Central Africa, underlying through changes in the objects the cultural and social changes provoked by the European domination.

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

Monti Collection

Particularly significant is the Monti collection, on loan to Mudec, created by the pioneer of collecting so-called 'ethnic art' in post-war Italy.

Mask of a Sikh Mask of a Sikh (20th century (first half)) by Makonde PeopleMudec - Museum of Cultures

Mask of a Sikh

Makonde People, XX century

This lipiko mask from Tanzania depicting a Sikh mercenary, for example, proves the contact with this population in the context of British conquest. Lipiko masks typically depict enemies to give their strength to bearers.

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

Interactions

Objects and images of this section also aim to underline the resistance of the different African cultures and their rielaboration of European influence, explaining how the hybridized social and cultural forms of contemporary African came to be.

Male statue in a standing position (20th century) by Baulé PeopleMudec - Museum of Cultures

Male statue in a standing position

Baulé People, XX century


The evolution of these ritual figures of the Baulé people shows the clear change in local opinions about what are desirable social roles, and in clothing as well as in the conception of the body and its beauty.

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

Traditional warfare

One of the biggest changes brought by colonialism was a new type of warfare: not endemic and parithetic as it used to be between different African peoples, but much more rare and destructive. The whole society was infact re-structured by this change.

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

Section 2: Italy's neglected colonial past

Conceived together with Italian afro-descendants, the section gives special attention to the history of Italian colonialism, removed in national conscience. An interactive screen allows the visitors to explore the history of the former colonies: Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Libia.

Ethiopian processional cross with St. Michael (19th century (?)) by Cultures of EthiopiaMudec - Museum of Cultures

A focus on Ethiopia

A showcase is dedicated to Ethiopian objects, which in the past were exhibited as spoils of war and in a functional way to glorify Italy.
Today they are on display for their own interest as a testimony of Ethiopian sophisticated and millenary society.

Yellow velvet and leonin fur cape (lamd), Cultures of Ethiopia, 20th century (first half), From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Warrior crown (anfarro), Cultures of Ethiopia, 20th century (first half), From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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These, in particular, are a yellow velvet and leonine fur cape (lamd) and a diadema that belonged to a 'ras' and was brought to Italy after the war of 1935-36.

"Supergara Santagostino" "Supergara Santagostino" (20th century) by Paolo Santagostino Hosiery FactoryMudec - Museum of Cultures

A legacy which is also very local

Research on the relation between the colonies and Milano itself also highlighted that propaganda for colonization was directed to children too, mainly through games and comics.  
This becomes especially intense during the fascist regime, but there are older examples.

"Supergara Santagostino" "Supergara Santagostino", Paolo Santagostino Hosiery Factory, 20th century, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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Produced by the local shoe factory in 1936, this table game enables the children to "relive" the main stages of the conquest of Eritrea.

In 1938 the city of Milan also organized a competition for schools to provide material for a Museum of Colonies: children and their families were asked to donate their colony-related heirlooms.

"Corriere dei piccoli", Rizzoli Publisher, 20th century, From the collection of: Mudec - Museum of Cultures
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The first number of this very famous children review was published in 1908, and one of the main charecters has always been Bilbolbul, an african children created along clearly racist ideas.

Propaganda was also of course directed to adults, and equally packed with stereotypes about the colonized people. 
Two phases in the Italian colonial imagery can nevertheless be distinguished: before 1937 the approach towards the inhabitants is paternalist and racist but there are some positive representations and the colonies are described as attractive and modern places. Mixed marriages are tolerated.

"La Difesa della Razza" (20th century) by Fascist National partyMudec - Museum of Cultures

The 1937 racist legislation

In this year the propaganda shifts all to African inferiority and the need for segregation in the colonies, with the aim of keeping the 'Italian race' 'pure'.
Pseudo-scientific dedicated reviews are created, such as the infamous "La difesa della razza".

With end of World War II Italy loses its colonies and the dying fascist regime turns its racist propaganda against the enemy, focusing on Afro-American.
After the establishment of the republic, the colonialist period is almost removed from national conscience, ignored at the same time as a militar failure and a fascist madness. Thus the racist elements absorbed in everyday culture linger on without real awareness.

Global Milan - Room III (2021) by Museum of CulturesMudec - Museum of Cultures

Milan and multi-ethnicity today

At the same time Italy now has a composite society, resulting both from historical and recent migrations. 
To acknowledge and valorize this diversity, the room closes with an interactive screen containing video-interviews of twelve citizens of Milan who have a migrant background.

They tell about their experiences of migrating or being born in Italy, often having to cope with different kinds of discrimination. Their almost-bodily presence and Italian accents are very effective in making everyone clearly feel they are part of the city - maybe the real "global Milan" after all.

Credits: Story

Ricetti Elena

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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