Business museums: when enterprise becomes culture

By - Antonio Calabrò -

There is something incredibly contemporary about celebrating the past of factories. This is common knowledge among Italian businesses, some of which, almost twenty years ago, founded Museimpresa on the basis of the idea that factories are physical and mental places where the past and the future meet and business culture – a blend of experience and innovation – is a key competitive lever.
Business museums and archives gather together documents, photos, films, adverts, technical drawings, machines and work records, items that testify to the technical but also the human dimension of labour.
Entering these museums is like shaking hands with the men and women that worked there, seeing the production lines, touching the machines, visiting the physical places where the most exciting production adventures took place.
A mine of different testimonies that underline the long Italian business tradition of – as one of the great European economics historians Carlo Maria Cipolla put it – “producing, in the shadows of bell towers, beautiful things that the world loves, going as far back as the Middle Ages”. And the beauty that Cipolla refers to is undoubtedly a distinctive trait, a competitive lever of Italian businesses.
Since the 1950s this beauty has been seen in the realm of Italian design, which stands out for its quality, aesthetics and functionality.
Everything that comes out of Italy is “beautiful” because it is the product of the beauty that is engrained in us and connected with form and proportion.
The Italian industry is one of supply chains, trade districts, local clusters of businesses, in which there has always been strong dialogue between engineers and interior designers, packaging machines and pharmaceuticals. By interacting with each other, our museums strengthen their presence in the community but also on the national cultural panorama. Business culture as an identity and competitive lever, therefore. A multi-faceted, sophisticated and popular culture, which is able to combine humanist and scientific knowledge, Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo, the discoveries of Galileo and the enlightened ideas of the Verri and Beccaria in pre- industrial Milan, the futuristic art of Boccioni in “The City Rises”, which anticipated town planning and the construction of the metropolis, and the chemistry of Nobel Prize winner Giulio Natta, who transformed Italian industry and gave it a global dimension. The culture of Olivetti of Adriano Olivetti, design and technology. And that of a long list of other businesses which continue to base their ability to develop top-drawer products on the concepts of quality and original aesthetics, on the relationship between design and contemporary art, thus dominating the world’s most lucrative niche markets.
In short, our economic development can be linked to the strong cultural foundations of our businesses. The key to innovation is not “business and culture” but rather the idea that “business is culture”.
By telling their stories, businesses generate economic value but also social and cultural value. In fact, the history of Italian businesses is a tale of “roots and wings”, to use an expression coined by German sociologist Ulrich Beck, and shows that you can innovate without losing sight of your traditions. Company museums convey all of this and help people to understand that business is extremely valuable from both a social perspective – because it offers a positive take on change – and a moral viewpoint, because business is responsibility.
Our museums underline the importance of creativity which, more than ever, is also the key to our future.

Biography Antonio Calabrò:
Journalist and writer, he is Chairman of Museimpresa, Vice Chairman of Assolombarda, member of the General Council of Confindustria, Senior Advisor Culture at Pirelli & C. and Director of the Pirelli Foundation. Vice Chairman of the Business Culture Centre, he is also a director of Bicocca University of Milan, Nomisma, Orchestra Verdi, the Teatro Parenti Foundation and Touring Club Italiano.