A clash of culture vultures

December 19, 1997

THE ADOPTION of a still unrecognised three-year "short degree" in cultural heritage studies at the universities of Florence and Udine in October has fuelled a heated debate on the merits of combining professional training with academic teaching.

The diploma was introduced in 1990 as part of a government campaign to exploit Italy's artistic heritage, now seen as its greatest asset, and thus reverse 50 years of maladministration and neglect.

Fourteen universities now offer the diploma in cultural heritage studies and 13 offer full degrees. Three universities have their own cultural heritage faculties.

But the deans' national conference has called for the diploma's removal from the national syllabus, describing it as "hybrid, useless and even harmful".

They said that it was unrealistic to try to provide students with both the necessary cultural background and professional training in three years. "Either diploma students should transfer to the full four-year degree courses or else the diploma should be reduced to a two-year purely professional training course," said a deans' statement.

Silio Scalfati, professor of cultural heritage studies at the University of Pisa, said: "Diploma courses confuse serious academic teaching with mere technical training and should be scrapped. Restoration schools, for example, would like to get into universities in order to transform our departments into workshops. What is rather required are new laws guaranteeing our full-degree graduates privileged access to careers in the public sector. Current criteria for recruitment are too subjective."

Rodolfo Zich, rector of Turin Polytechnic, defended the diploma. "Professional training must remain an integral part of the diploma. The real problem is the ministry's continuing failure to grant it full legal status."

But higher education minister Luigi Berlinguer has said that legal status could only be granted in the context of a radical reform of professional training.

Italy's celebrated restoration institutes, whose undisputed quality depends on a balance of theoretical and practical instruction, not only support the diploma, but themselves seek reclassification as university research centres.

Giorgio Bonsanti, head of Florence's Opificio delle Pietre Dure (workshop of hard stones) institute and laboratories, said: "Full training in cultural heritage studies must involve theory and practice. The best solution would be to switch the Opificio and Rome's Central Institute of Restoration from the the national heritage ministry to the higher education ministry as university research centres. Entrance qualifications are university standard and our courses, open to all European Union citizens, last four years."

But Maria Concetta Muscolino, head of the Ravenna Institute of Mosaics, said: "Our universities simply do not produce results. Neither professors nor their graduates have any real competence in this field. Ignorance here is matched only by arrogance. The sad truth is that these cultural heritage faculties are not a serious enterprise but have been created in order to provide more jobs.

"Miraculously, Italian restorers still rank among the best in the world, but since our universities have begun to plunder us for their own ends we are now well on the road to ruin."

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