Strategies for connecting religious cultural heritage. The role of technologies in an on field experimental action of Museo Diocesano, Milan

Sara Chiesa, Italy , Davide Spallazzo, Italy

Keywords: inter-religious dialogue, museum and technology, multi-vocal narration, museum interpretation



1. Introduction

The museum has become more and more a “listening ear” (the expression was used by the director of the Anacostia Museum & Center for African American History and Culture, during his conference presentation at the General Conference of ICOM in 1971) of a multicultural and intercultural society where cultures co-exist and debate. The intercultural dialogue relies on differences among cultures or “diversities” considered and enhanced as resources for mutual understanding. The museum, accepting the challenge to describe and interact with society, could be the privileged place in which these resources can be endorsed.

One of the most interesting and controversial themes of the inter-cultural debate is inter-religious dialogue.

The representation of religious issues in the public discourse of contemporary society seems to be a difficult issue. Problems of identity, diversity and dialogue among different cultures are amplified whenever religious aspects are involved. That is an important concern for museums (Benoit, 2010, Capurro, 2013).

Few museums have a formal policy on religious issues. Instead, religious museums, representing one or more religions, are a proper place to develop narratives on religion and on religious issues, for their responsibility to use their collections to promote mutual understanding between people in the whole field of religious faith and practice (Paine, 2013, p. 12).

The setting of the experiment presented here is the Diocesan Museum (Museo Diocesano), owned by the Church of Milan and opened in 2001. Its collection is mainly of art and sacred art. It is well known in Milan because it is very active in the cultural life of the city with various cultural projects and exhibitions. It is the natural setting for presenting a project of inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue.

Two groups of the Mela consortium take part in this on-going activity: the Design Department of Politecnico di Milano and ITIA from CNR (National Research Council) which offer respectively design (and partially curatorial) skills and technological and programming abilities. The curators of Museo Diocesano are directly involved in the design activities and act also as interlocutors for the evaluation of the project and of its results.

2. Framing the experiment

The experiment has two main aims: the first is verifying some theoretical propositions about the intercultural potential of digital and mobile technologies elaborated by the authors within the Mela project framework (Lupo et al. 2014), and the second is discussing and verifying the intercultural potential of religion and the role of museum as an ideal place for the encounters of different religions.

The main focus is designing a visitor experience able to transform a contemplative visit into an interactive and contributory one, possibly enabling and stimulating intercultural dialogue as well. The project is based on the use of digital technologies, like video narrations, performative interaction and 3D visualisations meant to stimulate different interpretations of cultural assets.

Five paintings of the eighteenth century representing various miracles about the Eucharist were chosen because of the topics they deal with (miracles and the Eucharist) that are quite exclusively Christian, and because their figurative as well as iconographic language can be difficult to understand not only for those not Christian or Catholic, but also for contemporary Italians with a Catholic religious background.

The methodology adopted to structure, evaluate and improve the project is design-driven and consists of an iterative process that goes back and forth between theory and practice in a progression of design, testing and reflection that involves several actors at different stages of the project. This research is in fact structured in activities that can be grouped in two categories: research actions and on field experimental actions. The first are meant to build a theoretical framework for the project, to define the curatorial part and to evaluate the test sessions, while the second group of activities is hands-on and aims at gathering information, data and feedback on field activities.

The experimental activities are meant to be conducted in two different steps, conceptualised and tailored for different visitors: expert users and a general audience. The feedback of the visitors is a central objective of the project and it sets the whole direction of the project. It is useful not only to verify the coherence of the project’s development but also to understand the further potentialities of the visiting system.

The first test involves experts and specialists in terms of art and/or religions (e.g. art critics; art historians; museum curators; people with a deep knowledge of their own religion: priests, theologians, rabbis, etc…). This test was designed to verify and review the efficacy of the interpretative tools in enhancing the visitors’ experience and to improve the content. Through user generated content (UGC), by collecting different expert opinions and a wide range of religious beliefs, the aim is to increase the potential multivocality of the narrative. Having collected different religious points of view, the issues that will be addressed by the second target group will be improved by the feedback obtained from this first group of individuals.

The second test involves general users, not-specialists but people personally interested in intercultural exchange (e.g. second generation immigrants and foreign community residents in Milan). This step allows us to add new content to test the visit path and to understand whether the intercultural model of socialization through performative and connective technologies is functional or not.

For the five paintings chosen, the visitor experience has been composed by different possible activities (not meant to be performed in a chronological order or necessarily all together) corresponding to six interaction dynamics:

  • listen and watch: listen to the explanation about the painting by watching a short video on the tablet (or projection) highlighting some specific elements;
  • interpret: answer the questions at the end of the video (by means of digital devices like tablet or smart phones);
  • contribute: contribute by suggesting some literary, historical, philosophical or iconographic-artistic references and adding links about the painting topics and objects, or writing a comment starting from your own culture, religion and experience;
  • explore: look for and discover the intercultural paths and content in the painting (by means of digital personal or collective devices/tablets, interactive table or by means of a cultural mediator);
  • perform: activate content through gestures and actions consistent with cultural practices, using 3D digital models or other technological system able to multiply content;
  • share/to link: connect people and share content with them, also connecting a painting’s contents with other objects and meanings.

First results and insights

The first pilot test took place in October 2013 ( A path for the evaluation of content was offered to 15 specialists (such as museum curators, theologians, priests, religious of different religions, cultural interpreters): their contributions helped to verify the hypotheses behind the project by offering an interpretation of religious values related to intercultural integration within the Museo Diocesano.

The test consisted of a guided “experience” of the five paintings selected within the Sala della Confraternita del SS. Sacramento e S. Caterina. The experience was supported by “video animation” and a “digital platform”: both these digital tools were designed to stimulate multifaceted interpretations, to enable comments and contributions, and to encourage encounters among the visitors. Initially, the experts listened and watched the video animation of the narration of the miracles; secondly, they were invited to conduct a personal interpretation of a topic related to the painting; finally, they were invited to complement their interpretation by providing references to other works of art, literature or iconography. Furthermore, experts were also asked to provide comments and look for parallelisms and analogies or, eventually frictions, with their own beliefs, and to support them with appropriate references.

The results of the first test were examined and critiques by experts became a guideline for the following development of the project.

For example some positive (and controversial) aspects arose, like the idea of the video narration. In fact, on the one hand few experts considered the video as a distraction from the real view of the paintings; on the other hand, the majority of them affirmed how efficaciously videos capture and focus the attention of audience on the subjects, by highlighting content and messages. The need for a better connection between the topics (e.g. disease and faith) and the miracles presented in the paintings and the idea of making the topics more social, dialogic, and closer to the daily life of visitors was highlighted. The first step was useful also in terms of collecting cultural content associated with specific elements of the paintings.

The second test will be concluded in Summer 2014 to increase the use of digital devices (with the introduction of tools based on augmented reality, characterized by 3D reproduction of museum works, and the use of social networks), capitalizing on the content gathered during the first test from the specialist audience.

The experience will therefore be designed to offer augmented and multiple points of view of the religious content and topics using the intercultural suggestions and reference provided by the experts, and looking for a more active, social and participative interaction.

Currently, the metadesign phase of this second test is underway. The research team is discussing different hypotheses and tools (analogical and digital based) for creating a new visitor experience (addressing the non-specialist audience) that will serve to reach both the scientific objective of the research and valorise the heritage and the museum.

The visitors will be guided in two phases of experience. The first part will be digitally based, while the second one will mix analog with digital tools in order to really understand how the experience and interaction among users is affected by the use of digital devices.

For the first phase, the test will be conducted individually by digital devices, by viewing the short video introducing the features of a selected painting (S. Caterina) and the related trans-cultural topic, exploring, through a specifically designed app, the multivocal content and references, and stimulating, by triggering questions, the addition of personal comments and experiences. In particular, at this stage of design of the app, the above mentioned multivocal contents, curated by the museum curator, together with the design team, have been organized in an architecture which includes:

  • institutional curatorial issues (artistic and historical info);
  • details of elements represented in the painting (divided into characters, gestures and objects) and possibly related intercultural issues;
  • intercultural user generated content;
  • links with other museums’ works of art.

Capurro.Fig 1.jpg Capurro.Fig 2.jpg

During the second phase, visitors will be invited to contribute to a collective discussion by the use of a physical mood board and the support of an educator or intepreter, who will propose some of the topics of the app, especially the ones that have been shown by the test to be the more commented upon or controversial and provoked different opinions.

Contributing and sharing will be increased and implemented by real time storytelling of the event on the museum’s social networks (i.e. Storify), trying to engage also the public from a remote distance in an on line dialogue by interacting with them through questions and comments posted in the social networks.

Capurro.Fig 3.jpg Capurro.Fig.4.jpg

Critical evaluation

One of the assumptions of this experiment is the possibility of improving the intercultural and interreligious dialogue within museums through an experience augmented by digital technologies. This assumption is based on the fact that contemporary digital technologies and devices are the most commonly used to engage audience participation, collaboration and sharing in museums (Allen, Lupo, 2012). Indeed the crucial question was to avoid a “medial aspect” of religion.

Some leading considerations have been taken into account for this purpose: first, the content of the experimental actions is not religion tout court, but religious heritage, that is the results of a process of “heritagization of the sacred” (Meyer and De Witte, 2013, p. 277); secondly the objective of interpreting religion through technologies to give the audience an active and not a passive role of being just a spectator of a happening.

Active experiences (like performing and practicing) are the most suitable to really understand a heritage made of rituals, liturgies and living behaviours like the religious one, and digital technologies are demonstrated to be the most effective at making such intangible content more approachable.

Our preliminary conclusion is that digital technology can enhance the experience of religious heritage in museums and doesn’t impoverish or trivialize it, especially if the technologies are working on the intangible aspects and didactic functions of religious heritage, with not merely mechanical reproduction but with active engagement. Performativity and technologies seem coherent and appropriate to reach the aim of the experiment of enabling experience and practices at the intersection of diverse cultures.


We thanks the Museo Diocesano director and all the museum staff.


Allen, J, & Lupo, E. (eds.) (2012) Representing Museum Technologies. Milan: Politecnico di Milano.

Benoit, I. (2010) “God(s): a User’s Guide. A European Experience of Religion and Exhibition.” In M.P. Jungblut, R. Beier-De Haan (eds.) Museums and Faith. Luxembourg: ICMAH, 2010, 72-95.

Capurro, R. (2010) “The Italian Diocesan Museums: Bridging Religious and Cultural Identity.” In The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum 2: 103-110.

Capurro, R. & Lupo, E. (2013) “Religious Assets and Cultural Heritage as Intercultural Practices in Museums and Exhibitions.” Paper presented at the conference The Postcolonial Museum: the Pressures of Memory and the Bodies of History MeLa RF2, Naples, Italy February 7-8 2013.

Capurro, R. (2013) Musei e Oggetti Religiosi: Arte, Sacro e Cultura Religiosa nel Museo. Milan: Vita & Pensiero.

Lupo, E., Parrino, L., Radice, S., Spallazzo, D., Trocchianesi, R. (2014) “Migrations and Multiculturalism: a Design Approach for Cultural Institutions.” In Migrating Heritage: Experiences of Cultural Networks and Cultural Dialogue in Europe, edited by Perla Innocenti, London: Ashgate, 65-77.

Meyer, B. & De Witte, M (2013) “Heritage and the Sacred: Introduction”. Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief  9/3: 274-280.

Paine, C. (2013) Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties. London: Bloomsbury.







Cite as:
S. Chiesa and D. Spallazzo, Strategies for connecting religious cultural heritage. The role of technologies in an on field experimental action of Museo Diocesano, Milan. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published May 30, 2014. Consulted .

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