I’m happy to dedicate my first post to my hometown, Altamura, in Puglia, Southern Italy.
For a town of 70k inhabitants, rich in traditions and history, and fiercely proud of both, I’ve always felt that the cultural offering was somewhat lacking here.
While the largest and richest museum, the National Archaeological Museum, is filled with stunning pieces which leave you wondering whether it is safe to walk anywhere without destroying precious ancient artefacts, its grey and lackluster presentation, teamed with the sleepy entrance foyer, cold halls, and eerie echoes bouncing off the white-lit artefact cases as you read the dry labels under your breath to feel less alone, make this one of my least favourite museums in the world. I confess I was surprised to find that it was a candidate for the 2018 Council of Europe Museum Prize! (The prize went instead to the brand new War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, opened by young entrepreneurs who have lived through civil war in their own childhoods – I highly recommend taking a look at the project).
The little museum of Palazzo Baldassarre is therefore a welcome recent addition to the heritage management scene of Altamura. The museum is dedicated to the ‘Man of Altamura’, affectionately known locally as ‘Ciccillo’, a complete skeleton of a homo Neanderthal found in 1993 in a cave by two members of the local speleological society while out on one of their weekend rambles.
Immediately the museum gains points and esteem among locals for inhabiting, and thus finally reviving the beautiful Baldassarre Palace, an important landmark within the walls of the medieval centre. The building, erected between the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries by the Baldassarre family, who were in fact masons and building contractors, had been left already in a bad state of disrepair by the last of the Baldassarre heirs in the 1950s. Several initial efforts were made to repurpose and redevelop the property, but to no avail.
I remember as a small child clambering over wooden planks fixed to the ground-level windows in a feeble attempt to discourage trespassers, to explore dark and humid rooms, ostensibly now waste collection chambers and hideouts for junkies.
The building now houses a small display of mostly plaster replicas of artefacts accompanied by large panels explaining Paleolithic history, and showcasing the Altamura find within the context of other similar important archaeological material.
The guided visit begins in a multimedia hall downstairs where visitors are invited to don 3D glasses to watch a video reconstruction of the descent into the cave of Lamalunga, where the skeleton was found. The guide gives as much or as little input as she senses is wanted. She was silent when I was in awe, she spoke when I seemed perplexed, and she answered questions willingly and extensively.
The visit then proceeds upstairs where the guide constructs a succint narration of the essence of the collection and displays. To conclude, the visitor is able to relive the discovery of the humanoid by inspecting a 3D printed life-size replica of the site of the discovery, including Ciccillo himself.
My visit lasted about 45 minutes, and as it had been a spur-of-the-moment late-afternoon affair, the guide informed me that unfortunately we could not visit the upstairs terrace to take in the views of the town, as it was already dark. She did invite me to return the following day though, free of charge.
For such a small museum with a very specific scope, I thought the Palazzo Baldassarre packed a fair punch. The hospitality and kindness of the guide and her colleague at the ticket office (who was an Archaeologist) made an immediate impression on me, as did the space, which has incredible potential for community engagement and interaction (the media room, the piazza outside, the rooftop terrace). Perhaps due to the sparse attendance, the staff are able to dedicate more time and attention to individual visits, and this is in a way a definite advantage which makes the experience more involving, and I think it is something the museum should seek to preserve when attendance increases.
The educational material is pivotal for the local community, particularly for school kids to learn about their own heritage, and the human element of the museum’s theme would lend itself well to any number of different events and initiatives. With the right proposals from curators, local art and culture groups, and even activist groups and societies, and of course with some funding, the potential for this museum to be a real educational and cultural hub, and a community binder is, I think, much greater than the sum of its parts.
Some facts and figures
Entry ticket: €4, or €5 for a combined ticket to visit the Visitor Centre of Lamalunga on the same day (though the nice ladies at reception called their colleagues on the phone to ask them to accept me during the week on my combined ticket).
Opening hours: closes for lunch time (as do most things in this neck of the woods), with longer opening hours in the summer.
Recommended time for visit: 45 minutes to 1 hour.