Questioning views: colonial vernacular photographs and the museum

Agnese Ghezzi

Keywords: Colonialism; XIX century Italy; Vernacular photography; Museum; Decolonial practices

Participation: presential

This paper aims to consider the entangled history of anthropology, colonialism, and photography in Italy looking at the photographic collection of Castello D’Albertis Museum of World Cultures in Genoa (Italy). At first, the paper aims to provide a historical introduction to the collection and the photographer, then analyse the processes of archival stratification and photographic institutionalisation, and in the end, it wants to pose some questions on the possibility to show and use such materials within today’s museum practice. Such reflections stem from a long-established connection with the institution and its archives, that ended up recently in the organisation of a “Postcolonial workshop” held at the Museum in collaboration with IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, the University of Genova, and the Centre for the History of Racism and Anti-Racism in Modern Italy.

The presentation focuses on the traveller and amateur photographer Enrico Alberto D’Albertis (1846- 1932), who travelled extensively around the world and especially in Africa from 1880 to 1912, publishing four books on the continent, based on reports of his trips. His case can help to build a multi-layered and non-monolithic reading of Italian colonial visual culture, looking at the period between XIX and XX (a period overlooked by the historiography in comparison to the study of the Fascist empire) when the colonial venture over Eritrea, Somalia and Libya begun.

D'Albertis's self-representation as an amateur and adventurous ‘globe-trotter’ is evident in his residence, a neo-gothic castle where he organised the collections gathered during his travels in an extravagant and exotic display. The castle and its collection were donated to the municipality of Genoa at his death and in 2004 the residency re-opened to the public with a double nature: the XIX century house museum and the contemporary museum of world cultures. During the restoration, twenty thousand negatives - dated between 1875 and 1930 - were discovered and included with some difficulties in the conservation policies of the museum. They bore witness to D’Albertis’s extensive amateur photographic practice, conveying the dimension of the great visual travelogue. The colonial gaze shapes profoundly the way peoples and places are framed in those pictures but, at the same time, their vernacular materiality allows to make more visible the “contact-zones” (Pratt 1991) and the process of photographic encounters (Edwards and Morton 2009).

Over the years the museum used extensively pictures to reconstruct and narrate to the public D’Albertis’s story and viewpoint. However, questions and doubts have arisen when it comes to showing difficult images, that make clear the power relationship and the racial presumption behind D’Albertis’s gaze. Presenting some cases of exhibition choices, as well as some attempts to involve the public in the interpretation of the photographic meaning, the paper wants to show the process of trials and errors adopted in the musealisation phase and to discuss the difficulties in the passage from the academic discussion to the exhibition practice. Moreover, it wants to pose further questions on how to include such colonial pictures in the museum narrative, how to cope with reframing and the risk of decontextualization, and how to escape aestheticization. More importantly, how to establish a productive dialogue with a plural public - especially in a country characterised by strong colonial amnesia and ‘aphasia’ (Stoler 2011) - and how to make the museum and the archive non-neutral spaces of visual, material and decolonial training?


Agnese Ghezzi is a postdoctoral researcher interested in photographic archives and visual studies, history of colonialism and decolonization practices, history of science, museology and history of collecting. She is currently a postdoctoral guest scholar at IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca (LYNX Center for the Interdisciplinary Analysis of Images). She was a Visiting Researcher at the Photographic History Research Centre, DMU, Leicester, a Fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, and a researcher at CINI - Consorzio Interuniversitario Nazionale per l’Informatica. In 2020, she received her PhD from IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, in the curriculum Analysis and Management of Cultural Heritage, with a thesis entitled “The Handbook, the Field, and the Archive: Photographic Practices and the Rise of Anthropology in Italy (1861-1911)”. She has been collaborating with Castello D'Albertis Museum of World Cultures in Genoa for the valorisation of its photographic collection. She studied Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Florence, the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and the University of Bologna.