Italy: Would you like fries with your art history?

Ex-McDonald's executive aims to bring corporate savvy to Italy's financially troubled museums and monuments.

By , / Correspondent

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    Mario Resca, poses in his office in Rome. The former head of the Italian branch of McDonalds was appointed by President Silvio Berlusconi to manage the country's 450 museums and archeological sites.
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They are among the world's most prized treasures, repositories of art and archaeology dating to before the Romans. But a bold initiative to put Italy's museums and monuments under the stewardship of a former McDonald's director has heritage guardians spluttering, fearing a "McDonaldization" of culture.

Mario Resca's appointment as "supermanager" of Italy's hundreds of state museums and archaeological sites has pitched the dusty realms of curatorship against a hard-edged business environment. Even his title – he is tasked with the valorizzazione, or value-adding, of Italy's heritage – rattles some museum directors.

Mr. Resca is now fine-tuning a master plan that, he hopes, will achieve double-digit growth in visitors and revenue. He dismisses fears that his appointment heralds the beginning of an era of tawdry commercialization.

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He will not, he assures, offer fries with visits to the Uffizi in Florence, raise the Golden Arches over art galleries, or rebrand Donatello as McDonatello. But he will bring the language of the boardroom to the byzantine world of museum administration. "I see visitors as customers, clients. When you come to one of my museums, you are a guest, and your needs should be satisfied," he says.

He wants clearer explanations of what visitors see, better catering (not necessarily McDonald's, he stresses), and welcoming staff. Changing the funding of museums and monuments is a top priority. "Until now, the revenue from ticket sales went into a big central government pot instead of to the Culture Ministry," he says.

"If a light bulb broke at the Colos­seum, they'd have to apply for funds to buy a new one," Resca says. "By the time they got the money, another 10 would have broken. People told me, 'but it's always been like that.' But it lacks all common sense."

With the Culture Ministry's budget facing cuts of $1.3 billion over the next three years, Resca says that flagship attractions like the Colosseum must pay their way by hosting, say, the launch of a new car. As long as care is taken not to damage venues, he says, there is no reason why such partnerships cannot succeed.

The appointment of Resca, a specialist in turning around ailing companies, was part of a recognition that a country blessed with artistic gems often seems unable to look after them. Foreign tourists are often shocked to find stray dogs roaming the ancient city of Pompeii, drifts of litter between the marble columns of Rome's Forum, and poor signage.

It also reflects the view that Italy must look to its past to ensure growth and jobs in the future. "The era of factories is over," Resca says. "Our future must lie in cultural tourism."

For a nation with native sons Leonardo da Vinci, Michel­an­gelo, and Caravaggio, Italy punches way below its weight. Of the world's 10 most-visited museums, not one is Italian (the Vatican museums are part of the independent city state of the Holy See).

The Louvre in Paris attracts 8.5 million visitors a year, and the British Museum in London, 5 million. The Uffizi in Florence? Just 1.5 million.

"Twenty years ago, Italy was the No. 1 tourist destination in the world. Now we're the sixth," says Resca. As head of McDonald's Italian operations for 12 years, he was seen by the museum world as a hostile outsider.

Resca claims he has assuaged many critics by touring museums and listening to concerns rather than lecturing in management-speak. But he wants to see more marketing and merchandising. "You go to the Louvre and you find Mona Lisa T-shirts, Mona Lisa fridge magnets, Mona Lisa spoons," he says. "And the Mona Lisa is by Leonardo da Vinci, who is Italian! We can learn from that example."

And perhaps from another: Paris recently gave permission for a McDonald's to open inside the Louvre.

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