Museo Giovanni Capellini – Wunderkammer or Modern Museum?

Written by Michela Contessi, Conservator, Museum University Network, Collezione di Geologia “Museo Giovanni Capellini”, Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna.

The Geological Collection “Museo Giovanni Capellini” is part of the University Museum Network in Bologna (SMA – Sistema Museale di Ateneo). The museum is in an 18th-century building and includes a core of 16th-century geological and paleontological collections dating back to one of the oldest natural history museums in the world, created by Ulisse Aldrovandi in 1556. Most of the two million specimens now hosted in the museum though, were acquired by Professor Giovanni Capellini (1833-1922), holder of the first chair of geology established in Italy and rector of the University of Bologna. The museum holds important (both historically and scientifically) collections of rocks, fossils and documents from all around the world (Europe, Africa, North and South America), including the 1909 cast of Diplodocus carnegii, which is a popular touristic attraction in Bologna.

Facade of The Geological Collection "Museo Giovanni Capellini"
Figure 1 – Museum facade. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

However, and here comes the problem…

After Capellini’s death in 1922 little was done for the museum, in the early 1960s, when the new-born Institute of Geology and Paleontology was built, the museum building was literally cut in half and the collections crowded into half the original space.

Figure 2 – Museum plan in 1911, shown in red is the current available space.
Figure 2 – Museum plan in 1911, shown in red is the current available space. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

Structural issues arose due to this move, and the museum was closed to the public for almost 30 years. After a major renovation, funded for the ninth centenary anniversary of the University in 1988, the museum was given a new lighting and heating system, reopened to the public and it welcomes several thousand visitors a year since then. The building is now solid (as an old 500-year-old lady can be), but again nothing has been done since, and what looked like a good compromise in the eighties is now obsolete.

Despite the charm of its nineteenth-century atmosphere, the museum has issues related to the overcrowded showcases. The historical wood cabinets are organized by geographical area. On the upper shelves there are collections of rocks; fossils from the same site are in the middle, and a number of drawers with miscellaneous stuff are at the bottom (not to mention the 100-year-old dust that accompanies everything).

Figure 3 – Overcrowded showcases.
Figure 3 – Overcrowded showcases. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

Lighting is also an issue, there is a diffuse light in the museum, but most specimens in the cabinets are in shadow, funny enough Capellini himself lamented about it and he used to accompany visitors using oil lamps to light the fossils! Finally, there is the need to keep the original labels and captions, while letting the public understand the contents, the majority of the labels are handwritten by Capellini and other contemporary scientists, including some by famous French palaeontologist Cuvier.

Debate is still open on how to reduce the museum overcrowding and make it more entertaining to the 21st century public. Some people would like to preserve it as it is, without touching a bit of it, defending the importance of the historical layouts and their uniqueness, stressing the fact that it is one of the few museums in Europe, and maybe in the world, to have maintained the original furniture. On the other hand, most of the public, and other people involved with the museum, would like it to be more entertaining and able to communicate modern science to the community.

Our intention is to try to preserve some features of the historical museum, creating areas of “museum in a museum” while selecting iconic specimens to put in new displays, designed for public engagement and science communication.

Where Are We Now?

In the last few years one museum room (the Mastodon Hall) was refurbished, re-ordering the specimens in the wood cabinets (also cleaning them!) and setting up a new lighting system. The Diplodocus Hall also changed, and it now includes new displays next to the historical ones.

Figure 4 – The Diplodocus Hall.
Figure 4 – The Diplodocus Hall. © @Sistema Museale di Ateneo – University of Bologna

We are now undertaking a restoration of the museum basement in order to create a modern repository. We are planning to reduce the museum overcrowding by moving part of the collections into the repository and to create a new space for temporary exhibitions on the ground floor. The main goal is to maintain a balance between modern exhibitions, new technologies applied to public engagement, and the historical layout of the museum rooms. That will be a hard job and will probably engage us for the next few years. As we are now at the planning stage, we are open to discussions and suggestions from whoever wants to contribute!

Also, one of our goals will be to promote the Museo Capellini and its collections, that are still little known outside Italy, a temporary exhibition about Giovanni Capellini and his major discovery Orcinus citoniensis (a fossil killer whale), will be open from the 15th October 2022 to the end of August 2023, it would be great to see you there!

If you want to get in touch, please write to:

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram with the hashtags: #MuseiUnibo, #Aldrovandi500, #Capellini100

One thought on “Museo Giovanni Capellini – Wunderkammer or Modern Museum?

  1. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – November 2022 | NatSCA

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