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The Student Museum

 
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The museum, which our rector agreed to house in a section of the university's Palazzo Centrale museum, was designed by a number of specialists and a whole host of enthusiastic volunteers, with financial assistance from the university. As the oldest European university and the headquarters of the first universitas scholarium (university taking in lay students) in the world, the Alma Mater Studiorum decided to promote a cultural initiative to encourage study and knowledge of the student world, capable of evolving into a permanent documentation centre on the history of the European student.
The plan for the museum emerged about ten years ago when a number of historians who were studying the university student phenomenon met up with some representatives of associations of former students. The initial idea necessitated specifying the aim to be attained: after the original hypothesis of an exhibition of items dating back to last century's goliardia (students' associations), a more ambitious objective came to fruition, namely a permanent museum centring on the student figure from the beginnings of the university to the present day, with particular stress on the European experience. In order to deepen our knowledge we held a series of seminars and colloquies, the first results of which, including the volume Gaudeamus igitur and the study by A. Mola on the international student association Corda Fratres, are already available, with further publications following hot on their heels.
The question naturally arises: what is the current importance of the history of students in the eyes of historians of collective attitudes, political scientists, specialists in the formation of the ruling classes and historians of customs, manners and society? Another question we have addressed is how best to circumscribe the student identity in a manner that is necessarily a representative summary. There are many precedents for university museums with sections on the student presence (from Leipzig through Utrecht to Würzburg), but we felt that none of these adequately portrayed the whole student phenomenon.
We also knew that we would be judged by the academics, who would then decide whether or not to support our aims. We remembered how Charles Haskins had begun his introductory speech at a conference on the mediaeval student: "university would be a most pleasant place if it weren't for the students", he said, reflecting the majority view of his professorial colleagues. Haskins' observation was more than a mere rhetorical device, and we know that this opinion was still applauded seventy years later. The extensive historiographical lacunae that can be noted in the numerous tomes of university history implicitly confirmed this fact. The students themselves have often helped maintain this point of view: they have always liked to promote a self-image exaggerating the more wayward aspects of their existence. This attitude, which stems from the basic solidarity of youthful friendships, has helped maintain the image of students as a "potentially dangerous class", an opinion which has gained momentum at a time of mass university admission and widespread student protests. Personally we had already weighed up these points of view and did not feel unduly influenced by them.
On the other hand, we did ponder the appropriateness of the museum formula: the very word "museum" is redolent of the past, and to the common mortal suggests the idea of something established and defìned in human knowledge and in the function assigned to it scientifically, The student condition is a transitional phase in an individual’s life, an age that leaves few traces that can be used as museum exhibits. We also know that many forms of youth behaviour are generated in order to join a group, to reinforce this group's identity and strengthen its solidarity. Seen from the outside these forms of conduct often take on a meaning that the person originating them would never have recognised.
The concepts of research laboratory or documentation centre might possibly have been more appropriate, but we eventually opted for "museum" because it assigned the student figure the respect it merits as an essential component of the university world.
Finally, there was a consensus that this museum should be located in Bologna, where students, for the first time in history, secured an autonomous organisational structure, a System of self-government thanks to the regular election of rectors, who were also students and who were for centuries the supreme authority of the Studium. It is also the origin of the myth of student power as proclaimed by students during the events of 1968. This is the origin of some of the basic features of the student identity which has come down to us through its continual metamorphoses and adaptations. The museum as we saw it was to highlight not only this leitmotiv stressing the continuity in student history, but also the differences emerging over time in the various countries and universities, throughout nine centuries of university life.
We did not stop in the face of the many difficulties we encountered, as we were increasingly convinced that our aim could bring immediate institutional benefits. Restoring a collective memory that has often proceeded in fits and starts could guide the choices of those in daily contact with students.
The exhibits soon began to flood into the future museum's Storage rooms thanks to the generosity of many benefactors and to purchases on antique markets throughout Europe. Concurrent work was carried out on the organisational aspects, especially on the guidelines for the requisite choices and the optimum means of representing a historiographical concept or pathway by selection and exhibition of a given item.
The first problem was a methodological one involving the categories of items to be collected. We began by defining a schematic profile of the student. The student emerged as a new social figure in the twelfth century, in Bologna, Paris and Oxford, and in 1158 was granted legal recognition by Frederick I Barbarossa, providing the basis for future dispositions by emperors, popes and sovereigns defining the student's identity and social status, For centuries the collective identity of this figure might be summarised as follows: the student is a young unmarried male person varying in age from adolescence (in the case of arts faculties) to adulthood (especially for theology). Regardless of his actual age, the student is "institutionally young", a condition which induces him to engage in conduct that might be described as "Rabelaisian", practical jokes, pranks and carnival disguises. Over the last two centuries this stereotype has changed considerably because of increasing female representation (women are now in the majority), the greater stability of this age bracket and the under-representation of foreigners in the student community.
Furthermore, the presence of the student as a figure has always been confined to urban societies, a status dictated by material and intellectual exigencies. The town was the ideal breeding ground for an increasingly secularised kind of knowledge. Now as then the urban environment facilitates encounters with other intellectuals, teachers or students from other schools with whom to exchange points of view and engage in ongoing comparison of experiences and ideas.
So students live in towns and cities. However, for several centuries they remained completely separate from the other urban social groups, particularly their own age bracket. For centuries students were a foreign body in the town, protected by laws, privileges and norms alien to the local customs. Some division between the student body and the urban population was therefore inevitable, and set the scene for potential "town and gown" conflict. This dividing line has survived in the collective subconscious, and even today it produces an aloof, sometimes suspicious attitude to students, albeit under circumstances very different from those prevailing in the past.
This led to the need for various forms of mutual aid, with specifìc regulations and a separate university judiciary to put up a common front in times of danger and tension which, often going beyond the anecdotal, repeatedly marked the history of this social group. Student associations (from the mediaeval nationes and universitates to the modern Burschenschaften) are extensively illustrated in the museum.

The relationship of conflict which has often subsisted between students and the authorities is another of the museum's central themes, including the gradual evolution of this aspect over time, culminating in the anonymous hero on Tiananmen Square.
There is nevertheless obvious continuity, even in the socialisation mechanisms, transcending any formal differences from era to era.
It emerges that students were generally immigrants, but from the sociological and cultural angles they were unlike most other immigrants in that they never lacked roots. Their group of belonging has always laid down its own social rules and produced original cultural expressions which identify all group members and with which they can identify, above and beyond the specific place where they make their provisional abode.
This "meta-language" is universal, shared by the whole student world regardless of territorial boundaries, facilitating student exchange. Moreover, this does not apply solely to the past, the era of peregrìnatio academica: today it is still one of the preconditions for the success of student mobility programmes.
Student initiation rites are a classic example of these social rules. These rites have evolved over the ages in accordance with cultural changes, but some of them have deeply marked the whole of society.
I am thinking of the depositio, which is currently fashionable in various universities, and which used to consist of a specific "liturgy" as described in a series of printed booklets. The matricola (fresher) and beanus were considered as foul beasts who had to submit to a rite of purification: imaginatively reproduced horns, claws, manes and fangs were filed, cut and blunted. The novices had to gulp down large doses of salt and quaff considerable quantities of wine in order to purify their innards, celebrating their admission to the group. The metaphor of the "beast to be emancipated" highlights the esteem in which students hold their own special status and the group's "otherness" vìs-à-vis the rest of society.
I think that even today all goliardi would recognise this ancient mediaeval ritual which continued up to the sixteenth century, the forerunner of a rite which the modern goliardia practised right up to very recent times.
I have gone into some detail on the ideas behind our preparatory work in order to show our determination to lay an accurate historiographical foundation for the museum.
However, founding a museum also involves selecting the exhibits, choosing an appropriate exhibition method and organising the establishment in accordance with the concepts to be transmitted.
Every generation of students and some individual student groups have produced their own symbols, their distinctive signs, but the transient nature of the student condition has made it difficult to preserve the evidence of these symbols.

Another task on which we are still working is to recover the traces and endeavour to interpret them. This operation will enable us to weave the fabric of continuity and change within which to describe the multiple expressions of student life. This article is not the place to analyse the hundreds of relics that we have collected on the basis of the thousands of testimonies that have come in from students of all eras. I shall simply mention a number of them in order to highlight their diversity: they range from paintings to statues, from posters to engravings, from diplomas to postcards and clothes, from codices illustrated with miniatures dating back to the thirteenth century to masses of silver and gold that belonged to a Renaissance student rector, symbolising his high office. Further items include a fifteenth-century register of students featuring Nicolaus Copernicus, a series of libri amicorum that belonged to various German students, a cockade made for two revolutionary students decorated with the colours of the future Italian national flag, films of mid-twentieth-century student parties and photographs and documentaries on the student protest years. There are also literary works, from Villon to Rabelais, plays, satirical and political journals, cartoons and musical compositions such as the Carmina Burana, Carmina Cantabrigiensia and the Montpellier Motets, right up to the 1930s, when student creativity, the students' capacity to innovate and anticipate on new cultural trends, was at its height.
Each exhibit was selected on the basis of its potential for representing modes of behaviour and cultural expression in the student world. Items from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are obviously more abundant: traditional costumes (eg Spanish Tunas and the parade costumes of the German Burschen) and mensur (ritual duel) sabres. Ali the exhibits are objects and symbols with metaphorical qualities, created for use in specific, albeit temporary circumstances: the student who used these insignia or wore these costumes lived inside a system of living relations and contexts which must be appropriately interpreted and represented in the museum.
The establishment is to comprise a number of itineraries drawing on the students' social and institutional role to follow their development over nine centuries of history, stressing specific points in time or such particularly significant themes as student mobility (from the mediaeval wanderers to the Erasmus Project), relations with urban societies, initiation rites, relations with the authorities and political powers, student songs, theatre and poetry, the presence of women in the university, the themes of intellectual and then vocational training, the social components of the university, etc.
For the time being I would like just to show you the plan of the museum, which I hope you will be able to visit in the near future, just as I hope that in the coming years it will be possible to create a travelling exhibition based on our museum, touring all the capitals of European culture.