The only inhabited museum in the world

Home to 200 people, this abandoned factory on the outskirts of Rome is a treasure trove of beauty with more than 650 works of contemporary art.

It is safe to assume that the two hundred or so formerly homeless people and immigrants who today live in an abandoned factory on Via Prenestina on the outskirts of Rome have more pressing things to worry about than Fyodor Dostoevsky’s ideas about art. Despite this, his famous phrase, "beauty will save the world," is currently at the core of the community’s survival.

Here on the shabby outskirts of Rome, about ten kilometers east of the center, there isn’t exactly an abundance of beauty. Indeed, this area seems quite unloved. Used car dealerships, supermarkets, ramshackle developments, and pavements littered with garbage line Via Prenestina. However, this somewhat bleak area is interrupted at number 913. Here beauty suddenly appears. A pair of crystalline eyes are painted on a large wall – a colorful mural with an almost hypnotic gaze created in 2014 by Brazilian street artist Eduardo Kobra. It radiates a strange curiosity and a hint of wonder.

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Beyond the high walls, a disruptive, uncanny, decidedly rebellious beauty is on display. On the old factory floor, you can see dozens of works of art embellishing walls, facades, and doors. Wherever you look, an artist has jostled in an artwork wherever physically possible.

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Giorgio de Finis, anthropologist, curator of exhibitions, and former director of the well-known Museum of Contemporary Art of Rome (MACRO), was aware that the site risked demolition: “I discovered this place by accident. In 2009 I went for a walk in the area with a group of artists. When we passed this abandoned factory, we found that around 200 people from around the world were squatting in the area”. According to de Finis, they live here illegally. The place had impressed him, and he returned two years later to involve the locals in an experimental project – building a fake rocket to simulate a trip to a friendlier place – the moon. “This is why we chose the name Metropolitz Museum of the Other and Elsewhere (abbreviated as MAAM in Italian), for the future museum, where the Elsewhere is meant to represent the moon,” explains de Finis, smiling. 

The old factory belonged to Fiorucci, a manufacturer of charcuterie goods, who years earlier had moved their operation elsewhere. Subsequently, the site was purchased by one of the largest Italian construction companies, Salini, which, in 2012, had the area rezoned from industrial to residential. The old factory could soon be demolished to make way for new residential buildings.

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“When I learned that the demolition of the factory was lurking, I got an idea,” says de Finis. So, starting in 2012, he began calling on his contacts in the street art world, some of whom already boasted a solid international reputation. “Today, the figures are staggering. Around 450 artists have created more than 650 works here at MAAM,” explains de Finis.  

MAAM represents a gigantic explosion of artistic creativity wherever you look. Here, every square centimeter seems filled. Colors, imagination, creativity. Everywhere. It is impossible not to be amazed.

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There are well-known names among the artists, such as Kobra, Solo, Diamond, Lucamaleonte, and Alice Pasquini, the world's most famous Italian street artist. And then there is Aladin, from Yemen, who created an impressive apocalyptic scene based on the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. There are still about 200 people (65 families) living at MAAM. Walking around the old factory, you can see teenagers playing football and laundry hanging among dozens of works of colorful street art. They are the residents of the only inhabited museum in the world. Unfortunately, they now risk eviction. In 2018, the Civil Court of Rome ruled in favor of Salini, which sued the municipality of Rome for compensation to the tune of 28 million euros for failing to clear the site. This ruling was a severe blow, and MAAM is on a municipal list of the five sites most at risk of demolition.

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“But now, how do you go about raising all this beauty to the ground? This is our idea – beauty as a bulwark against demolition. Art as protection which, at the same time, has the task of emphasizing the universal right to housing,” says de Finis. He adds: “It is important to get the right message across. We try to make ourselves known. Last year we participated in the Venice Biennale, and we are currently collecting all the necessary material to present MAAM’s candidacy for UNESCO protection by the end of February this year.”

All this has only been possible due to Giorgio De Finis’ creative thinking andhis personal network to a myriad of international artists.

However, with the new municipal administration in Rome, the wind seems to have changed slightly. A part of the Democratic Party (PD) seems to have the fate of the MAAM at heart, and perhaps even the imminent UNESCO candidacy could have positive effects. It remains to be seen whether Dostoevsky was right about beauty saving the world in the case of MAAM remains to be seen, but we remain hopeful. 

Mural by Alice Pasquini

Cover image: Kobra, Peace (2014). Photo Giorgio de Finis
All Photos by Jesper Storgaard Jensen