The temple of modern storytelling

Domenico De Gaetano, general director of the National Cinema Museum of Turin, arguably one of the most important museums in the world, guides Segmento on a trip through the origins of moving pictures and their future.

While we may not go to the cinema as often as we used to, we probably consume more films than ever before. Yet, as we scroll through the endless variety available on streaming sites or munch popcorn bathed in the blue light of the big screen, few of us give much thought to what goes into making the films we casually enjoy. Given how cinema colors our lives and its importance as a mirror and record of our times, the value of a museum documenting the artistic and technological developments that have made this most modern and influential of art forms possible is immense. Yet, the role of the museum does not end here. In addition to being a repository where cinema-related artifacts are collected and preserved, the National Museum of Cinema of Turin doubles as an educational and creative hub.

National Museum of Cinema, Turin

Domenico De Gaetano, on his second stint in the position, spoke about cinema’s rise to prominence as a modern artform and future challenges:

Cinema, the seventh art, is the most technological of all arts, as every transformation it undergoes is closely linked to technological inventions. People had played with the idea of moving images for over two centuries before the Lumière brothers developed the cinématographe. The next big leap was with the addition of sound, which brought about the end of silent film, including its acting techniques, and as a consequence, many careers. A third big shift happened when motion pictures went from black and white to full color. But then celluloid story-telling experienced an even bigger transformation with the advent of television. Once it entered our homes, the ritual of going to the cinema was threatened, and today it is facing a similar challenge in the form of streaming. With every change, there were those who lamented the death of cinema, but it has always survived. Nonetheless, as a museum, we are committed to preserving the past as well as interrogating the future of the seventh art. 

Director Domenico De Gaetano

The museum is housed in the imposing Mole Antonelliana – the symbol of the city of Turin and one of Italy’s most recognizable landmarks, even appearing on the back of the 2-cent coin of the Italian euro coins series. Designed by architect Alessandro Antonelli and completed in 1889, the structure, which held the record as the tallest masonry structure in the world until 1930, was originally a synagogue commissioned by the city’s Jewish community. When they could no longer afford the upkeep, it was sold to the City of Turin and transformed into a monument of national unity. Maria Adriana Prolo, one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated historians of Italian cinema and a prolific collector of cinema-related artifacts, recognized its potential as a worthy home for the national museum of cinema. Fulfilling her dream, the collection of the museum she had founded was moved from the Palazzo Chiabalese to the Mole Antonelliana in 2000. 

The iconic Mole Antonelliana elevator

After a dizzying elevator ride to the top of the Mole, I enjoyed a panoramic view of the snow-covered Alps and of the beautiful city of Turin before beginning my visit to the archeological section, which reconstructs the human compulsion to tell stories through moving images. From the Shadow Play to the Camera Obscura to the Magic Lantern, everything is documented and can be experienced first-hand. Then comes the section devoted to the art and industry of cinema as we know it, with its stars, directors, costumes, and studios. After seeing Marilyn Monroe’s corset and heels and Fellini’s hat and scarf, walking underneath the original posters of movies that marked the history of cinema, and watching extracts of major motion pictures and musicals, I was led through an immersive pathway explaining how films are actually made from shooting, sound recording, and editing to special effects.

The panoramic lift allows visitors to view the city of Turin from the top of the Mole Antonelliana

I then reached the center of the Mole, where I could hear the haunting scores of Dario Argento’s filmography. An exhibit that honors the work of this director, one of the most important Italian film-makers in the world, is currently on display at the museum. Co-curated by the museum director, Domenico De Gaetano, and Marcello De Garofalo, it conveys the power of Argento’s visionary worlds to the most avid fans and to the general public alike. At this point, before I am allowed into the virtual reality section, Domenico offers his thoughts about the future of cinema:

Today young people prefer series to movies and consume unprecedented amounts of audiovisual materials. They are also creators of videos that they share on social media, becoming directors themselves. However, they do not necessarily know the language of cinema. This raises questions about how the future of storytelling will look. Will it be an individual, isolated experience? Or will there still be a need to share stories offline? Will cinematographic art exist in the future? In what form? We have no answers, but we do pose these questions.

35mm Cinephon filmcamera (1935)

Responding to these gaps, the museum also takes its role in the educational arena very seriously, working with educators to produce curricular programs in film literacy.

The section formerly dedicated to 3D movies is now given over to virtual reality. You can experience full immersion in a virtual world, watching a film with VR goggles equipped with gaze-tracking technology. As I lost myself exploring an interactive desert landscape, forgetting altogether the cold drizzle and fog of the Turin winter outside, the possibilities of VR, both frightening and fascinating, became as vividly clear as the dry desert air of that artificial world.   

Virtual Reality room

Technological advancements have widened the gap between the generations, and it is hard to imagine how the old can communicate with the new, the past with the present. Without such dialogue, things will inevitably get lost along the way. The National Museum of Cinema of Turin is a place where this dialogue can take place. The museum gives visitors a peek behind the curtain and insights into the artistic and technological processes behind this universal form of storytelling that we so often take for granted.

The Temple Hall

Photography by Michele D’Ottavio