Tuesday, 28 March 2023

"A Philosophy Museum in Every City": an Interview with Anna Ichino

As part of a University of Birmingham Women in Philosophy initiative to promote inclusion and diversity in access to philosophical research, I interviewed Anna Ichino (University of Milan) on the creation of the very first Philosophy Museum. Anna originally blogged about the Museum for us and for the Daily Nous in 2020 and she is offering here an exciting update on the uptake of the initiative and on her future plans to further develop the idea into something bigger and permanent. 

Why do we need a Philosophy Museum? Can Philosophy be engaging and fun, as well as informative, for the wider public? 

The first hall of the museum


Lisa Bortolotti (LB): How did you and your collaborators develop this idea of creating a philosophy museum?

Anna Ichino (AI): The idea originally was of my colleague Paolo Spinicci who kept saying, there are in the world museums about almost everything. There are museums of art, science, cinema, sex, and toys. There are even a museum for socks and a museum for frogs. Is it possible that there aren't yet philosophy museums in the world? It seems to be an important topic, and there isn’t a museum devoted to it.


And, in fact, a quick Google search, then confirmed by a more careful inquiry, showed that apparently there are none. So, we felt it was time to fill the gap and create the very first Philosophy Museum. So that was the starting point, and it was at that point 2018, and our department got some generous extra funding from the Ministry of Research within an Excellence Award scheme, and part of this funding had to be used for activities of outreach and public engagement, so we decided to use this funding for this project. It was about €50,000, and, thanks to this funding, we could rely on the help of experts in this area. So, museum experts, graphic designers, multimedia studios, and all the sort of expertise that you need to create a proper museum.


We tried to build that like an aesthetically appealing and stimulating environment, where philosophical ideas can be communicated in fun and engaging ways. That was the idea. So our model was science museums: we didn't have in mind a historically minded museum where you just passively contemplate relics about the lives and works of philosophers but more dynamic and interactive environments where you have a number of games, activities, experiments, aesthetic and intuitive experiences that lead you into the nature of philosophical problems.


As it was quite an ambitious project, to put it into practice we had to proceed gradually. So, we started with the temporary exhibition which took place in our university in November 2019, and there we created the first two halls of what we would like to become a permanent museum plus a third programmatic hall where we presented the plan for what still needs to be done. That’s what we did, in short.

Anna Ichino

LB: A very good idea, I think, to have a Philosophy museum. You already said that you meant to fill a gap, the absence of a Philosophy Museum. But what were your other objectives in creating the Museum? What did you want to achieve?


AI: The main objective was to make philosophy widely accessible, accessible to people who are not, and probably will never be, into academic philosophy. So showing that philosophy is not just an abstract and perhaps boring discipline that can be addressed in libraries by reading long books and studying. Of course, that's a way an important way to access philosophy. But that's not the only way.


Philosophy can also be something understandable and fun and playful that can be accessed by people who are not academics, and are not interested in being academics. So the idea was that if you make the gateway to philosophy enjoyable and entertaining, then people maybe are willing to engage with the issue, becoming in general more curious, and open minded and willing to explore some important philosophical tools and methodologies.

The Philosophy Museum experience could be the first step into a pathway of fruitful interactions where people eventually become better thinkers, more critically minded, and better agents in the public debate. We thought this could, in the long run make a difference to the climate of a healthy public debate in a healthy democracy. So, that was the ambition.


LB: It is a very ambitious aim, but it's also very important, and very timely, because nowadays philosophers are getting really interested in our environment being epistemically polluted or not being conducive to us thinking clearly and rigorously. So the idea that there could be some fun and engaging ways to encourage people to think more critically sounds excellent. What were the main challenges that you encountered in this project? I imagine that many of you did not have experience in creating resources for a museum space.

AI: It was difficult, because we were not really trained for that. It's a bit like teaching experience, even if you know something very well, and you study the subject for a long time, then teaching it in a way that is understandable and engaging for students sometimes is hard.

In this case it was even harder, even for those of us who were already a bit into public philosophy. What we were used to do in public philosophy is to speak or to write in a fun and engaging way. But in the case of the museum you really had to build activities and games that must be accessible for someone who has no background whatsoever and must be able to use the resources independently. So, someone who walks into a room must find the resources, understand what they are for, finding it all interesting enough to spend maybe ten minutes there. So the challenge is to create resources that speak for themselves, and that can be enjoyed by visitors independently. It's pretty hard to create games. One of the things we did was to develop proper game like board games, and game to play in teams.

Another challenge was obtaining the funding. Running a museum is expensive. If you want to build something that lasts, you need beautiful materials that can be used by many people, and that can be appealing. In our case, with the Philosophy Museum being at that time a temporary exhibition, at least we didn't have to rent a location because the Museum took place in the University of Milan, in a very beautiful historical building. It was in the main courtyard, made of two beautiful rooms with a nice view. But of course the long-term aim is to make the museum permanent. So we will need money to rent spaces, and for the materials. Good quality materials that can be used by many people. 

The third hall of the museum

LB: What does a philosophy museum look like?

AI: The museum entrance was like a big open book, shaped as a big open book to symbolize the fact that doing philosophy is not just passively reading books, but walking through them and getting into them and playing with their contents. The first hall was mostly an introductory hall devoted to the nature of philosophical problems and philosophical methodology. So, we used images of Mary Midgley’s conceptual plumbing and Wittgenstein’s fly bottle to convey the idea that philosophical problems are conceptual problems which amount to reflect on the concepts that we use. Visitors were led to appreciate the difficulties that arise as soon as we try to define common concepts like the self, freedom, time, and moral responsibility. In this first room we also introduced the philosophical tools that philosophers use to analyze concepts such as the construction of paradoxes and thought experiments. There were activities and small games to play.

Paradoxes and Imagination

In the second hall, visitors could play literally with paradoxes and thought experiments, in order to appreciate their heuristic role in philosophical inquiry. One very popular game among our visitors was "Guess: Who Are You?", a personal identity game. People start the game by adopting one among different theories of personal identity: the bodily continuity theory, the psychological continuity theory, or the brain theory. When you land on a square on the game board, you have to pick a card where a thought experiment is described. Scenarios include brain fission, brain transplant, teletransportation, metamorphosis, and so on. 

Games in the second hall of the museum

If you pick teletransportation then you have to guess whether, according to the theory you adopted, teletransportation is a scenario where you would survive or not. If you guess correctly, you can roll the dice once again. Otherwise, you are stuck. And then there are a number of other possibilities and interactions you can have. You can try to kill your opponents, for instance, by putting them into scenarios in which, according to their theory, they would die. The point is to put the various theories of personal identities to the test and to understand which ones work in which scenario.

To illustrate the complex relations between imagination, emotion, and belief we replicated a series of famous experiments where visitors were asked to do things like eating chocolate shaped as dog feces, or signing a pac giving their soul away to the devil, or wearing a fully sterilized pullover which they were told belonged to a serial killer. Visitors appreciated how difficult it was to eat chocolate shaped as dog feces, even if they knew that it was safe.

The paradox of fiction card game,
the chocolate shaped as dog feces game,
and the pact with the devil.

LB: Do you think that initiatives like the Philosophy Museum can really enhance diversity and inclusion in the access to philosophical research?

AI: Our aim was making philosophy accessible to a really wide and diverse audience. So, you may think I'm not the most objective person, but I would say that to a reasonable extent we achieved this goal. The Museum opening times were organised as follows: in the morning the museum was open for high school students and classes, and then the afternoon for the general public, people of the city of Milan. Both students and general public responded very well. The museum was open for a bit less than 3 weeks, and we had more than 3,000 visitors, and a third of them were high school students. Almost every afternoon, we had long queues outside, because the rooms were quite small. We also had really large media coverage, most Italian newspapers and TV, but some media abroad too, talked about us in an enthusiastic way.

And we had very positive feedback from visitors via the satisfaction surveys, and the thing that was most pleasing for us was the follow up. Many people kept writing to us on the social media profile of the Museum. A lot of visitors kept asking questions and asking when the museum would open again. In some schools, students created their own Philosophy Museum, for instance a room about freedom and relevant philosophical issues. So, that part of the interaction was very fruitful. I think there is a diversity and inclusivity gain in experiences like this.

LB: One very last question, what's next for the Philosophy Museum? Have you got any plans?

AI: We applied to a public engagement award scheme, and we had some funding for a project on conspiracy theories and fake news, which basically consists in building another hall of the museum devoted to this topic. This exhibition will take place in February 2024.

Since the very beginning though our goal was the creation of a permanent museum, and the idea was to go ahead immediately. Then the pandemic started, and everything was frozen. Now we have resumed the project, and we are really determined to give it a future. In a permanent Philosophy Museum, we would like to have rooms devoted to many different problems and theories and traditions. We are working on this at the moment, and applying for funding and looking for partners.

We would like it if many philosophy museums flourished around the world. As there is a science museum in almost every city, we should have a Philosophy Museum in every city. If your blog readers are interested in collaborating, they can get in touch with us. We are on Facebook and InstagramWe already collaborate with some Italian universities, and also some institutions abroad.

LB: Thank you Anna. This is very, very inspiring for anybody who loves philosophy, and is interested in bringing philosophy to as many people as possible. Thank you so much for telling us about the Philosophy Museum. And best of luck for the future steps. I hope what what you have envisaged will soon become a reality, a philosophy museum in every city.

Here is the full version of the interview on YouTube: