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User:Deryck Chan/Scholarship report

From Wikimania 2016 • Esino Lario, Italy
This is a scholarship report submitted to the Estorick Italian Scholarship board of Magdalene College. It is posted here for Wikimaniacs' consumption.

Estorick scholarship report

A museum is a place for participation, not for evasion or isolation or separation, that liberates its visitors by engaging with them. We should endeavour as far as possible to have the museum play a role in every cultural activity in the areas in which it operates, not solely as a place for contemplation or the study of tradition, but as a place for creating and experiencing contemporary reality. To achieve this we focus on learning, on reading the collections not only through the eyes of the experts, but of historians and practitioners in other disciplines. —Franco Russoli, director of the Pinacoteca di Brera, 1973-77

This quotation is displayed at the entrance to the Pinacoteca di Brera. It guides the mindset of visitors as they pass through the automatic glass doors and enter the "Louvre of Milan". While Russoli intended for his words to primarily invite museum-goers to have an attitude of participation when they visited museums, the same attitude permeated my journey to Milan and Esino Lario. After all, the Estorick scholarship funded my trip so that I would be liberated from the holiday-maker's sense of entitlement in a tourist bubble, and instead experience Italy as it truly was. This participatory attitude did me a lot of good.

A journey through food and drink

Hungry and weary from seven hours of travelling from Cambridge to Milan, I went to get some lunch at a local restaurant straight after dropping my luggage at the hostel. Notwithstanding the language barrier, I managed to order a "risotto alla milanese" and a coffee. But then the waitress surprised me by saying I had to order a drink to go with the main course, as coffee would be served afterwards.

The entitled holiday-maker inside me attempted to begrudge the fact that this restaurant was trying to make me order more than I intended. But the grateful scholarship recipient inside me rebuffed and said "this is part of the local experience, go along with it"! So any resentment was extinguished and I ordered a bottle of water, then proceeded to eat the bread from the basket on the table, not knowing the price of either of them. Turns out the bread was complimentary and the water was €1 - same price as any other shop. Bargain.

As a recreational food blogger, this experience spurred me on to enjoy all that Lombardian food had to offer. I tried various flavours of gelato, participated in the Italian ritual of espresso at breakfast, tasted jam and cake homemade by my host in Esino, and took a slice each of everything that conference meals offered me. I even hunted down two places recommended to me by friends from Cambridge: pastry and chocolate at Pasticceria Marchesi; and panini at De Santis.

A journey through architecture and engineering

All that nutrition obviously needed to be put to good use. As I wrote in my travel proposal, my trip would involve walking around Milan and Esino Lario to observe local architecture in the perspective of building design which I studied in the past academic year. I was sure not to miss iconic landmarks such as Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II and the Navigli. I also visited buildings that boasted unusual modern designs such as Grattacielo Pirelli (Milan's first skyscraper) and Bosco Verticale (apartment towers with carefully managed forests on their balconies). I even wandered into the poster session of a landscape design course as I walked through the engineering and architecture departments of Polimi (Milan Polytechnic); my obvious interest for the exhibits meant that nobody suspected I wasn't even a member of their institution!

Nevertheless, most of my architectural journey was spent in church buildings. My trip spanned over summer solstice so the theories of natural ventilation and night purging were directly applicable to my experience in Italy. On the first day of my trip, I met with several friends who would also attend Wikimania and went to Milan Cathedral with them. As we passed through the front door, we felt a gentle cool breeze coming out and I asked my friends whether or not they thought there was air conditioning inside the cathedral. They thought there would be. But my guess was right: there wasn't any mechanical cooling! The whole cathedral was naturally ventilated and the heavy masonry structure kept the interior of the building cool despite the scorching sunshine.

This was indeed, as I learnt from my studies, the design purpose of masonry church buildings in northern Italy. The relatively constant and amenable interior environment of the church attracts people to enter the church in harsh weather, be it too hot, too cold, or too rainy, and use the church as a community centre. Visits to churches were desirable rest points in my journey, where I cooled down from the heat, rested my legs, and quietened my soul in prayer.

A journey through art and music

With a church around every street-corner, I evidently had to choose the most touristy churches to visit, so that I could enjoy the renowned artwork of Milanese church buildings as much as possible. I opted for quantity over quality: instead of queuing up for Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper during my short stay in Milan, I visited many historic churches and saw a multitude of stained glass windows, paintings, frescos, collages, and sculptures; from all periods of anno domini from paleochristian to modern art. I was the most fascinated by San Maurizio Maggiore, with its elaborate and colourful wall paintings under gold-plated arches.

At the Pinacoteca di Brera, I immersed myself in a collection of classical works that provided a sample of the best of European art. The gallery's location within an art school reminded me that the creation of art is an ongoing process in contemporary reality.

I also saw the humorous side of Milanese art outside the Italian Stock Exchange. As I entered the front plaza of the building, I was greeted quite literally by a middle finger. As it turned out, it was a temporary installation by Maurizio Cattelan in 2010 that became permanent under popular demand. With its strong manufacturing and agricultural sectors, it is not hard to see why the people of Milan wouldn't mind a permanent middle finger outside their stock exchange. As a British engineer with similar grumblings over London's financial sector's dominance over the British economy, I quietly concurred and walked away with a smirk on my face.

Up in the mountains, Esino Lario showed a different genre of art with Alpine character. The village was founded as a summer resort for northern Italian people to escape the heat of the plains and enjoy the fresh air of the Alps. Its Via Crucis by Michele Vedani was a legacy of this rich tradition and boasted bronze sculptures of various scenes in the Bible, with the common artistic quirk of including the artist and their loved ones as an observer inside the story. Esino Lario was also a regional hub of tapestry in the 19th century; a local church hosted native tapestry in place of wall paintings, and a tapestry machine was on display in the local museum.

There was no shortage of art for the sense of hearing either. In Milan, I had the chance to listen to a live saxophone rendition of classical religious music at San Maurizio Maggiore. In Esino, the conference coincided with the feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the village, so I joined the festal procession led by the local marching band. The conference itself offered more unconventional musical performances, mostly modern Italian and electric, including a hawk playing a theremin. But the most pleasant surprise was at a concert called "bagni di gong" in which music was created solely through the sonorous interference between gongs, where the audience was bathed in a sea of sound waves, perfect for reflective contemplation at the end of a busy conference.

In both art and architecture, Milan provided a harmonious mix of ancient and modern, simplistic and elaborate, conventional and pioneer; and Esino added an Alpine village flavour to each dimension. It was nice to see such aesthetic diversity and such enrichment of the senses in a short trip of six days.

A journey through Wikimania and education

Local volunteers took care of all our needs, from our arrival at the local railway station to our departure from the village four days later.
The volunteers also knew everything about their local cultural heritage.
Plenary session with Katherine Maher, incoming executive director of Wikimedia Foundation
Giuseppe Grassi, my landlord in Esino and leader of the local marching band. He only spoke Italian and French so I am known to him as Teodorico, the Italian equivalent of my name.

The main purpose of my journey was to attend Wikimania in Esino Lario. Even though it was my sixth Wikimania, I continued to be fascinated by the differences between annual instalments of this conference. The choice of Esino Lario meant that we hired out an entire mountain resort village of some 700 regular inhabitants and turned it into a conference of over 1000 attendees. Local hospitality workers were given English classes in the run-up to the conference and local youth were trained to edit Wikipedia and Wikivoyage and were taught local history, so that Wikimania would truly interface with the village of Esino and the province of Lecco. As attendees were accommodated by local guesthouses or even at the homes of local hosts, the village felt very much a part of the conference; village events during the conference, such as the possession of St. John the Baptist mentioned above, were also advertised in the conference programme. The chief organiser of the conference thus summarised the demographics of this year's Wikimania: "Esino Lario is now 100% Wikimedian, 70% of which did not live here before the conference."

For me, conversations with local volunteers were the highlight of Wikimania. The organisers invited high school students from Esino, Lecco, and Como to run the logistical aspects of the conference. They arranged for attendees' accommodation and travel needs, served food at conference meals, provided technical and coffee support at lecture sessions, staffed the information desks, and took guests on guided tours of the village. One of the volunteers was a budding engineer and it was my privilege to encourage her ambitions and let her know about opportunities in my field of study.

During the main conference, I attended several sessions about emerging technologies within Wikimedia. These included the gradual uptake of structured data from Wikidata in Wikipedia infoboxes; the future of mobile browsing and editing of Wikimedia projects; and the use of illustrative infographics within content articles. These discussions highlighted the challenges of keeping Wikipedia accessible and relevant in a world of rapidly changing information technology, but the Wikimedia movement will hopefully stay abreast of these challenges with its wide volunteer base. Another session looked at paid editing, which was an issue of longstanding tension among Wikimedians, and the session looked at how different language communities of Wikipedia dealt with paid editing differently. I also participated in discussions about the promotion of Wikipedia in Asia, and best practices in organising volunteer conferences - including the future of Wikimania itself.

But the most productive conversations at Wikimania always happened outside the formal sessions, in this case during mealtimes. The conference organisers came up with this brilliant idea: they booked out most restaurants in the village and distributed a bundle of pre-arranged meal tickets to each conference guest. Each guest got to eat at every restaurant at least once and would meet different people each meal. In many meals I naturally gravitated towards old friends from previous Wikimanias and caught up with their life and work over the past year; discussions included the future of local Wikimedia-affiliated organisations and the use of Wikipedia-editing as a classroom exercise in various universities. Other times I made new friends and learnt about their lives and interests.

A journey through politics and Brexit

Nevertheless, one topic dominated all conversations in this year's Wikimania, whether in formal sessions or at mealtimes. The opening ceremony of Wikimania 2016 happened only several hours after the Leave vote was declared victorious in the referendum on the United Kingdom's membership of the European Union. Even Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, changed his opening plenary speech in the last minute to discuss the eruption of political and racial hatred around the referendum. A session on copyright reform advocacy around the European Union was substantially revamped, with the speaker saying "the EU has just lost one of its most progressive nations in copyright".

A self-selecting community of free software enthusiasts, Wikimania is clearly not representative of the general population when it comes to political opinion. Although I had voted Remain out of pragmatism, I had my qualms about centralisation of power and my misgivings as a non-white British and European citizen about the EU's protectionist tendencies, and it meant I couldn't bring myself to agree with the emotional and wholehearted defence of the EU given by the majority of EU-citizens at the conference. It meant that many dinner-table conversations turned sour and I felt lonely at times.

My own feelings aside, I benefited a lot from being at an international conference in central Europe when the referendum result was declared. I understood that even after several decades of supranational collaboration, British people still have a rather different political outlook from that of our continental counterparts. Furthermore, I learnt to be sensitive to other people's opinions, especially where a political event affects them personally. My long-term career goal is to influence policy with my technical expertise and I think the lessons I learnt from this trip will be useful if I do assume a position of power in the future.

A journey of satisfaction

In my online biographies, I often describe myself as Christian, engineer, Wikimedian, with an appreciation for local food everywhere and classical music. This trip satisfied all of them: the churches gave me a space to rest, pray, understand climate-sensitive building design in northern Italy, and to see a cross-section of Italian Christian tradition through the ages; I attended Wikimania and learnt about the developments around the movement in the past year; and enjoyed local food and music throughout my trip.

I would like to thank the Estorick scholarship for funding the majority of the costs of my trip, so that I could be freed from the mindset of the frugal but entitled holiday-maker, and instead participate in Italian lifestyle and "experience contemporary reality" in Milan and Esino Lario as they truly were.


All photographs used in this report are my original photography and have been published on Wikimedia Commons, Facebook, or Instagram. This report is circulated to the Estorick scholarship board and the Future Infrastructure & Built Environment research group. A shorter edition of this report is published on the research group website. Some photographs are omitted from this on-wiki edition due to the Italian legal restrictions on photographic reproductions of public art.