Loving the centenarian
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Loving the centenarian

As the Institute approaches its centenary in 2017, The Florentine meets Julia Race, director since last August, to explore the opportunities and challenges of being 100 years young in the era of online learning, virtual travel and widespread cultural tourism.   Martin Holman: You are no stranger to Italy, having

Thu 08 May 2014 12:00 AM

As the Institute approaches its centenary in 2017, The Florentine meets Julia Race, director since last August, to explore the opportunities and challenges of being 100 years young in the era of online learning, virtual travel and widespread cultural tourism.


Martin Holman: You are no stranger to Italy, having held a senior position with the British Council in Rome.


Julia Race: When I was appointed director of the British Institute of Florence, my mother said that my life had been a preparation for this one job. I first came to Italy on my own when I was 14, staying with a family in Rome. I had already begun to learn Italian, the language I went on to study at university, alongside History of Art.


MH: So Florence is familiar territory for you?


JR: I had a brief Tuscan interlude when I taught in Arezzo during my undergraduate career. Long before I returned to Rome to work, I had been a Venice city guide and a tour guide at Lake Garda, and in 1982 I came to Florence for a short course in art history. That month was as significant in terms of shaping my career as my time at Cambridge.

MH: What in particular attracts you about working and living in Italy?


JR: I enjoy working with teams that are diverse. At the British Institute half the board members are Italian. We have a similar mix among colleagues. That brings differences in approach and in making decisions, which results in a richer working and living environment.


MH: Your career in education and cultural relations has taken you to Brussels, Cape Town and, most recently, Cairo.


JR: Supporting people to achieve their aspirations has been the thread going through my working life, whether it is young people studying abroad with the Erasmus programme, post-Apartheid staff in the South African Parliament learning to draft legislation, or women judges comparing experiences in the U.K. and the Middle East. I get a thrill from seeing people reach their goals here, whether in English, Italian or History of Art, and having a brilliant time at the Institute while they do so. Great things seem to happen while people are in Florence. And for me personally: at the end of the working day, I can come into this fantastic library to choose a book and, on Thursday afternoons, have a cup of tea as well.


MH: Which aspects of Britain do you most want to project as director?


JR: I don’t see my role as projecting Britain as much as being a bridge for establishing common ground through dialogue.

I believe that what is quintessential about the Institute is that it is an active and willing partner of the city and people of Florence. It was Italians and Britons who set it up almost a century ago, and Italians who safeguarded the library during World War Two.


MH: How does that partnership show itself today?


JR: We offer mother-tongue teaching of both English and Italian. Our students of English are mostly young learners, aged from four to 18 years, and because our teachers are not exclusively British but come from different English-speaking countries, students encounter different language experiences. Parents of schoolchildren club together and ask that our teachers go into their own schools. So a third of the 2,000 students we teach are off-site, mainly in Italian state schools.


MH: It is sometimes said that Britain is best known abroad by stereotypes, nurtured nowadays by popular television dramas like Downton Abbey. Does the Institute have a part in promoting awareness in Tuscany of contemporary, multicultural British society?


JR: Our Downton Abbey DVDs are very popular! But some of our most popular cultural courses are about contemporary British music, covering the scene from 1960 to the present day. They are designed for secondary schools and we find music is a great way to learn English and to find out about British society and culture. The Italian students absolutely love it: Peter, the workshop coordinator, told me that he had only had complete silence once from any group of teenagers, at the end of the video of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which they reached in stunned amazement.


MH: Which skills from your varied professional background do you consider most relevant to being director of the Institute?


JR: Having been in charge of a large language school in Cairo means that I understand our role from a business perspective and, having taught, I have the greatest admiration for the teaching profession. But experience of being a bridge between two cultures and working comfortably with people from different backgrounds is also vital.


MH: Has the Institute’s mission changed since its foundation in 1917? Could mass tourism and modern communications, for instance, ever make it superfluous?


JR: Teaching has changed: technology plays an important role. But there will always be people who want a face-to-face experience with a mother-tongue teacher and that experience is a characteristic of our approach. The Institute itself is a unique blend of history and innovation: members of our historic library borrow DVDs and use Wi-Fi. It has always been bi-cultural in character but I think increasingly it is an English-speaking rather than a purely British institute: we have just finished our season of Visconti films and are embarking on the best of Humphrey Bogart.


MH: And presumably the nature of courses has changed?


JR: Yes. As well as our teaching in state schools, our art history courses reflect those changes well. We run a short course on women in Renaissance art, not as subjects of portraits, which would have been the focus perhaps 20 years ago, but as artists and patrons. Students on another week-long course in July, called Man in the Making, will work with a professional sculptor and make a sculptural model to take back home.


MH: The Institute will celebrate its centenary in 2017. Do you know yet how you will mark this anniversary?


JR: It will definitely be a big celebration. Without public funding we shall be mobilising the fantastic goodwill that exists to preserve our role for the next 100 years. You will understand that it is too soon to say more now. But I can tell you that we shall have some very special guests.


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