Meet Barbara Jatta, the Vatican Museums' first female director

A woman is running the Vatican Museums for the first time in its history. The Vatican holds hundreds of thousands of pieces of art in its collection.

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Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums

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Barbara Jatta was not expecting to be promoted to director but said it’s a “privilege” to be in charge of the collection at the Vatican Museums – including masterpieces that take your breath away.

The museums are so packed with treasures, it can be hard to know where to look. There’s one pope’s “Gallery of Maps,” Raphael’s Transfiguration, the roughly 2,000-year-old sculpture Laocoonte –  the first object in the museum when it was conceived in the early 1500s – and Augusto di Prima Porta, a marble masterpiece of the ancient Roman emperor.

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“Augusto di Prima Porta” at the Vatican Museums

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Jatta has a degree in art history and studied the famed statue of Emperor Augustus. Now, as director, she is in charge of it.

“Some of the greatest artwork in the world is in your care,” CBS News correspondent Seth Doane said.

“Yes, I feel the weight of that,” Jatta said.

“The weight of the responsibilities?”

“Exactly,” Jatta responded.

In its collection, the Vatican holds a mindboggling 200,000 pieces of art. Only about 10 percent are on display.

Jatta, a 20-year veteran of the Vatican, said she was surprised when Pope Francis announced in December that she’d become the museums’ director. This mother of three was also surprised by all of the attention paid to her gender.

“I make a joke of that because everybody keeps asking me, ‘How do you feel? How do you feel to be the woman?’ I feel as a person, really,” she said.

“The Vatican is a famously male-dominated institution,” Doane pointed out.

“You know, I worked in the Vatican Library for 20 years and after eight years I became head of a department,” Jatta said. “I never felt discriminated to be a woman in the Vatican Library.”

She shrugs off any special attention. She’s got work to do at a museum that attracts more than six million visitors a year. 

“In the last two months of 2017 we had 70,000 people more than last year,” she said.

It’s a challenge for the museum to try to attract more visitors while not diluting the experience. On the day we visited she estimated a crowd size of about 19,000 to 20,000.

“Is that typical? Is that a lot?” Doane asked.

“It’s a lot for this time of the year,” she said.

Jatta plans to hire more guards so they can be open for longer hours. 

While the Sistine Chapel part of the museum is often full, we found plenty of space around other masterpieces. Jatta is working to get guides to encourage visitors to stop at lesser-known spots.

There’s also the issue of keeping so much art on display and in good shape. It takes a team of more than 150 people to work on constant maintenance and restoration. 

“If you do make annual, daily preservation and conservation, you really do not need much restoration,” Jatta said.

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Constant maintenance at the Vatican Museums

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There is so much art, it fills not just public spaces, but private passageways.

Near a back elevator is a piece by Luca della Robbia, the Florentine artist famous for his work on glazed terracotta. In the director’s office, there’s her desk.

“It’s a very nice Pius IX desk… for sure it has his coat of arms, so it was part of his collection,” Jatta said.

A picture of her boss, Pope Francis, sits over her shoulder. It’s a reminder that this is part of a greater mission. She believes art can act as a spiritual ambassador.

“Of course I’m Catholic, and I do believe that art takes you to faith,” Jatta said.

She said going into the Sistine Chapel can be a religious experience. The Vatican will take some pieces to China in an effort to build spiritual bridges in a place where there are restrictions on traditional missionary work.