The Vatican Museums will celebrate their 500th anniversary this year with a series of initiatives open to the public. Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums, unveiled the programme, which will take place throughout 2006, at a press conference on 14 February. We have selected some of the most recent and important research and conservation projects, choosing diverse themes that best represent the intricate complexity of these museums, he explained.

In March the restored Museo Cristiano, which collects ancient Christian testimonies from the catacombs and Roman churches, will be opened to the public, followed in April by the restored frescoes of the Pintoricchio in the Sala dei Misteri of the Appartamento Borgia. In June, the China, Japan, Korea, Tibet and Mongolia section of the Museo Missionario Etnologico, which records the religious rites of different countries and the impact of Catholic missionaries, will also be on show. A new section of the Roman necropolis discovered on the old Via Triumphalis and dating back to the 1st-3rd centuries AD will be presented in October, and in November there will be an exhibition dedicated to the museums origins. The year of celebrations will be capped by a conference in December to reflect on the function and future of museums globally.

The Vatican Museums came into being in 1506 when a marble sculpture was discovered in a vineyard on the Colle Oppio, identified as the Laocoonte, which portrays the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons being strangled by giant sea snakes. The statue is mentioned in Plinys Natural History and was attributed to three sculptors from Rhodes, although it remains unclear whether it is an original (40-30 BC) or a copy (14-37 AD). Upon hearing of its discovery, Pope Julius II (1503-1513) bought the statue for the Palazzetto di Belvedere and the long history of the Vatican collection began.

Around four million visitors from five continents now visit the museums each year, resulting in long queues that endure rain and the heat of the summer sun. Buranelli said security checks were less responsible for this phenomenon than the fact that the museums were initially designed as a private collection and are struggling to cope with the increasing number of visitors, which has almost doubled in the last ten years. Possible solutions to the long wait are under review, including an underground passage that would protect visitors from the vagaries of the weather, but Buranelli stressed that nothing has yet been decided.