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I spent last week in Rome. In high summer. In a heatwave. It wouldn’t have been my choice of when to go to the Eternal City, apart from the fact that we had the chance of a trip based at the British School at Rome (BSR).

Rome was heaving with tourists and pilgrims, and among them we spotted a group of German deaf people having a sign language tour by the Trevi fountain and a party of blind visitors by the Colosseum, Dutch, I think.

On the first day we tootled off to the Musei Capitolini and unexpectedly came upon a thermoform image of a masterpiece by Caravaggio with superimposed braille labels  explaining key features in Italian. Great – but it seemed to be the only one available, although it seems from their website that they have had a recent tour focusing on four key works using thermoforms.

The Fortune Teller, Caravaggio, c.1594, Musei Capitolini, Rome

Actually, there were several disturbing things about this display. The painting itself was nowhere to be seen. The display was in an ante-room, and you had to go into the main room next door to see the actual work. Great, that’s a shared experience between sighted and visually-impaired visitors then, isn’t it? It’s an access feature divorced from its context! Access is supposed to be what it says on the tin – it’s all about breaking down barriers. If you’re going to go in for access, it’s not going to detract from the artwork, but add to it – have the courage of your convictions and don’t hide your thermoform, put it next to the painting! (Especially when you have a huge big room with only four paintings in it . . .!)

The next disturbing thing was that this was clearly “Disabled Visitors’ Corner”. As I approached the panel more closely, I saw there was an inset with a little video, where the painting was being explained in LSI (Lingua dei Segni Italiana). I could follow it quite well between the signs and lipreading the accompanying Italian mouth patterns, and knowing the context of the painting, but there were neither subtitles nor sound, so it didn’t get you a whole lot further if you didn’t sign, lipread, or have some understanding of art history to start off with. And it was a tiny inset – which in itself rendered it rather less accessible! That old thing of the curate’s egg sprang to mind – good in parts.

Equally, I was uncomfortable with the overall approach. It felt very “lumped in together” and hidden away at the same time – almost back to the bad old days of asylums for disabled people tucking them away out of sight regardless of disability, which actually I thought was a pretty shocking message for a public building to give out.

This approach was put in further context when we visited the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna which I absolutely loved. Beautiful building, great works of art – the clash between the classical exterior and the Futurist works within was rather taking – and a lovely cafe which actually became the BSR hang-out for the week as it was right next door. There was yet another “Disabled Visitors’ Corner”, this time on a grander scale. Here there was an explanatory panel in Italian and English, explaining that access for deaf and blind visitors had been the subject of a partnership project.

At the GNAM there were four banks of thermoform images with additional tactile experiences – for example painting techniques, such as impasto, reproduced, and a stunning idea to allow people to touch a reproduction of the plastic in a modern artwork, Burri’s Grande Rosso (which I’m sure many sighted visitors must also itch to touch) – and in-depth braille captions. There were headphones to listen to appropriate music – this much was explained by the display panel.

There was also stuff that wasn’t explained –  weird little round panels which we couldn’t fathom out and took to be bits of modern art in their own right (because their relationship with the other features was wholly unclear). I only found out what they were afterwards when I logged onto the museum website back home – vibrating speakers for deaf people to feel the music. It wasn’t clear how these were activated as there didn’t seem to be any buttons to press. As before at the Musei Capitolini, there were video inset panels, except none of them were working, so the LSI videos alluded to on the display panel weren’t available, and again, there were no apparent buttons to press to kick-start them. There was a large screen behind, which did not appear to be functioning either. This webpage here shows the chosen artworks, their thermoforms, tactile features, vibration membranes, and LSI video panels (again, no subs, I understand). You can see in a couple of pictures on the website that the screen blows up the artworks – excellent idea – but as it wasn’t working, no-one benefited. In other words, a lot of it had been, if you’ll pardon the pun, disabled!

According to the website, it’s meant to be a multi-sensory experience accessible to everybody, and I spotted a number of visitors having a go (everybody likes handling things). I get that it was done with the best of intentions, but if your access isn’t actually working or it’s not explained what to do, it’s not terribly accessible, is it?

I understand that museums have to start somewhere with broadening access beyond making buildings physically accessible (we noted they had a “Special Needs” route and stairlifts). I also understand that there’s an economic crisis on and there’s not actually a lot of money around in the arts and heritage sector (not unlike our own dear GB but on a grander scale of loss) but it seems a wasted opportunity. For the money poured into these displays – thermoforms aren’t cheap – they could have offered targeted talks to specific groups not confined to these works, and built up their audience. It’s unlikely that Rome has great museum staff resources – it looked as if curatorial staff were doing the warding here and in some other museums we visited (in others, I was shocked to see warders who seemed to be more bent on reading books and facebooking on their mobiles than actually invigilating the room). Perhaps their perspective is different. For them, offering permanent access features based on selected works is more cost-effective than providing educational activities for which they have little resource.

That was my conclusion after researching the website, where I found an archive of past one-off educational activities aimed solely at domestic visitors. That’s a shame, as I think the main thing missing from “Disabled Visitors’ Corner” was the human touch. Equally, the GNAM is a cracking little gallery where everything is beautifully and sensitively displayed against the traditional style of the building: it felt like a window into early 20th century Italy, where Classicism and Futurism went hand in hand. There was much of interest (even the Bear enjoyed it, and he doesn’t do “heavy art”) and the ambience was just congenial. All of which made “Disabled Visitors’ Corner” even more out of context.

With so much that was innovative in the Italian art of the 20th century, here would have been an opportunity to do something completely new, and get visitors out of their “corner” by making provision throughout the building. (After all, you would expect wheelchair users to be able to circulate around the whole place.) That, I think, was the thing which was strangest of all: when there was so much that was specifically Italian, it would have been lovely to see the idea developed further to showcase the strengths of the gallery. Two of the chosen works were quite conventional in subject and style, and one was by a foreign artist, and not the best work by that artist either. Instead, the potential of exploding a Futurist work into a tactile format, providing a literal jigsaw puzzle for the brain akin to visually decoding it, or rendering the stippled texture of the sun in Pelizza da Volpedo’s Sole nascente in a mosaic format harking back to Rome’s past glories, would have given a real insight into a key period of Italian art – and what possibilities they would have offered for the expressiveness of sign language! And it would have fitted the multisensory brief for all to enjoy.

Access is still scratching at the door waiting to be let in . . . and there must be a huge market out there.

Trompe l'oeil dog, Villa d'Este, Tivoli

Trompe l’oeil dog, Villa d’Este, Tivoli