Valeria Bottalico, Accessibilbity expert and curator of tactile tours
“Strictly speaking, form is the dividing line between one surface and another: that is its outer meaning. But since everything which is outer encloses […] within it an innerness – more or less evident -, every form has an inner content”, as Kandinsky remarks in Concerning the Spiritual in Art.
If we take some pieces of cardboard, seeing or touching them for the first time, we would only see random forms. But if we move them about and assemble them differently, we will end up by recognising the outline of something familiar. This suggests how important it is to distinguish between knowing and recognising. Within us we possess forms which allow us to recognise objects without knowing or seeing with our eyes. In our mind, the forms are caught, recognised, examined, corrected and filed away behind our everyday experience. In short, we have a mental picture of them.
This need to find meaning is apparent not just in the way we touch and look at objects, but in everything that we perceive: here vision is a metaphor for all the images and all the ways by which we understand, or try to understand, the world. Sensory richness, education, the variety and repetitiveness of experience enable us to identify the common features which distinguish an object.
Our first cognitive act is to identify the form. Our perception of the world derives from all our senses but touch is the one most used, albeit unconsciously: it completes a visual and auditory impression and provides further information to enable us to understand our surroundings. Tactile language is the child’s earliest form of communication, so for each one of us it is the language of love and relationship. It is our hands we mainly use to do everything: weigh, write, type, model, stroke, communicate, lightly brush, grasp, hug, know, count, classify, greet, squeeze, hit, even read.
It is not just objects which tactile exploration acquaints us with; it is also works of art: if accompanied by an accurate verbal description, touch helps us create a mental picture. Form is what provides most perceptual, cognitive and symbolic information because it defines outline, surface, size and general composition. Tactile exploration presupposes two important intellectual functions: abstraction and memory. Tactile memory is different from visual memory because sight takes in and recalls the whole, whereas touch registers only the detail. But an initial hasty exploration leads on to a subsequent, more detailed summation of features.
In recent years, museums have been equipping themselves to make their collections more accessible, or rather, more user-friendly. A museum is a meeting place where people can enjoy the cultural heritage intended for the public. Everyone has the right to access this heritage under the most favorable conditions. There is no such thing as the ‘typical’ visitor, only many ‘types’ of visitor since each is different and unique in their own way. Accessibility means the right of every citizen to enjoy the cultural heritage: it refers to everything and it is not a once-and-for-all acquisition but evolves and needs to be constantly reviewed in the light of the visitors’ experience. It is achieved through the combined efforts of all parties and relies, first and foremost, on a vision which promotes and fosters knowledge and participation.
I have studied the question of the accessibility of our cultural heritage very thoroughly, not least thanks to the tactile itineraries which I have planned for several important Italian museums (including the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, the Accademia Carrara of Bergamo, the Musei Civici of Bassano del Grappa, and the Archaeological Museum of Milan, in collaboration with Aster which provides the educational services). This is why I believe it is vitally important first of all to select what, i.e. which artwork, it is possible to touch, bearing in mind a number of general criteria: the state of conservation and the material; the position, one affording unrestricted access and allowing tactile exploration to be conducted safely and easily; the size, such as to enable the work to be read as a whole; its legibility to touch.
The museum visit must be gratifying and pleasurable. It must allow the visitor to acquire new skills, encouraging him to go back over and build on what he has learnt. Even more, the museum must allow the artworks (or their reproductions) to be explored tactilely; it must ensure that its staff is efficient, properly trained and dedicated; it must provide different itineraries for adults and children, and allow visitors the chance to take part in laboratory activities. A replica conducive to touch can certainly prove a valid alternative to the original, all the more effective the closer it is to reality. And to be effective, a reproduction in relief needs to be clear and with precisely defined planes so as to convey the image from the eye to the hand.
It is important, ultimately, that accessibility is not merely confined to tactile or technological tools. Accessibility means devising activities, both optical and haptical, to assist our vision, so that we can arrive at a knowledge which is not only formal but critical and aesthetic, too. In a word, by responding cognitively and emotionally to a work of art, we get to experience something new in life.