The Brera Approach – from inclusion to participation. By James Michael Bradburne

James Michael Bradburne, Director General of the Pinacoteca di Brera and the Biblioteca nazionale Braidense

By drawing on the Pinacoteca di Brera’s pioneering history in museum education, and on its remarkable Educational Services team – employed as gallery assistants – the past four years have seen the museum’s educational and social programmes develop and take shape until they exemplify what might be described as “the Brera approach”. It is an approach based on respect, both towards the visitors, eager for a moving experience that will transform them, and the museum personnel, whose individual expertise and experience are placed at the service of the Pinacoteca’s varied activities, especially in education.

Respect means putting each visitor at the centre of the museum experience and finding a way to allow everyone to respond to the collection in their own way and in their own time, feeling welcome and relaxed rather than disorientated and excluded. But what does “respecting the visitor” really mean? First of all it means trying to discover what it is that makes each visitor unique and, at the same time, asking how the particular experience of the individual might contribute to the general experience of the museum and to that of other visitors. Then it means imagining the sort of tools that might be made available to visitors so that they can record and share their personal experiences.

A first step in this direction, which we can call “visible listening”, is to make the the experience of the individual available to everyone: preparing new and original introductory material which offers different points of view; then setting aside areas of the museum where vistors can leave drawings or comments and share them on social media.

A subsequent and more delicate step is to listen and work with visitors whose experience of the world is different: people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, blind of partially sighted, or whoever has a mental or physical condition which changes the way in which they interact with the museum environment. It is important that these differences should be seen not as deficits for which we need to compensate in an effort to ensure that all visitors correspond to a certain standard, but as sources of information and additional viewpoints which can enrich the experience of other visitors. For example, the stools, which can be placed where you like, might be seen both as a solution for visitors who have difficulty standing for long periods and as a means of encouraging people to view the works of art from a sitting position, chatting perhaps among themselves. The tactile and olfactory information might also be seen as addressed exclusively to visitors with special needs or as features which can enhance everyone’s experience.

It is essential to the Brera approach to pass from the idea of inclusion to the idea of participation, and to learn to ask ourselves not how to “help” but how to “be helped” so that diversity will prove an asset for everyone. Our way of going about this might be described as anthropological. The anthropologist does not judge, but observes. At the Brera we observe in order to discover ever newer resources to be used as a recurrent starting point from which to constantly revitalise the museum experience.
This grassroots approach is most clearly exemplified by the new presentations which are large, legible and above all comprehensible, written not just by experts, but by writers, poets, artists, and even by a cook. Besides these, there are descriptions with tactile features, also in Braille, and new olfactory descriptions which allow the visitor to “scent” the picture. The café, too, has come up with a special menu featuring dishes inspired by the paintings. The Brera has not just one sense, but five! The special introductions for children and families are part and parcel of a whole series of initiatives including treasure hunts, challenges, drawing kits, a suitcase for families – called Piera, and crammed with amusements for all ages – and drawing benches where visitors are invited to try their hand at being artists. The portable stools, as mentioned earlier, enable visitors to linger in front of their favourite paintings and observe them at leisure. The overall aim is to encourage visitors to undertake a self-oriented, self-directed and self-sustained exploration of the Picture Gallery’s rearranged collections.

Franco Russoli believed that a museum was an essential part of our shared identity, just as Fernanda Wittgens considered art to be integral to our shared humanity. While you need a whole village to bring up a child, so you need a whole city to form a citizen. The Picture Gallery’s educational activities are part of the broader project Occorre tutta una città (We need a whole city) and besides targeting every single visitor and catering to his or her specific needs, they aim to support the entire social group to which each belongs. With this in mind, the Brera is working with the Buzzi Children’s Hospital and with the Vidas Association hospices; it is also involved in programmes for people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s and their carers.

A society bereft of memory lives in a state of social dementia, and when it can no longer make sense of its present because it no longer has access to its past, the result is confusion, disorientation and chaos, manifesting itself as intolerance, extremism and social unrest. Some time ago the municipal schools in Reggio Emilia showed that the secret of memory is documentation, and documentation is what the Brera approach undertakes at all levels: from restoring long-forgotten museum archives from over seventy years ago to publishing the biographies of great Brera directors; from drawing on the Brera’s history to produce comics, children’s books and even stamps to developing the museum website which hosts not just Brera Stories – an indepth look at oral accounts of the museum’s past – but also MyBrera, a collective oral account of three generations of museum employees.

The purpose of a museum is constantly to permeate the present with an awareness of the past, as a basis on which to construct the future. Memory is frail and needs to be continually revived if it is to play an active part in creating a future which is just, moral and sustainable. In a world that has witnessed the return of slogans which we assumed had been discredited a century ago, one in which intolerance, hatred and extremism are on the rise, the museum has a fundamental role. If we want to continue to place our hopes in a future worthy of our children’s expectations, we cannot allow the past to be forgotten. And for the museum, this is not merely a hope but a moral obligation:

Because the Brera is not the “hortus conclusus” of the collector, the museum of exquisite artefacts: the Brera is a national gallery with a rich and varied history, created by Napoleon for “the education of the people” according to a central Enlightenment ideal which we, its heirs, must not betray.
So Fernanda Wittgens declared in 1957.