Toccare la bellezza (Touching beauty): an appraisal. By Aldo Grassini

Aldo Grassini, President of Museo Omero

The exhibition “Toccare la bellezza” (“Touching Beauty”) closed at the Museo Tattile Statale Omero in Ancona on 8 March only to reopen at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome on 28 March. Now that we have seen it through we can take a little pride in saying that we met the challenge. Why was it a challenge? Bruno Munari and Maria Montessori lived at different times – though there was some overlap – and they never met. Neither, for that matter, had they ever been brought together in a single exhibition. This was managed for the first by the Museo Omero and it was no easy operation. Both were major figures in twentieth century culture but they moved in different spheres: the one a scientist (physician/educator), the other essentially an artist.
But this exhibition succeeded in highlighting important affinities: a tendency to break the mould and overcome certain cultural taboos; a regard for, or rather, a love of the world of childhood; an interest in the extraordinary resources of all the senses – not just the visual sense – and an appreciation of their specific qualities in enhancing mental development; and lastly an admiration for the aesthetic potential which each of the senses, especially touch, is capable of expressing.
The visitors, numerous and enthusiastic, quickly realized that the intention was not to introduce two towering figures who certainly have no need of an introduction, but to rediscover tactility under their guidance.
If someone were to say that the exhibition was an attempt by the Museo Omero to enlist Munari and Montessori under its banner, they would not be altogether wrong! This is the cultural battle that the museum has been waging for several years now: to contest the monopoly in the arts of the visual sense and to endow the sense of touch with the nobility and regard which our cultural tradition has denied it.
Touch is a unique way of knowing. Without it, we can have no perception of certain material qualities: weight, temperature, texture, and their manifold causes, are empty words when divorced from a sense of touch. And the exhibition on Munari and Montessori bears out this truth in a thousand ways. The beauty of touch, of entering into an affective relationship with things, the pleasure of contact with different materials are all instantly kindled when exposed to that myriad of small objects with their endlessly varied shapes and fashionings, in venturing to the limits of normal perception, in the joy of discovering sensory nuances, possible uses, possible combinations.
All this is beautiful: a beauty you can touch, a beauty which overturns all the canons of a purely visual approach to art in the quest for a new and yet primordial relationship with nature which is not made up entirely of visual images and needs to recover its physicality, refined and ennobled by an intimate relation with the concept which sheds light on it while drawing substance from it. This is a new aesthetic which marks a fresh chapter in the history of art and opens the way for an art which is multisensory and for new approaches to appreciating it, radically transforming our way of organizing and managing museums.
The Ancona exhibition was intended to be something entirely different from the traditional art exhibition. This time it is not enough to look: you enter into dialogue with the artists and the objects, touching them, using them, playing with them, trying to grasp the conceptual mechanism which relates them to each other, trying to reproduce it, correct it.
A visit can even be quite lengthy and offers an experience which is rewarding is numerous ways, including the genuinely aesthetic.
A final consideration, but certainly not the least important: this was to be an accessible exhibition. Exploiting all the senses means allowing everyone access, even those who have to get by with some form of sensory deficit. No one is exluded from touching beauty. A single exhibition has achieved a unified goal: for art and for democracy.