Touching beauty: through learning and living. By Alessandra Delli Poggi

Alessandra Delli Poggi

An exhibition is usually to be looked at, an occasion when the eye normally reigns supreme. After all, what would you expect an art exhibition to offer if not a predominantly visual experience? But sometimes scenarios change and roles are reversed.
And it is this that happens at the Mole Vanvitelliana in Ancona which houses the truly remarkable Museo Omero, a tactile museum, and the only one of its kind in Italy. The exhibition Toccare la bellezza (Touching Beauty) foregrounds touch as a new sensory experience. The rediscovery of touch – so often neglected – allows us to perceive in a wholly different way thanks to sensory and neuronal stimuli which are entirely distict from the canonical process of sight.
The exhibition is ambitious, its intentions revolutionary. The very title places the focus on beauty. It is a measure of the originality of the enterprise that it is prepared to re-engage with a category as ancient and much debated as the beautiful which, as we all know, changes chameleonlike as age succeeds to age and taste to taste. And yet there is no doubt that the aesthetic category of the beautiful, along with its personification beauty, are in their element here. Beauty lies in designing a project which is inclusive, which kindles fresh interest and leads to lively debate through dialogue and a genuine desire to discover. Beauty lies in getting us to think about matters which hardly impinge on most of us because they relate to conditions different in some ways from our own. A difference which enriches us because it is endowed with rare wisdom.
Toccare la Bellezza (Touching Beauty) is an exhibition which draws on the legacy of two major figures and the importance they both attach to the sense of touch: Bruno Munari, a multifaceted genius of the twentieth century, a true Renaissance man, and Maria Montessori who is central to Italian cultural history.
We all know how to draw a sun or a tree, but in drawing them it was Bruno Munari who taught us to give the right value to creativity, just as it was Maria Montessori who taught us to learn by trial and error. Maria Montessori was the first to insist on the usefulness of teaching through play, grounded on order and method, and to devote her life and work to championing children’s rights and learning methodologies. And it was Bruno Munari who continued, even as an adult, to play and to get others to play, other adults as well as children. As he moved from a project to a piece of writing and then a critical analysis, he came to understand simply – with the simplicity and elasticity of a curious mind – the human needs which underlie the principles of art, creativity and development.
But it should be clear that the emphasis is not on Maria Montessori and Bruno Munari, but on their methods. Not an exhibition about Montessori and Munari, but with them. And from both a practical and conceptual point of view it makes perfect sense to organise an exhibition which contemplates methodologies, means, agencies – the how something is achieved – in relation to the main theme which is touch.
“Children discover all too early that the world is full of things they mustn’t touch,” claimed Rudolf Arnheim – a reality we have all had to come to terms with. But there are no restrictions of this kind at the exhibition Toccare la bellezza (Touching Beauty) where you can and, indeed, must touch. Cognitive processes are rooted in the connections made by our brain, which are the more active if they stem from a process of exploration and discovery. When we perform actions and interact purposefully with our environment, we exercise the plasticity of the nervous system. Education and learning result from an ability to relate to objects, and to people, through play, experimentation, wonder and amazement.

Maria Montessori and Bruno Munari accompany us on this journey of discovery; we feel their presence in the importance given to touch, participation, method and, not least, play. And everything works, not just for the children but also for the adults who, though more timid, are no less enthusiastic as they set themselves to experiment and explore the mysteries of a darkened room. The Museo Omero teaches us that impairment is not restrictive but allows access to other ways of knowing, other routes forward: a tactile route is clearly marked out. It starts with what we mean by knowing – in other words approaching, touching, holding an object and experimenting with it, acting with the environment and in the environment. Knowledge starts from experience and is nurtured by experience. And we alter with every new situation, in a process in which everything is interconnected. It is a course which takes us from the realm of experience into that of the psyche.
Bruno Munari and Maria Montessori were well aware of this. Maybe that genius for experimentation – manifest in the hands and eyes of children – never deserted them, and has now come down to us. Just as their teaching matters today more than ever, so, we would argue, do exhibitions like this matter today more than ever.
Through learning and living we can still experience beauty, and reach out a hand to touch it.