Training to improve accessibility to the Cultural Heritage: a shared committent. By Elisabetta Borgia

Elisabetta Borgia, Ministry of Cultural and Tourism Directorate General for Education and Research Centre for Educational Studies

Our cultural heritage is a dynamic system reflecting values in continual evolution. Identifying material and immaterial content to be handed on to future generations is therefore not just the responsibility of cultural institutions but involves all citizens who, either individually or comunally, are fully entitled to express interest in specific aspects of their cultural heritage and to wish to interact personally and creatively with it.
It is an active role which goes beyond mere cognitive action and which today, with the progressive democratization of culture, is starting to adopt broader approaches, allowing individuals and communities to participate directly, actively, and sometimes on equal terms, in discovering their own heritage. Skills and expertise therefore need to be enhanced, but we must also work together to raise awareness of the social responsibilities we share in protecting and drawing on our cultural and natural heritage.
This is a premise which leads back to the idea of a heritage as a means of promoting the personal growth and social wellbeing of the individual, a shared space in which to exercise our right to cultural participation and public commitment.
Hence the need to extend what we mean by accessibility to cultural places and to what they contain, to move in the direction advocated by the bottom-up and recommended in current national and Community policies on the subject, such as those outlined in the Council of Europe’s recent European Heritage Strategy for the XXI Century. This document recommends tackling the challenges of the future by actively involving the public, as witnessed by the strategic actions suggested, particularly as regards the “social component”.
The European Framework for Action on Cultural Heritage – drawn up by the European Commission in 2019 to build on the achievements The European Year of Cultural Heritage – moves in the same direction. It defines five main principles, the first of which hinges on the idea of cultural heritage for an inclusive Europe, giving priority to participation and access for all. And yet accessibility is not always guaranteed despite being clearly provided for in documents such as The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Italy in 2009, and – albeit in more general terms – in the Italian Constitution (Art. 3) and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Art. 27), both adopted in 1948.
On the other hand, complete accessibility is not easily achievable in every place. It often requires major financial investments, planning decisions which may encounter obstacles in certain historical contexts, and museological and museographic approaches in possible conflict with the very principles of protection and conservation.
Nonetheless, all too often, action to increase the accessibility of cultural places and their contents is not carried out, even where conditions would allow it. In these cases we need to think long and hard about what the real barriers are and take action to remove them; we need to recognise bad practices and promote awareness that everyone benefits from our cultural heritage being more widely available.
Leaving aside for the moment the key area of school and university education, the first step is to take appropriate action to raise awareness among those who work in the cultural heritage sector, from managerial level to reception, whether in a museum, an archive or a library.
Next, it is essential to provide targeted training, involving all the different professional figures directly concerned with improving conditions of access and enjoyment of our heritage, from curators to communications staff, and from computer technicians to architects, so that all their innovations and activities are informed by a determination to improve accessibility to cultural places and contents.
It is a challenge inceasingly central to the interests of both The Italian Ministry of Culture (Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali e per il Turismo) and The Directorate General for Education and Research (Direzione Generale Educazione e Ricerca). The latter is responsible for education and training, which involves drawing up three-year training plans and annual implementational training plans and for developing (in association with The Cultural and Landscape Heritage Board) a national cultural heritage education plan, based also this year on the three all-embracing principles of accessibility, participation and communication.
The Directorate General for Education and Research and of The Centre for Educational Services operate in association with the other ministerial institutes, just as they assist in shaping joint action by working closely with the various national training agencies and regional cultural entities which contribute, in various ways, to enlarging the scope for informed participation in our cultural heritage.
This is the context in which a number of initiatives have featured, including the training course Ways and Means of Making Museums and Places of Culture Accessible to Visually Impaired People, held between November 2018 and September 2019.
The course, promoted by the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo in association with The Directorate General for Education and Research, was organized by the Museo Tattile Statale Omero of Ancona in a spirit of mutuality and collaboration, with the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo opening it up to the other MiBACT museums in the Lazio region.
The 100-hour course was structured in 15 modules and aimed to equip participants with the knowledge and skills needed to plan and carry out educational programmes and activities for people with visual impairments. It had recourse to methodologies for deciding on possible design paths to be implemented within the framework of the activities organized by the educational services of the different institutes.
Thanks to the highly experienced teachers, with their aptitude for listening and inviting debate, and their thorough knowledge of the issues gained through long experience in the field, the quality of each of the training sessions was such as to produce excellent results in terms of skills acquired by the course participants. The communicative ability, interpersonal skills, and human qualities of those working under the guidance of Aldo Grassini, President of the Museo Omero, ensured an atmosphere in which participation in the training programme was enthusiastic, conscientious and creative. The results were wholly positive, not least in bonding those who attended the sessions into an active network – a further achievement, of immediate and future benefit, to the credit of a training programme which must certainly be numbered amongst the sector’s recent best practices.
The Museo Tattile Statale Omero has confirmed its importance both as a benchmark training institution and an invaluable resource though its constructive championship of the ideal – no longer utopian – of full accessibility to our cultural heritage.