Accessibility: empathy and inspiration. Annalisa Trasatti interviews Antonio Espinosa, Director of Vilamuseu

  • Dr. Espinosa, could you tell me about your educational background and professional training and when it was that you became interested in the question of accessibility?
  • When I studied archeology at university in the 1980s, I was a bit unusual: what appealed to me was not the excitement of excavating the cultures of the past but the thrill of bringing them to the attention of the public. Since 1995 I’ve been Director of Archeology and Vilajoiosa Museums, now Vilamuseu. In 1997 I was appointed associate professor at the University of Alicante where my teaching has centred on museums and tourism. I’ve also studied museology in depth: I didn’t want to be like those archeologist-directors of Spanish museums, interested solely in their collections and their research, and hardly at all in the public.
  • The secret ingredient is empathy, but it’s not enough on its own: you need inspiration, and sometimes it’s nothing out of the ordinary. One day when we were sitting at table, my wife, Paula, came up with the suggestion, “why don’t you make the museum accessible?”
  • “Good idea,” I replied, “I’ll give it some thought”. But I was none too convinced; I had enough on my plate as it was. But the very next day I rose to the challenge, and these last 25 years have been enormously rewarding. Which is why I always tell my students that when they have an idea – or someone suggests one – it doesn’t matter how ambitious or difficult it may seem, they must never simply discard it out of hand. I urge them to think it through because there are times when those ideas can change your life and even help you to change the world around you.
  • How did you come to know the Museo Omero and what struck you about this Italian enterprise?
  • Who doesn’t know the Museo Omero? If you work in the field of museum accessibility, it’s a leading light. I’m always harping on to colleagues about my stay there in 2017, and just how good their tactile displays and online materials are. I’m honoured that the museum periodical, “Aisthesis”, should have enlisted me in the cause.
    My relations with the Museo Omero – and in particular with Aldo Grassini, Annalisa Trasatti and Andrea Socrati – are grounded in admiration, but they also allow for an exchange of notes. We call each other, we invite each other to events and we collaborate together on projects. Just recently we’ve taken part in a video conference on the question of touching museum exhibits in a time of Covid, and they made an extremely useful contribution to our Increased Mobility project which is in line for two international prizes.
    I’ve been struck by the warmth and openness of the Museo Omero staff, as well as by their amazing empathy. Their displays, too, are striking: the ease with which tactile accessibility is the norm throughout. It’s a museum with a soul. And nothing impresses me more.

  • For some years now, you have been on the Standing Committee of the Congreso Internacional de Educación y Accesibilidad en Museos y Patrimonio. What is this body and what are its aims and initiatives?
  • I joined in 2016. At the moment I’m on the committee with Almudena Domínguez, Juan García-Sandoval e Jesús Pedro Lorente.
    It began in the Murcia Region in 2010. Every year it addresses a topical issue connected with museum accessibility: social responsibility (Huesca, 2014), tourism (Alicante-Vilajoiosa, 2016), training (Lisbon-Batalha, 2017), planning and content (Barcellona, 2018) or social participation (San Paolo, 2019). In the coming years it will be held in other countries of the world so it can serve as a forum for different approaches and practices.

  • As well as being an expert on the subject you are, above all, the Director of a young museum, Vilamuseu, the Vilajoiosa Museum, planned and laid out so as to be completely accessible. Was it important to design it for everyone? Tell us how it went…
  • It was founded in 1973 and transferred to a new location in 2017. We had just drawn up the Manual of Museum Accessibility and Inclusion and we had a Museum Plan which was very demanding in terms of accessibility. The architect, Tomás Soriano, focused on usability. Vilamuseu has won international recognition as a model of inclusion from the Design For All Foundation and Ibermuseums. This has acted as a spur to strive for ever greater excellence. Our standard includes sign language, plain language, pictographs, subtitles and audio descriptions; accessible fitments and furnishing, and dozens of scale models, replicas and originals than can be touched. Every year we organize specific training courses.

  • What is the current situation as regards the accessibility of museums and art in Spain? Are there partners or particular research work worthy of notice?
  • Juan García Sandoval and I have just published an article in the records of the 4th Congress on the legislation, standardization and training as regards accessibility in Spanish museums. Considerable progress has been made over the past 30 years but the absence of recognized penalties means that application is left to the good will of the individual museum. I’d want to draw particular attention to the work carried out by the Generalitat of Catalonia, by the Provincial Council and City of Barcellona, with networks like Apropa. Culture or the Grup de Treball Museus i Accessibilitat. Also museums such as the Tiflológico de la ONCE, the Prado or the Thyssen in Madrid; the Marítim in Barcellona; the Lugo Provincial Museum Network; the Picasso Museum and others in Malaga; the MURAM of Cartagena and the Museo de Bellas Artes de Murcia; Vilamuseu e the Marq in Vilajoiosa and Alicante; or the Manacor History Museum, among others. In 2015 the Ministry of Culture launched the Museums + Social Plan for the state owned museums. In 2019 the MUSACCES Consortium organized an international conference in Madrid, entitled “Museums for all: art, accessibility and social inclusion”. The 20th International Conference Galiziano-Portoghese MINOM-ICOM (Lugo, 2020) was a valuable opportunity to reflect on the truth that inclusion isn’t merely a question of disabilities; it’s also a question of culture, gender, sexual diversity; a question, too, of age and sustainability.