The accessible museum: the National Archaeological Museum of Naples – Experience gained, ongoing projects and future prospects

Paolo Giulierini, Director of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples


In recent years the role that museums, and places of culture in general, play in our society has undergone a radical change thanks to the growth of a positive, proactive approach, one eager to enter into discussion and work alongside a diversity of public and private actors – in their local contexts and within the broader national and international politico-cultural framework – as well as being ready to interface, in an informed way, with the digital dimension.
The ICOM approval of the new definition of ‘museum’ on 24 August in Prague endorses this evolution, recognizing a dual mission for these cultural institutions: one that we might describe as “intellectual”, concerned with carrying out research, collecting, conserving, interpreting and exhibiting the tangible and intangibile cultural heritage, and one that might more accurately be described as “social”, based on concepts such as accessibility, inclusiveness, diversity, sustainability, community participation: a mission which encounters the needs of society by actively listening to the public, imagining and devising a range of solutions and participatory, hands-on experiences for the widest and most heterogeneous public possible.

The Accessible MANN

The National Archaeological Museum of Naples has been working conscientiously in this direction for some time and – thanks to the new resources and prospects offered by autonomy – learning from and building on the experience gained over the past twenty years on the subject of cultural mediation in relation to different types of public.
From the earliest steps taken as an autonomous institute, the MANN has sought to appear as a sensitive, informed actor within society, recommending itself not merely as a place of conservation but also as a shared space for debate and reflection on contemporaneity in the light of the masterly accomplishments of the past. The Museum’s ultimate aim is, in fact, to stimulate civic awareness, fostering an understanding of our origins and an awareness of our common roots, in the belief that the “museum of the future” will have increasingly to discharge a specific “political” function. It will do this by proving to be a place where the preconditions are created for an understanding of all the mechanisms underlying modern historical processes, a place which stimulates the critical powers of its users, which features as a vital force in the surrounding area, supporting, conditioning and reinforcing the processes of urban, social and economic development.
In concrete terms, this approach has been the inspiration for creating new services, visitor experiences and novel ways of enjoying the Museum, in which the subject of accessibility has been addressed in all its ramifications (physical, economic, cognitive and digital), and in direct relation to the more general aim of reaching “the greatest possible number of types of public” by appealing to visitors of all ages, income brackets, educational level and social extraction. This work has been carried forward by relying on qualified personnel but mainly through cooperation with end-users to ensure their direct involvement right from the educational planning stage.

Planning in relation to past, present and future

Acting on these assumptions, the MANN has, first of all, implemented the activities conducted by its own Educational Services aimed at promoting sensory and cognitive accessibility for special publics, each year extending its network of collaborative projects with associations and rehabilitation institutes, including – to cite the more long-established partnerships – l’Unione Italiana dei Ciechi e Ipovedenti di Napoli (Italian Union for the Blind and Visually-Impaired of Naples), ENS (National Institute for the Deaf), IPSlA “Paolo Colosimo” and the Rete Campania tra le Mani. This has enabled us to offer, over time, a broad, varied range of actrivities of which the most significant are tactile and LIS visits, tactile workshops for children and adults with visual impairments, intercultural workshops targeting the foreign communities, with a special emphasis on migrants and refugees; the reception, guidance and accompaniment of mental health patients as well as minors from local reeducational institutions and multi-purpose day centres; special visits for prisoners and patients undergoing medical treatment for serious organic pathologies, assisted by the clinical psychology unit responsible for treating the psychological effects of the illness.
Starting in 2017, moreover, the Museum has launched a series of special projects of an experimental nature, focusing on accessibility and inclusion and implemented thanks also to specific funding such as the PON Culture e Development Fesr 2014-2020.It would be impossibile to give a full account here of all the initiatives enacted, but a few examples can be listed according to their area of impact.
On the subject of interculturality, for example, mention can be made of the 2017 project “Through Others’ Eyes” (“Attraverso gli occhi degli altri”), concerned with producing teaching materials and aids for visitors of Chinese culture. Thanks to the involvement of Chinese students from the Accademia di Belle Arti in Naples, workshops were organized, fact sheets were drawn up for visitors from a Chinese cultural background, and meetings were held with Chinese children with a view to producing a booklet to be given to all the child visitors. The 2018 project “Ancient Present” (“Antico Presente”) also targeted a foreign public and involved producing five “emotional” videos focusing on five exhibits on permanent display. Since the main aim was to attract foreign tourists potentially interested in visiting the museum, the videos were produced in five different languages: English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
In the area of cognitive and sensory disabilities, the MANN has put in place a a wide-ranging programme of activities called “The Accessible Museum”, concerned specifically with applied technologies in the cultural heritage field. In 2019, the project “The Museum To Hand” (“Il museo a portata di mano”) involved the scanning and printing of 3D replicas, in special resins, of about forty items representative of the main permanent collections. The replicas were initially displayed in a special room but in future they will be placed near the original artifacts and serve as a further aid in the preparation of tactile tours. A diffferent venture got under way in 2021. Once the first stage of the restoration of the Alexander Mosaic had been completed, “The Great Mosaic” project entailed developing a multimedia and multi-channel 3D didactic system, with “augmented” contents and enhanced by videomapping. The purpose was not only to increase the visibility and intelligibility of the narrative phenomena, but to encourage the inclusion of deaf people by means of a narrative with subtitles tailored specifically to the needs of deaf visitors.

New languages, technology, multisensoriality

The MANN also signed up to the research project “AIVES – Arte e Innovazione Visioni Emozioni Sensazioni” (“AIVES – Art and Innovation Visions Emotions Sensations”), aimed at creating a system that would enable artworks and the archeological and archival heritage to be enjoyed by all potential visitors to museums, galleries and libraries – whether able-bodied or with disabilities –through the transmission of stimuli inducing sensations and emotions in the user that would have the effect of “communicating” the art. As regards the MANN specifically, in 2019 a multisensory low relief was created of the famous fresco of “Europa and the Bull” from Pompeii. Still within the context of the AIVES project, the Museum organized the study day, “Multisensoriality and Technology for Accessibility and Inclusion: Comparing Experiences”, held on 28 September 2022 which allowed several of the most important cultural institutions of southern Italy to compare notes and pool their experience of issues relating to accessibility and inclusion.
Among the most recent experiments in the field of sensory accessibility, mention must be made of the E.LIS.A. project, promoted by the Campania Region and involving the creation of inclusive multimedia tours of the artistic and cultural heritage of Campania, accessible to the deaf. As a partner, the MANN took an active part in devising a video-guide in LIS and IS. It was presented on 22 December 2022 and focuses on the history of the Museum and its principal collections, introduced through a description of twenty-seven artworks.
In recent years, moreover, the MANN has engaged fully with the issue of accessibility when setting up and restyling its permanent exhibition sections. In particular, in the case of the reopening of the Magna Graecia section in 2019, the preparation of ad hoc measures to facilitate access for the disabled was dealt with during the same planning stage as the design of the exhibition layout, thus enabling the requirements of an inclusive itinerary featuring tactile aids to be accommodated harmoniously within the framework of the architectural and graphic decisions adopted. Such an approach is also beginning to be systematically applied to temporary exhibitions, as was the case with “Assyrians in the Shadow of Vesuvius” (2019), “Gladiators” (March 2021 – April 2022) and, most recently, “Byzantium: a Millennial Empire from Dawn to Waning” scheduled to open on 21 December 2022.
In the context of the new languages intended to involve an ever larger public, the MANN has also availed itself of the Naples University “Federico II” project, “Obvia for the MANN – Out of Boundaries Viral Art Dissemination” – a viral dissemination of art beyond the physical barriers of the museum, told through contaminations, art production, and the synaesthesia that can attract different publics and involve them through emotion. The means being used in this initial phase include: cartoons suitable for different target audiences (adult, young adult, kids), art videos, video guides to works in the Museum, comics, literary productions, drawing exhibitions, works that reinterpret the Museum’s artworks from a technological viewpoint, and handcrafted reproductions of ancient artifacts.
Secondly, the project aims to set up multiple stable networks within the area, for the dual purpose of both raising the Museum’s profile – through links with infrastructures in the transport sector (airports, railway networks, undergrounds), with Factory MAD Entertainment, with the Union of Independent Cinemas, with cultural sites dealing with festivals and events of national importance, and with institutions and research bodies – and the purpose of promoting the social and cultural development of the region through synergies with scientific and creative academies, conservatoires, theatres of the calibre of San Carlo, Bellini and other ICC bodies. The ExtraMann network is also of considerable interest. This is a network of the MANN’s partners, based on regional, thematic and social criteria, and forged by figures who manage and promote cultural sites by implementing new management approaches, like those based on public-private open innovation initiatives.
Following on from artistic production and the forging of networks to promote the image of the Museum, the next important upgrade is the creation, under the auspices of the “OBVIA per il MANN” project, of a cultural, scientific, social and creative project centred on the Museum which acts as main partner in the task of promoting the growth and development of the region, supported by the University of Naples “Federico II” and by INVITALIA.
Finally, the new forms of language aimed at creating a digital community include two video games: “Father and Son” I and II, from 2018 and 2022.

Accessibility and inclusion are fields in which the MANN, like many other national and international cultural institutes, has done much, though much remains to be done. In this sense the new definition of “museum” adopted by the ICOM is at once a declaration of awareness and a springboard for the museum of the future. This can no longer see itself simply as a shrine to beauty but must strive above all to be a place of wellbeing in which everyone can feel at home because they are made welcome and provided with the wherewithal to gain an understanding of history – insights which in turn will enhance awareness of their individual and collective identity.