The Prague document: promoting diversity

Aldo Grassini, President of the Museo Tattile Statale Omero

24 August 2022: a date we shall remember. The ICOM General Assembly in Prague approved a truly revolutionary document which sought a new definition of the concept of Museum. People may object that in fact there has been talk for some time now of the need for the cultural contents of museums to be accessible, inclusive, open to all publics. This is true. But a synthesis so comprehensive and rich in meaning on the part of a prestigious institution such as the ICOM is bound to leave its mark. It is a prediction that the present writer is prepared to make after many decades spent trying, modestly, to break down the wall of indifference, of obdurate conservatism and of a priori refusal to question the sacrosant assumptions of a museological tradition which clings on stubbornly.

The Prague document speaks of accessibility and inclusion with reference to all the diversities. Indeed, it adds a statement which is in itself revolutionary when it specifies that one of the aims of a museum is to promote diversity. So it is not simply a question of accepting it, respecting it and providing for it; promoting diversity is much more than this: it means considering it a value, an active ingredient of cultural and social growth, an agent for the leavening of that multiform and multi-material dough which we call culture.

This principle expressed in absolute terms must extend beyond any doubt to include the sensory diversity of the visually impaired; and this is where we really come up against some taboos which resist any attempt at rational inquiry. I am referring to the taboo whereby art is the domain of the visual (normally we talk about the visual arts without troubling to ask ourselves if there are other sensory approaches), and the setting up of a museum or exhibition invariably aims exclusively at the most effective display in visual terms.

Fortunately things are changing, but there is still fierce resistance which, if it occasionally makes some modest concession at the theoretical level, then ignores it or  plays it down when theory yields to practice.

“Do Not Touch” thus becomes an inescapable corollary, almost the ethical consequence of the indispensable penalization of touch, considered the “pariah” of the senses compared with the nobility of sight. The need to protect the cultural artifact from the inevitabile deterioration resulting from manual contact is, in the main, a mere pretext. Indeed, in most cases the objects would be exposed to no danger whatever if carefully handled.

I am concerned to stress that the removal of the “Do Not Touch” taboo not only recognizes, finally, the right of the blind to enjoy culture and art (enshrined in Art. 27, Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948); by implication it also recognizes the value, including the aesthetic value, of tactility; it rescues touch from the ostracism imposed by the old museum culture and attributes to this sense, as to all others, its own cognitive and aesthetic distinction. It is clear that in this way, by restoring to the blind the chance of enjoying the pleasure of beauty, a new way of enjoying art is adumbrated: the tactile approach.

Why should this be of interest only to the visually impaired? Tactility belongs to everyone and its rediscovery restores the natural relation between man and reality, one founded on all the senses and not just on sight.

So it is that a point of difference, a visual impairment, ends up by broadening the cultural horizon for everyone. And how can the new museology fail to be aware of this? How can museum and exhibition organizers carry on blithely in deference to the old canons, considering accessibility as an exclusively motor issue.

In Prague they took the point, and those few lines of the document, approved almost unanimously, will serve as our banner.