Inclusion is still a problem in museums, an app is trying to fill the gap - TOMATO Project

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Inclusion is still a problem in museums, an app is trying to fill the gap

Inclusion is still a problem in many European museums, with people from disadvantaged backgrounds still kept on the margins of too many cultural institutions. Barriers can be physical and economic, and they mainly affect people with physical or mental disabilities. But many museums, especially those for children, are updating their practices to make sure that they can welcome everyone, and that they can also reach every section of the population.

“Inclusion means that we really have to invite our visitors and take their need seriously. And there are a lot of barriers to be broken. We always try to reach out to visitors, and marginalised groups, but it requires a lot of resources, also in time and communication effort, because you have to build up some kind of relationship. But when they feel invited and involved in an institution, it works,” says Andrea Zsutty, director of the Zoom children’s museum in Vienna, Austria.

And inclusion means that everyone should fell equal, and be treated as such. “In our activities, we always combine visitors from a regular background and visitors from a disadvantaged background, like children with special needs. We have a special program that is called Abo, it is a series of workshops in which we invite together kids with no disabilities with kids with special needs. It is important not to do a special program for different target groups, but to bring them together so that they can have a common experience,” she adds.

“We have a lot of challenges to face today. We want to welcome everybody, and that means that we have to offer programs that can be suitable for everybody. In Salon Stoltz we focused on this aspect in a very strong way, and we develop exhibits where blind people can play together with deaf people, people with other kind of physical handicap but always together with any other visitors. And that’s our idea of inclusion, we want that everybody can explore an exhibition, play and learn together. This is essential for us,” says Jörg Ehtreiber, director of FRida & freD – Children’s Museum in Graz, Austria, and project manager of Salon Stolz, always in Graz. The latter is a museum dedicated to the conductor and composer Robert Stolz, and it is an inclusive and barrier-free meeting place for everyone, offering multi-sensory experiences.

The obstacles for disadvantaged people can be the simplest. And it is not only the stairs – the main obstacle for people in wheelchair, for example – but also things that normotype people can’t even recognise. “Sometimes if you are in a wheelchair, it is not possible for you to reach the ‘hands-on’ exhibits, because it is too far on a table. Even colours can be an obstacle, for some visually impaired people they can make a text difficult to be read,” explains Nikola Kroath, Head of Pedagogy and Mediation at CoSA (Center of Science Activities) and FRida & freD. In the new pedagogy, the hands-on approach is central. An hands-on experience involves actually doing a particular thing, rather than just looking at it or talking about it. And it is very important, especially for kids.

“‘You discover more about a person in one hour of playing, than after a year of conversations’, someone said. And I think it is especially true for children. We learn through our brain but not enough through our body”, explains Sophie d’Ydewalle, co-creator of Soma Foundation, a children’s museum in Brussels, Belgium. “The ‘hands on’ approach it’s critical to us because it’s the best way for people to learn something. Also for people with disabilities,” assures Ilenia Lalić, of Istrian de Dignan Ecomuseum, a museum in Croatia working for the preservation of traditions. In the city of Dignan, they created a didactic farm to show young (and not so young any more) visitors the old way of life of the countryside. They teach them how to cultivate plants and breed animals.

“The contact with nature and animals helps them with other things in life too. We organize educational activities for grown up adults, people with disability and mostly children. In schools, they learn from the books while here they can learn with all their senses: they touch the field, they smell the plants, and they can eat and try all the herbs. In the city, you don’t see a cow or a donkey every day”, she adds.

Istrian de Dignan is a partner of the TOMATO project, an acronym that stands for The Original Museum Available To Overall. It is an initiative promoted by the European commission with the aim of increasing the accessibility of places of culture and knowledge, especially to children and young people from physically, mentally and socially disadvantaged backgrounds. An international team of 16 partners in eight countries (Italy, Greece, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria) is carrying out this project.

The project, co-funded by the EU, is developing a physical kit and an app that will make it possible to enjoy the contents of the participating museums also in a virtual manner, in a fun and curiosity-provoking way. In charge of developing the kit, that is a sort of boardgame customised on each of the 8 museums partner, there is Pleiadi Science Farmer, an Italian company specialised in creating innovative ways to teach the so-called STEAM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics). Always utilizing the hands-on approach.

The app is being developer by iShowroom, an innovative Czech company specialised in interactive 3D technology, virtual and augmented reality. They have created an app that, working alongside with the physical kit, will allow to virtually visit a museum, while playing. In order to develop both the app and the kit, an analysis has been carried out consulting social workers, professionals but also families and their children.

These two tools will allow, for example, kids in the autistic spectrum, who may be uncomfortable in a crowded place that is different from those they are used to, to still be able to take advantage of these fundamental centres of culture. The same will apply to children who may have walking problems, or even those who simply live in distant regions and who may not be able to travel in person to places. The aim of Tomato is precisely this: to make culture truly accessible to everyone.

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