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  • doris rothauer

Zero Project Conference: For a world without barriers

Aktualisiert: 3. März 2020

„For a world without barriers“, that is the mission of the Zero Project, initiated by the Essl Foundation in Austria in 2008. With a focus on researching and communicating innovations on behalf of persons with disabilities, the initiative has developed a vast global network of more than 5.000 experts from 180 countries.

Julia Tackmann, one of the museum guides, in front of the artwork at the Staatliche Museum Schwerin, which she chose for her tour. Clara, the Rhinoceros, gives her security and inspiration, and she studied all about Clara´s life, where and when she lived, how she was hunted, how she ended up being portrayed. Copyright: Nils Wöbke

At the heart of the Zero Project is the annual Zero Project Conference, held every February at the UN Headquarters in Vienna, bringing together some 800 participants from the global network.

This year´s Conference program included a session on “Inclusive education programs in museums and cultural institutions” and I had the honor and pleasure to be the chair of the session. Inclusion is a very important impact, that museums can have on society, and it simply means to be a place for all, without any cultural, intellectual, social, physical or financial barriers. That´s how we at Cultural Impact see it. How did the presenters at the conference session see it and what are their offers to be more inclusive?

The first presentation came from the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna. With 2 million visitors per year the museum is a major attraction and an important player in the international museum scene. Here´s how the Museum defines the challenge regarding inclusion:

“Attending museums can be difficult for people who are blind or deaf, or for people with learning difficulties, due to barriers of navigation and to understanding the exhibitions.”

As part of an EU-funded initiative, ARCHES, and as one of six museum partners, the Kunsthistorische Museum undertook a multi-stakeholder approach to develop, test and implement new solutions for improving museum accessibility. In a series of workshops with experts from technology and academia, as well as people with disabilities the group created innovations like a tactile relief, an APP and a learning game. The app supports people with different impairments visiting the museum. The information on selected art works is written in such a way that everyone, regardless their disability, can understand. There are videos in sign language, easy to read texts and special descriptions for visually impaired and blind people.

“True inclusion means working hard and creatively. That´s what I learned from being part of the ARCHES workshops”, said Sigrid Kundela, one of the workshop participants, who also was a co-presenter at the conference session.

This drawing was made by one of the participants in the workshops, expressing her feelings about the result and impact of the project. Copyright: Sigrid Kundela

Other statements included:

“It was most important for me to learn how people with another impairment than mine really feel.”

“I am so glad that I finally can enjoy museums without anybody else´s help.”

Intellectual barriers to museum exhibitions is a common problem, that is also identified and addressed by AKIM Israel, another presenter at the conference session. AKIM is a National Organization in Israel, for people with intellectual disabilities and their families. Among the many programs they offer, they also provide training and support to museums and their staff, aiming at increased knowledge about intellectual accessibility. Since its start in 2014, more than 350 professionals have been trained and 4 museums acted as pilots implementing site specific solutions, such as easy-to-understand Hebrew videos in the Technoda Science Museum or large scale models simulating garbage mountains in the Hiriya Recycling Park. The use of simple data, clear guidance and easy-to-use technology helps people with intellectual disabilities to understand exhibitions, gain knowledge and enjoy their visits. When the pilot phase ended in 2018, the number of visitors with intellectual disabilities rose from almost zero to more than 3000, using the new opportunities.

A different approach to intellectual barriers is undertaken from capito Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Capito is a network of 20 franchise partners in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, that provides easy language services as well as workshops and consulting on accessibility. Capito Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the north-east of Germany has a focus on making cultural institutions more accessible, because they too see physical and information barriers as root causes for museum exclusion. Starting with a pilot in cooperation with the National Museum Schwerin they educate people with special needs as museum guides. Not only through their services do they make museums more accessible, being a place for all, they also offer people with special needs new job opportunities and a fulfilling work, where they can unfold their creativity. Which, in the end, makes the museum visit more impactful for visitors. Participating in a tour led by someone with special needs and hearing their version of storytelling about art and art history can change the perspective on art as well as on the people.

capito is Italian and means “I get it.” In the future, everyone should be able to say: “I have understood”. This approach characterizes the cooperation with the National Museum Schwerin. Copyright: Niklas Gaidetzka

“The project made me more confident. I have expanded my knowledge about art and met people who helped me demonstrate what I am capable of”, says Felix, one of the museum guides.

“I´ve seen how someone with special needs described and presented an artwork and I realized how it strengthened his self-confidence. I really liked it!” (Liane, a visitor)

The project will now be replicated and scaled to other training organizations (“train-the-trainer”) and museums.

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lissabon, Portugal, follows the visionary approach of its founder, the hugely successful entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector Calouste Gulbenkian, who believed in the civic dimension of art and culture. Accessibility for all citizens is a key mission for the Museum, implemented by designing individual offers for the different types of groups that come as visitors, tailored to their specific needs and interests. The activities are usually offered as tandem activities, for example an artist together with an educator, a man together with a woman, to support the diversity. Target groups are schools, families and individuals with special needs, including deaf and blind visitors. In their presentation at the conference, the accessibility experts also addressed the challenges they are facing, which are quite common: Gaining the knowledge about the different needs and solutions, and working not only inside the educational department, but across the institutions with curators, architects, etc. Departmental structures often hinder innovation, lacking a holistic approach.

One group of visitors, that needs special attention, but is often overlooked, are elderly people. As society gets older, there is a risk of loosing a whole generation. The Albertina Museum of Fine Art in Vienna has, in cooperation with the Academy for Research on Ageing,taken a technology-based approach, using the potential of Virtual Reality. If people cannot come to the museum, the museums has to come to the people. In this case to nursing homes. Clients receive virtual reality glasses through which they can enjoy an immersive experience of the art works from Albertina, the staff operates the virtual visits via a notebook.

If people cannot come to the museum, the museums has to come to the people. The VR technology makes it possible, developed by the Academy for Research on Ageing in Vienna in cooperation with Albertina Museum of Fine Art. Copyright: Akademie für Altersforschung am Haus der Barmherzigkeit, Wien

“Yes, I know I´m in my wheelchair here in my room, but I feel like I am right there and that is something extremely beautiful”, one participant said. During the test phase, it turned out that the residents are very open minded about technology. The impact created is not only in the new art experiences, it also revives memories, dreams, longings, desires.

There are still some challenges to overcome, like copyrights, visual impairments of elderly people, and a lack of time of the staff at the nursing home.

At the end of the session we all agreed, that sharing examples and experiences helps to solve challenges and gain a greater impact. It is all about co-creation!

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