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Museums with Unlimited Opportunities

If you have ever visited a museum you must have felt the temptation to touch an exhibit. Coming closer and closer to the red line, you even overstep it and soon hear the approaching footsteps of exhibit staff or, worse, an alarm which abruptly ends the magical interaction between you and the exhibit. In some situations, however, touching a piece of art is not an infringement but a necessity. For example, touch is an integral part of the Inclusive Museum Program.   

“I did not imagine the Kajeti Fortress as something beautiful, but rather an ugly and gloomy construction. Touching it convinced me that my imagination was not wrong,” said Mary Papunashvili, an 11th grader at Tbilisi Public School #202 for visually impaired children.

In 2016, Mary took part in an event titled "I See with My Fingers," organized by the National Museum.  In an exhibition dedicated to the anniversary of the 12th century Georgian epic poem,  “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin,” students and professors of the Academy of Arts allowed everyone, regardless of their abilities or special needs, to touch their works. The exhibition, that Mary speaks about, enabled her to perceive the world of Shota Rustaveli through touch.

“The first impulse to take my creative activity onto a new stage arose after I started to teach at the school for visually impaired children. I used to tell children: ‘you are all unique, the sun will not rise without you because you are part of it’… Then I decided to create a special series of works to have them feel the art. It was a sort of experiment which taught me a lot too,” said Keti Matabeli, the first Georgian painter to create a whole series of artworks based on inclusive needs.

“Apart from private initiatives, institutional decisions on the development of inclusive art venues are also very important.  It was toward this goal that in 2016,Europe Foundation funded a pilot project titled Inclusive Education in Georgian Museums. Its successful implementation showed the need to replicate it on a larger scale.

So in 2017, we issued a larger grant to enable the project team to introduce the inclusive program at 21 museums across Georgia. This will lead to significant changes in the integration of persons with disabilities [PWDs] into the cultural life of the country,” noted Nana Gamkrelidze, Program Manager at Europe Foundation. 

The programs for these museums are still under development, so for now only the National Gallery offers inclusive museum tours which include two phases: a guided tour of permanent collections and a creative activity. According to Project Director Ina Sokhadze, as many as 350 PWDs have already benefitted from the program, including some with cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and autism spectrum disorder: “I can say that none of the 350 beneficiaries left the museum without creating something that expressed their emotions.”

The inclusive educational program is part of the regular schedule of the National Gallery. Any group can participate in the program if they register in advance. According to Ina Sokhadze, the interactive and creative nature of the educational program plays a very important role in sating the so-called “sensory hunger” of PWDs.  

The authors of the idea initially found it quite difficult to enlist support for the implementation of this project.  “We submitted the project to numerous organizations. The feedback we received was rather skeptical. We were told that with numerous social problems faced by PWDs still unsolved, the idea of a museum seemed premature.  

Organizations specializing in PWD issues tended to pay more attention to social welfare issues such as pensions. The only organization that saw the need for this project was  Europe Foundation.”

Funding such projects serves the Foundation's main aim. “According to our vision, when the state plans to take concrete steps, for example, drawing up an action plan or amending a law, it is important to involve relevant nongovernmental organizations, especially, community organizations in this process in order to ensure that the steps taken by the state reflect special needs of people and communities. Projects like this serve as a model that should be replicated on a larger scale by civil or public sectors,” said  Nana Gamkrelidze.

She added that over the past decade around 10,000 PWDs benefitted from the programs and the grant support mechanism of the Foundation. Meanwhile, there are a total of 118,651 beneficiaries who receive state disability pensions, according to official statistics.

One can often see community organizations among the grantees of Europe Foundation, in other words, the organizations that are directly affected by problems and know how to deal with them.

“Society may develop to become democratic and strong only when the people themselves take the responsibility for the social, economic, cultural and political processes which affect them,” Nana Gamkrelidze said.   

The mobilization around inclusive museum education has already led to progress: intensive training of museum staff is under way to ensure the involvement of almost all large museums of Georgia in the program. After being conducted in the museums of Tbilisi, the inclusive training program will be continued in the regions.

According to the World Health Organization, PWDs comprise 15 percent of the world's population. In Georgia, only about 3 per cent of the population receives disability aid from the state. The actual number of disabled people can be assumed to be much higher, the discrepancy due to social factors that discourage people from officially registering their status.

The USA introduced its first inclusive museum educational program in the 1990s. In Georgia, museums began shouldering such social responsibilities in 2005-2006. The Inclusive Education in the Museums of Georgia project is the first effective step towards ensuring access to museums for everyone regardless of their abilities.

The Head of Educational Department at the National Museum of Georgia, Darejan Dzotsenidze, says the National Museum started taking steps towards creating an accessible environment for PWDs just a few years ago with repair works on all new buildings subordinated to the Museum: “The modification of the buildings was seen as a significant step forward for Georgia. Although we have regular contacts with PWDs and the Museum provides them with free services, we lacked educational programs. Now we are moving forward in terms of caring for people with special needs.”

According to Ina Sokhadze, when the inclusive educational program was launched in the museum in 2016, museum staff were skeptical.


“It took a lot of effort to get the employees of the museum - around 25 people - to attend the trainings. We insisted that they needed the training. Now everyone agrees that these programs must be introduced. We have clearly seen a shift in mentality over these past two years.”  


Ina Sokhadze says the program should be in place in the other 21 museums by spring. This spring should mark a turning point in the mentality of PWDs too.   

Author: Salome Apkhazishvili

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