Is it possible to interact fully with an artwork, whatever your sensory and physical abilities and whatever the complexity of the work? "The Roads of Art through Emotions", an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, tries to answer this question. The show, designed specifically for a disabled public, is meant to facilitate a complete emotional immersion -- visual, tactile and aural -- in artworks drawn from the gallery's permanent collection.
Works by artists such as Kandinsky, Giacomo Balla, Alberto Burri and Filadelfo Simi are reproduced in relief and thus made touchable. The reproductions are presented together with descriptions in Braille, as well as audio and video materials. Music and perfumes help to deepen the experience.
This is very welcome news in a country where good intentions, as far as disabled people's access to cultural heritage is concerned, are not always matched by good practice. Here in the UK, where London 2012 has recently launched "Unlimited", a £3m programme to celebrate arts, culture and sports by disabled people, they are significantly less likely to participate in arts activities and to attend museum and galleries than their non-disabled peers, as figures from the UK Office for Disability Issues show.
The use of multi-sensory devices to help disabled people to further their cultural experience isn't new. Take "Altered Images", an exhibition that opened in June at the South Tipperary County Museum in Clonmel and moves to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in 2010. This has the explicit aim of enhancing the viewing experience and introducing new ways of seeing and experiencing art, for disabled and able-bodied people alike. As well as touch-screens and audio and video descriptions of the artworks, there's an interpretation of the exhibition in sign language, performed by one of the artists.
"New technologies are having a big role in creating new means to improve disabled access to culture," says Alessandro Marianantoni, a multimedia artist whose CO2morrow installation appears in "Earth" at the Royal Academy in London. "Interactivity is a fundamental tool in these kinds of project.
"I'm thinking about an installation I did in 2007, which is still on, for a hospital in Napa Valley, California. It is intended for patients affected by dementia, in particular Alzheimer's disease. The system is able to recognise individual patients when they walk by and activates a range of multimedia content -- photos, videos, music and other stuff -- managed by the hospital and by the patients' families.
"The work is called Memoryvision, and despite its application for medical purposes, it has a cultural and artistic aura in its own right, as it was inspired by my study of Memory Theatre by Giulio Camillo."
The Italian artist Santina Portelli, who paints with her mouth, as she is quadraplegic, says: "The Roman show is certainly very stimulating. It is difficult to imagine how blind people can definitely 'see' a picture. Who knows if, sooner or later, a deaf or a blind person will find a way to give the rest of us to his or her heightened sensibility and let us into a different emotional experience."