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.

The Tomato Project aims to improve the audience of cultural spaces and involve marginalized audience through an innovative, environmentally friendly educational tool.

“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 feel equal, and be treated as such. “In our activities, we always combine visitors from a regular background and visitors from a disadvantaged background. 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. A 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, which stands for The Original Museum Available To Overall. It is an initiative funded by the EU, through the Creative Europe programme, aimed at increasing the accessibility of cultural spaces, particularly for 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.

TOMATO is developing a physical kit and an app that will enable people to enjoy the contents of the participating museums virtually as well. Leading the development of the kit, which is a kind of board game customized for each of the 8 partner museums, is Pleiadi Science Farmer, an Italian company specialized in creating innovative methods to teach the STEAM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), emphasizing a hands-on approach.

The app is being developed by iShowroom, a Czech company specialised in interactive 3D technology, virtual and augmented reality. The app, working alongside with the physical kit, will allow people 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.

These two tools will enable children on the autism spectrum, who may feel uncomfortable in crowded or unfamiliar places, to benefit from these cultural centres. The same applies to children with mobility issues or those living in remote regions who may find it challenging to travel to these places in person. The goal of TOMATO is precisely this: to make museums accessible to everyone.