06 September 2015

Access In Museums: A Research Project in 6 Parts (Part 1)

Last semester I conducted a variety of research projects around issues of access in public space, disability art and culture, curating disability, and different ways to make museums inclusive in both architecture and programming. Over the course of this week, I will be sharing my research on Access in Museums. This is a paper I wrote for Len Davis' Topics In Disabilities course, Spring 2015. If you would like to continue the dialogue, feel free to email me at sandyguttman[at]gmail[dot]com. If you would like to use my research in your own work, please cite me.



Before I begin to share my research on the topic of museum accessibility, I should share a bit of my own experience with museums, as an explanation for my interest in this subject matter. My undergraduate degree from Knox College is in art history. After graduating in 2010, I began working at the Art Institute of Chicago as an intern in the Museum Education department. As part of my intensive training, I was instructed to familiarize myself with the layout of the building, noting the location of every single elevator and bathroom in relation to the gallery spaces we led our tours within. The museum is big, with a collection of over 250,000 objects, not all of which are on display. Architecturally speaking, there are several large buildings that were built over the course of a century. Moving through the space is time consuming, laborious, and non-intuitive. For a visitor, the museum can be quite exhausting, it is nearly impossible to see everything on display in a single visit.

Both the Modern Wing and the historic Michigan Avenue entrances favor able-bodies, with stairs that lead to large revolving doors on the former (the automatic doors and down ramps are pushed to the sides), and a large grandiose staircase at the latter (the ramps are pushed to the left side of the façade). Even at first encounter, these entrances announce an architectural barrier to individuals in wheelchairs, visitors using strollers, and those unable to use revolving doors. The elevators are few and far between, and the ones in the older buildings are slow and deliberate, it takes time to wait and time to crawl up and down the height of the building. Half floors and elevator shafts hidden in rarely tread gallery spaces hinder fluid movement in the museum space.

Figure 1: (Left) Renoir’s Two Sisters (on the Terrace) Painting, (Right) Renoir’s Two Sisters (on the Terrace) TacTile Education Tool (Images via the Art Institute of Chicago website)

In terms of making the space more accessible, there are some accommodations available, but they are limited. Wheelchairs are offered upon request, though there are a finite number of them. For vision impairment, audio tours are an option but they do not include every object on display, and are not explicitly designed for visitors with vision impairment – that is, the dialogue isn’t overly descriptive of the work in a way that would be helpful for a visitor with vision impairment. There are also TacTile Kits, specially made plastic tiles with textured elevations of paintings from the Art Institute’s collection, though these tangible objects for non-visual learners are only available upon request and there are a limited number available (figure 1). [1] The tiles depict only a tiny fraction of the works held in the museum’s collection, and require instruction by a museum educator. The Elizabeth Morse Touch Gallery, located in the Ryan Education Center, a free public space of the museum, offers one of the only other hands-on experiences in the museum with four sculptural busts and four corresponding labels in Braille (Figure 2). Though each of the sculptures is a different material and texture, there is little variety to them, with three out of the four of the sculptures depicting Western subjects by Western artists, and all of them similar in shape and size. Though the gallery is declared for touching, it feels like a bit of an afterthought. In short, the museum seems to favor an able-bodied, fully sighted visitor.

Figure 2: A visitor touches the busts in the Art Institute’s Touch Gallery

Beyond the architectural and tactile adjustments, there are some accommodating programs in place. Tours with sighted guides are available upon request, but need two weeks advance notice for the accommodation to be met. Additionally, the museum has collaborated with the Road Scholars program, to provide tours as part of a weeklong educational visit to the galleries for art history-based tours with the mission of supporting lifelong learning for elderly museum-visitors.[2] This educational program is led by Art Institute museum educators, and features tours that are researched and designed for both interest and comfort. The educator wears a microphone that wirelessly transmits sound to the individual visitor, making the tour content easier to hear for persons with hearing impairments. Additionally, gallery stools are provided for viewing and discussing artworks with ease – though some galleries don’t allow stools in them due to restrictions placed by curatorial staff. These simple accommodations make the gallery visit easier to digest and more comfortable for the needs of a specific demographic of museumgoers. In my time as an intern, I was able to participate in leading one of these gallery visits, and I recall the great lengths we went to provide a welcoming and comfortable environment for our older visitors. But I walked away from the experience wondering why we went out of our way to make accommodations for one group of individuals and not all individuals needing accommodations.

Following my internship, I began working for the Development Office where my attention shifted from research and touring to assisting some of our wealthier constituents. Again, issues of access were ever present, as many of our trustees and highly supportive donors had mobility issues, hearing-loss, and vision impairments. During the three years I spent working at the museum, I didn’t encounter many improvements or initiatives to make the space more accessible (I was there from 2010-2013). I walked away from my experience at the Art Institute frustrated that fewer initiatives were put in place to make the museum an accessible and inclusive space, not knowing how to improve the visitor experience. I enrolled in the MUSE Program at UIC with the intent to better understand access and inclusion in cultural institutions, with the explicit aim to find disability representation in art museums.


In acknowledgement of previous frustrations with the Art Institute’s lack of inclusion across programming, exhibitions, and architectural design, I’ve begun conducting research on different approaches to museum access at a variety of institutions. Though it is by no means exhaustive, this paper is an exploration of the ways in which museums have adapted themselves to be inclusive of diverse visitor groups – in particular adults with disabilities. Through researching different methods to approaching disability to create access in cultural space, one thing is true: there is no single solution for making an all-inclusive museum. The solution lies in the combination of changing attitudes toward disability, creating the infrastructure within the museum to foster problem solving, working in collaboration with members from a variety of disability communities, renovating to remove architectural barriers, creating programming that is inclusive of all communities, and implementing technology that creatively addresses a need within the museum space. By adopting activist practices and taking proactive steps towards the inclusion of diversity across visitor demographics, museums can better equip themselves to foster an accessible environment for education, understanding, and collaborative learning.

[1] Author Unknown. Accessibility. The Art Institute of Chicago. Date Unknown. Web. 3 March 2015.
[2] Author Unknown. Road Scholars. The Art Institute of Chicago. Date Unknown. Web. 25 April 2015.

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