08 September 2015

Access In Museums: A Research Project in 6 Parts (Part 3)


A common misconception in museums addressing the needs of visitors with disabilities is that when people think of disability, they often envision mobility related disability. While wheelchair users are an important consideration, and ramps and elevators should always be part of the building’s footprint, this population only makes up a fraction of the disability community.[1] Non-apparent disabilities are just as important to consider when facilitating museum access. After the founding of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, public institutions including museums began to reconfigure their work to be more inclusive. One of the provisions of this act (Title II) is that any governmental building, or institution receiving governmental funding (i.e. grants) must be ADA compliant, not only in terms of employment but also in terms of the accessibility of space and accommodations offered.[2] With many museum institutions in this country receiving government funds, some of which occupying publicly owned spaces (the Chicago Cultural Center, the Museums in the Park), the incentives to become ADA compliant are not only necessary they are a matter of the law. Some early adopters of ADA compliance acted as model institutions, carving out space in staffing, programming, and exhibition practice to make room for visitors with disabilities.

The Oakland Museum in California spearheaded an initiative catered specifically to hearing impaired visitors that paved the way for some of the American Sign Language (ASL) museum education programming in use today. In 1973, a group of docents from the Oakland Museum began taking sign language classes through the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Some reached a high level of proficiency and decided it a worthy opportunity to create a tour-curriculum completely in sign language, calling the program Total Communication Tours.[3] Though the tour was in Signed Exact English (SEE) rather than ASL, the docents spoke in English as they signed, catering to visitors with and without hearing impairment, raising awareness of different methods for communicating art historical talks, and fostering an inclusive environment that is still present in the programming at the Oakland Museum to this day.

What was interesting about this program was the rigor that went into putting it into place, and the outcomes that it produced. For one, the docents all paid out of pocket for the sign language classes they took, so while the museum was supportive of the program itself, they were not financially backing the individuals putting it into place.[4] This points to a niche being fulfilled without the infrastructure and institution behind the project entirely. Additionally, the amount of time the docents put into the classes and writing the tours was astounding, they researched, composed, and had the tours reviewed by curatorial staff prior to translating the tours into SEE, before doing a few test-runs with a focus group of hearing impaired participants for feedback.[5] By creating a focus group, the docents and museum began to create a collaborative relationship with visitors with impairments, setting in motion moves to shifting the infrastructure to be more inclusive of the needs of a diverse visitor population. This program drew the interest of Deaf individuals who wanted to become docents, and in the end accommodations had to be made to meet this inclusion: interpreters were put in place for the intensive year of docent training, and eventually interpreters accompanied the Deaf docents.[6] Growing out of this newfound community, the Oakland Museum created programs with Deaf artists, collaborated with deaf students for unique studio programming, widening the reach of the museum to be inclusive of individuals who might not have traditionally been full participants. Though the pioneer docents no longer work at the museum, and sign language tours no longer appear on the roster, the Oakland Museum continues to collaborate with the Bay Area’s Deaf community, often including programming associated with DEAF Media in their selection of public programs.[7]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was also an early adopter in making the museum an inclusive space. Their approach was different from the Oakland Museum in that they formed an internal infrastructure from the ground up, creating a committee with individuals representing departments across the museum, gathered together for the sole purpose of considering matters of access.[8] Included in this cohort were representatives from operations and the building management (issues of architecture), the coordinator for disabled visitor services, a designer (for legibility issues), a development professional (for fundraising), the manager of public information, a curator, the head of museum education, and the head of human resources, with the intent on bringing together all of the museum’s major resources to bear on accessibility.[9] The idea for the formation of this committee was that if the committee was in place, and people were actively thinking about access, when a solution needed to be implemented everyone at the table could take action – rather than moving through the bureaucratic molasses common to large institutions. In retrospect, the work this group conducted was foundational to contemporary museum practice, particularly with the National Endowment of the Arts funded project to create a manual of standards for the creation and installation of didactic museum labels. Though they should be commended for taking a proactive approach, it is curious that none of the representatives mentioned on this committee are people with disabilities.

Discoveries image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art
One other program pioneered by the Met in 1985, called Discoveries (which is still in practice today), provided developmentally disabled persons of all ages an opportunity to engage with art in an intimate personalized environment. These two-hour workshops were organized thematically around objects in the museum’s collection and included gallery tours, a snack break, and hands-on studio activity for participants with the express purpose of creating involvement.[10] Discoveries engaged a visitor group that might otherwise have gone unnoticed; offering the skills of educators and studio assistants to foster a comfortable and tailor-made activity that concluded with free family passes to the museum for a future visit. The success of this program was in the tact that was taken to create a welcoming and intimate learning environment, the training of the staff members working with this visitor group, the connecting with families who might not normally visit the museum, and the suggestion for the families to return to the museum having made a meaningful connection with the space and the resources available. 

[1] Linsey, Eleanor and Jonathon P. Bowen, Kirsten Hearn, and Maria Zedda (pg. 355)
[2] Author Unknown. “The ADA and City Governments: Common Problems.” U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. October 10, 2008. Web. 19 April 2015.
[3] Author Unknown. “The Oakland Museum: Oakland, California.” The Accessible Museum: Model Programs of Accessibility for Disabled and Older People. The American Association of Museums. 1992. (pg. 85)
[4] Author Unknown. “The Oakland Museum: Oakland, California.” The Accessible Museum: Model Programs of Accessibility for Disabled and Older People. The American Association of Museums. 1992. (pg. 86)
[5] Author Unknown. “The Oakland Museum: Oakland, California.” (pg. 86)
[6] Author Unknown. “The Oakland Museum: Oakland, California.” (pg. 89)
[7] Author Unknown. “Advanced Search: Deaf.” The Oakland Museum, CA. Date Unknown. Web. 24 April 2015.
[8] Author Unknown. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, NY.” The Accessible Museum: Model Programs of Accessibility for Disabled and Older People. The American Association of Museums. 1992. Print. (pg. 106).
[9] Author Unknown. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, NY.” (pg. 106)
[10] Author Unknown. “The Metropolitan Museum of Art: New York, NY.” (pg. 105)

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