09 September 2015

Access In Museums: A Research Project in 6 Parts (Part 4)

CONTEMPORARY APPROACHES TO ACCESS

These aforementioned programs at the Met laid the foundation for one of the most robust disability focused programs in the country (figure 3). In 2015, there are at least five full-time programs in place to address visitors with hearing loss, visitors who are Deaf, visitors who are blind or partially sighted, visitors with Dementia, and visitors with developmental and learning disabilities, as well as those on the Autism spectrum.[1] Each of these programs was created to meet the specific needs of the audiences it serves, acting as an educational resource for the community, a public gathering space, and a sounding board for feedback. In terms of programming for hearing loss and the Deaf community, assistive listening devices like induction loops and FM assistive listening devices, neck loops and T-switches are available in limited quantity for adapting audio tours, and the audio tours are free of charge to visors who are hard of hearing, Deaf, blind, and partially sighted. Real-time captioning is also available for lectures, but it must be requested in advance of the lecture, and is based upon the availability of the captioner.[2] For Deaf visitors, sign language tours and the Met Signs programs are regularly scheduled alongside the general tour programming for the museum, with some family guided tours available in ASL. Transcripts in regular and large-format print are available for all audio guide programming.[3]


Figure 3: The wide selection of programs for visitors with disabilities at the Met (Screenshot of the Met Museum webpage)
To accommodate visitors who are blind and partially sighted, the Met has created a series of scheduled programs as well as a selection of programs available upon request. Two programs of note are Picture This! Workshops for Adults Who Are Blind or Partially Sighted and Seeing Through Drawing, which engage visitors with vision impairment through hands-on activities that involve touching objects from the collection, and drawing one’s own interpretation of the experience.[4] The Met also has a Touch Collection that can be visited and touched upon request – though this collection, like the Art Institute’s is limited to sculptural forms. Tours with docents trained to give detailed verbal descriptions are also an option, with one specifically devised to walk through the Met’s comprehensive collection of Egyptian works. Art & the Alphabet: A Tactile Experience is a program devised specifically for children with vision impairment to walk younger visitors through the highlights from the museum’s collection, it is a book with Braille rather than actual objects and images, but it may help foster an interest in the museum at an early age for visitors who might not traditionally go to the Met.[5]

In terms of visitors with developmental disabilities, having pioneered programming for this visitor group back in the mid-1980s, the programs offered continued to expand. While Discoveries is still an active program, the Met has widened their offerings to include programs specific to visitors on the Autism spectrum, with tours and activities delineated by thematic subjects, age-range, and location (Manhattan or the Cloisters).[6] Subjects cross genres including programs on color, senses, India, nature, faces, creative freedom, and reflections on art, but specialized programs are available upon request – a wonderful activity for a class trip.

Though the Met’s programs are a model of inclusive activity, another approach to addressing disability may occur on a completely different level – through exhibitions. Disability does find representation in some collections, but more often than not, images of disability don’t make the final cut for exhibition content. Buried in the Footnotes was a project established for the purpose of combing through UK cultural institutions for objects representing disability, and what ended up on display included “fine and decorative art, social history, costume, ethnography, military history,” to run the gamut of representations of disability in museum collections.[7] What this project performed was essentially a thought experiment that raised awareness internally in museum collections management and curatorial departments, and externally for the visiting public. The exhibition was successful because it offered an image of disability that countered culturally and socially imposed stereotypes, and “the potential for museums to develop rich and respectful programs of disabled people.”[8] 

Park McArthur, Ramps, 2014 (via Essex Street)
Exhibitions around the topic of disability are not entirely new, but they do occur with much less frequency than other exhibitions. For every exhibition focused on disability there is a different approach unique to the themes set forth by the curators and hosting institutions. Recent exhibitions include Scrapes: Unruly Embodiments in Video Art (2013, McMasters Museum of Art, Canada) in which the curatorial goal was to “crip” the museum through films that depict the “Othered” body and an exhibition design that was purposely disorienting, as a metaphor for the disabled experience brought on by impairment;[9] LOUD silence (2014, CALIT, California) curated by Amanda Cachia, which used artist’s works dealing with extremes in sound binaries to explore the stereotype that Deaf individuals are often thought of as having no relationship with sound;[10],[11] and Park McArthur’s Ramps installation (2014, Essex Street, New York) as an activist artistic approach to draw attention to the inaccessibility of many New York art spaces like studios and galleries.[12], [13] Each of these recent exhibitions pointed to one or more impairments, countering with an assessment of how the impairment is perceived through artistic representations.

All of these exhibitions dealt with disability through an artistic lens, but what happens when curators frame disability in a social context? In 2004, the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. put together the temporary exhibition entitled Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race. This exhibition told an often underrepresented narrative about the individuals with disabilities who were effected by the Holocaust. By focusing on this one minority group within the larger victim-count, this project addressed a difficult topic that was often left to margins. Part of this exhibition’s goal was to shed light on the story of disability within the larger narrative of the Holocaust, mass sterilization, and the reach of the eugenics movement. In 2006, following the staging of this exhibit, the museum hosted the disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson for a program titled Legitimizing the Unthinkable: A Disability Rights Perspective on Nazi Medicine, in which Johnson reflected upon the exhibition and shared her reactions to the content presented from a disability rights standpoint.[14] 

Leading up to the program, the Holocaust Museum used this project as an opportunity to conduct an internal audit to consider issues of access in the museum. Though the museum follows ADA compliance, this inventory pointed to some accessibility issues that would need to be addressed before the event.[15] The first issue was a matter of space – where in the museum could they stage this event and accommodate a large number of visitors using wheelchairs? The two main auditoriums had fixed seating, the larger theatre space could not accommodate more than 12 wheelchair users, and the classrooms available were fully accessible but not large enough for the scale of this event. To figure out the spatial logistics for the program, the museum put together an internal task force made up of an “architect, ADA officer, facility manager, special events coordinator, Webmaster, program developer, and an accessibility consultant” to work through the issues of access, ultimately deciding to create an entirely new program space, constructing a stage with a ramp (on a 12-to-1 ratio), while also simulcasting the event into alternate theater and classroom spaces in the museum to reach a larger audience. Television screens with live-captioning, sign language interpreters, and Communication Access Realtime Translation services were also provided to make the event more fully accessible, and a transcript of the event was later posted to the museum’s website for visitors who were hard of hearing or unable to attend the event.[16] Lastly, in the days leading up to the event, a private exhibition preview was set up for stakeholders of the show, those in attendance were accessibility consultants and national leaders with disabilities, which resulted in a talk-back session where suggestions were offered to improve access before Johnson arrived for the program. The work that went into prepping for this program and the dialogues that surrounded the creation of a more inclusive space had a lasting impact on the staff at every level – and Johnson remarked in a thank you letter to the museum, “How wonderful to see everything done just right, not only just for me, but for a beautifully inclusive audience.”[17] The staging of this single exhibition and the internal audit that occurred for the special event allowed for ongoing improvements to the architecture of the already ADA compliant building, raised awareness within the staffing of the museum, and made for an inclusive space in a museum seeking to shed light on disability within the history of the Holocaust. This program and the steps the museum took are a model for the ways in which a museum can be proactive about disability by simply beginning to shift thinking in terms of audience, definitions of disability, and basic assessments of all areas of the museum.

Previously noted solutions for creating a more inclusive museum include programming and exhibitions explicitly created around the topic of disability. Another alternative solution is the creation of a cultural space that is devoted to addressing specific impairments. In Japan in the 1980s, two privately owned galleries opened to serve the visually impaired and blind museum visitor community: Sakurai Museum and Gallery Tom.[18] Both of these alternative museum spaces were opened in private homes “to provide high quality experiences of culture, science, and art to visually impaired people through touching objects, replicas, and works of art, which were not available in public museums at the time.”[19] The reason for creating a space devoted to meeting the accommodation of a single disability was that in terms of creating access, it’s difficult to address all of the needs of all of the visitors in one fell swoop, and after doing a study in 1998, Y. Murakami discovered that the disability most often served in Japanese museum was that of individuals using wheelchairs.[20] By focusing on vision impairment and blindness, these two museums created activities and programs geared to the needs of one visitor demographic allowing for a communal creative space within the community. 

Because niche museums like these exist, assessments of the effectiveness on specific museum tools used are easier to facilitate, revealing crucial data about the needs of the blind community within the museum space. After conducting a survey in 2010 about the accommodations and expectations of the vision impaired visitor base, the following conclusions were made: staff assistance is preferred for visitors attending the museum alone, which suggests that “interpretation of the exhibitions and collections is required to better understand them”; there is an overall lack of understanding about how to use multiple senses in a museum setting; and that in order to have a successful interaction with a touch object, visitors need to “understand the proper way to touch objects” to glean the information they need.[21] Through having a separate museum to addresses the various needs of a niche group of vision impaired and blind audience, these studies made clear that the quality of service from the staff in the institutions is more important than the facilities themselves, that is, if the staff are trained to properly address visitors with disabilities, a meaningful and enjoyable museum experience is more likely to occur.



[1] Author Unknown. “Programs for Visitors with Disabilities.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date Unknown. Web. 27 April 2015.
[2] Author Unknown. “For Visitors with Hearing Loss.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date Unknown. Web. 27 April 2015.
[3] Author Unknown. “Programs in Sign Language and with Sign Language Interpretation.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date Unknown. Web. 27 April 2015.
[4] Author Unknown. “For Visitors Who Are Blind or Partially Sighted.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Date Unknown. Web. 27 April 2015.
[5] Author Unknown. “For Visitors Who Are Blind or Partially Sighted.”
[6] Author Unknown. “Discoveries: Workshops for Visitors with Developmental and Learning Disabilities and Those on the Autism Spectrum.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Spring-Summer 2015. PDF.
[7] Sandell, Richard and Jocelyn Dodd. “Activist Practice.” Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. 2010 (pg. 11).
[8] Sandell, Richard and Jocelyn Dodd. “Activist Practice.” Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. 2010 (pg. 11-12).
[9] Brophy, Sarah and Janice Hladki. “Cripping the Museum: Disability, Pedagogy, and Video Art.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 8.3. 2014. PDF (pg. 315)
[10] Cachica is a curator with disabilities, whose ongoing curatorial projects explore disability within various artistic practices and outputs.
[11] Author Unknown. LOUD silence. California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. 2015. Web 25 April 2015.
[12] Burris, Jennifer. “Park McArthur.” BOMB – Artists in Conversation. February 19, 2014. Web 4 April 2015.
[13] Park McArthur is a contemporary artist who uses a wheelchair. This project was part of a two-year process in which she asked on an individual basis for ramp accommodations to be made at every institution she visited that did not allow for her body to enter the space. The final installation was a collection of 20 ramps from every participating organization with a link on the wall to Marta Russell’s Wikipedia page. McArthur was inspired by Russell’s disability rights activism, and used this project as a means of making space more accessible while critiquing the reasons for why access wasn’t already incorporated into the spaces she frequented.
[14] Werb, Shari Rothstein and Tari Hartman Squire. “Transforming Practice: Disability Perspectives and the Museum. Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. 2010 (pgs. 213-214).
[15] Werb, Shari Rothstein and Tari Hartman Squire. “Transforming Practice: Disability Perspectives and the Museum. Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. 2010 (pg. 220)
[16] Werb, Shari Rothstein and Tari Hartman Squire. (220).
[17] Werb, Shari Rothstein and Tari Hartman Squire. “Transforming Practice: Disability Perspectives and the Museum. Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. 2010 (pg. 221)
[18] Handa, Kozue, Hitoshi Dairoku, and Yoshiko Toriyama. “Investigation of Priority Needs in Terms of Museum Service Accessibility for Visually Impaired Visitors.” The British Journal of Visual Impairment. 2010. PDF (pg. 223)
[19] Handa, Kozue, Hitoshi Dairoku, and Yoshiko Toriyama. (pg. 223)
[20] Handa, Kozue, Hitoshi Dairoku, and Yoshiko Toriyama. “Investigation of Priority Needs in Terms of Museum Service Accessibility for Visually Impaired Visitors.” The British Journal of Visual Impairment. 2010. PDF (pg. 224)
[21] Handa, Kozue, Hitoshi Dairoku, and Yoshiko Toriyama. (pgs. 230-231).

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