ACCESSIBILITY IN MUSEUMS
Written and researched in 2015 at the University of Illinois at Chicago
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, (Center) Renoir’s Two Sisters (on the Terrace) TacTile Education Tool (Images via the Art Institute of Chicago website)
Figure 2: (Right) A visitor touches the busts in the Art Institute’s Touch Gallery
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).  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.
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.  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.
HISTORY & CONTEXT
Museums have been around for centuries, charting their path around the Age of Enlightenment, an historical epoch that garnered interests in empiricism, nationalism, and colonialism in Western Europe. This time period made way for a growth of research, experimentation, and exploration, and in turn the creation of systematic categorization for the influx of newfound knowledge – the beginning of the museum space. With this growth in knowledge came early collecting practices that found their homes in the earliest museum prototype, the 17th and 18th century wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet. Stemming from the early wunderkammer came one of the world’s first museums, established in 1693 at Oxford University. Politically speaking, with the fall of monarchies and the rise of new democratic republics across Europe, resulted in the founding of institutions like the Louvre and the National Gallery out of private princely collections. As these political movements of the 18th and 19th centuries unfolded, a newly undefined public emerged, curious to explore artifacts and peoples from faraway lands, understanding itself in the context of a larger human history, and attaining an empirical visual understanding of the world as displayed in museum spaces. Around the same time as the founding of national and academic museums, artist-run galleries and salons began to emerge in Europe, as public spaces for the display and discourse of art and culture. What makes the museum institution a distinctive entity within Western society is how it has come to represent a certain kind of truth, as the preserver of history and disseminator of knowledge.
What this succinct museological history doesn’t discuss is the people behind the museum - that is the tiny group of individuals collecting, displaying, and distributing knowledge. The fraction of the population creating these museum spaces was of a certain class, they were educated, almost entirely male, wealthy, and white. The public they were catering toward somewhat mirrored themselves, it was a predominantly male public, of a well-to-do class. Being an active participant in society was only garnered for a select few. Where does disability fit into the museum space? For centuries, disability didn’t enter the public sphere or the museum as a visitor, spectator, or employee, but rather as a specimen. Medical museums, and spaces devoted to the display of anomalies of the human form were often the only representation disability found within this institution. Other forms of popular entertainment like the freak shows of the not-too-distant past also flourished along-side museums, both of which served to dehumanize or “enfreak” people with disabilities, and informed our notions of disability through stereotyping.
ACTIVIST MUSEUM PRACTICE
We’ve come a long way from this darker past, particularly with the shift from the medical to the social model in the field of disability. The Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s stirred the country and helped give Disability Rights activists the momentum necessary to fight for equal access and civil rights protection under the law. Alongside these social and political shifts in the last few decades, museological practice has begun to shift, redefining the scope of how the public is defined in order to form a more inclusive and just museum space. In addition to inclusive processes of exhibition creation, museums are beginning to concern themselves with the portrayal of diverse communities, in the content displayed, the programming created, and the staffing of the institution. Many museum practitioners have made it their explicit mission to update their work to include “in collections, exhibitions, and displays – the histories, experiences and voices of communities that have tended to be marginalized from mainstream museum narratives” including people with disabilities. While disability is finding representation in the works on display and the artifacts within the collection, it still needs to be initiated into museum infrastructure, because, simply put, disability is part of the human experience. As one of the largest minorities, people with disabilities should find representation in all museum space. Therefore, with regard to exhibition practice, the collection, and the public programming in the museum, disability must have a seat at the table. No longer will it be an afterthought, or a quick fix when an accommodation is needed, but a fully integrated part of the museum mission.
Barriers to access should be considered in both physical and virtual space. Across my research, it is clear that two major obstacles prevent museums from taking action. Financially speaking, there is a cost to implementing shifts in the building architecture, the website, the training of staff, the hiring of focus groups, and the creation of positions and committees explicitly devoted to disability. Many institutions, particularly small non-profits will state financial conditions as one of the main reasons for not addressing issues of access. Alternately, the other major barrier is completely free – the barrier of not knowing. Learning about your audiences, and in particular about visitors with disabilities is the first basic step to becoming aware of the barriers created out of unknowing. Anticipating an obstacle and completing the preliminary work to prevent it from being a barrier is key to creating an inclusive museum. This can be done by educating oneself, educating staff through training (i.e. making sure the employees selling audio guides know how to activate the hearing loop on the devices they are administering), and reaching out to members in the disabled community for feedback, focus groups, beginning to build lasting relationships with these constituents for ongoing dialogue. A museum can also take the avenue of hiring a consultant to analyze visitor movements, evaluate the architecture, and determine if the museum’s website is accessible, particularly for people with vision impairment. None of these concepts are entirely new, and putting them into practice is not a huge financial setback. The results of shifting one’s approach to museum work in every department can lead to creating a much more inclusive and welcoming space for all visitors.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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). 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 Footnoteswas 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. 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.”
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; 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;, and Park McArthur’s Rampsinstallation (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.,  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.
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. 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. 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.” 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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.
FORECASTING THE FUTURE
Beyond looking at what museums have done in the past and present moment, it is crucial to look toward the future of access in museums. The 2014 TrendsWatch produced by the Center for the Future of Museums points to new technologies being developed for the explicit purpose of synesthesia, or multisensory museum experiences senses other than sight. Digital scent technologies will soon be entering the market in the form of scents that will be transportable using texting and Bluetooth technology, as well as the creation of the Smell Screen, an LCD screen that releases a scent to match the image it is showing. Though it is early in the development phase, researchers at the University of Singapore are currently working on a device called the “digital lollipop” to simulate taste. The 2015 TrendsWatch is pointing to wearable technologies entering museum spaces as a prosthetic attachment to the bodies of visitors. Though this is nothing new when we think of disability, one thought is that as wearable tech becomes more ubiquitous, it may actually destigmatize the use of assistive devices. Googleglass has also been used to expand field of vision for people with vision impairment, and act as a hands-free mediated resource through voice activation. While wearable tech might not be for everyone, and it might not fit smoothly with all disability, it is a trend to look out for in both the day-to-day and the museum space.
Robotics is also finding its way into the museum. Earlier in 2015, the De Young Museum in San Francisco, California unveiled a new program in which a robot operated remotely will walk visitors who aren’t in the museum on a virtual gallery tour (figure 4). What’s particularly exciting about this robot is that it has a video screen that connects to the webcam of the virtual visitor, offering a real-time engagement tool for the person virtually wandering the galleries. In-person visitors can potentially strike up conversations with the virtual visitor about the works they are simultaneously viewing. These robots were first discussed as a possible museum-tool by Henry Evans, a former Silicon Valley executive who became disabled after suffering a stroke in 2002, and are now fully operational for use in the museum. The program has been deemed successful thus far, and the de Young is hoping to procure more robots for use by visitors who are unable to visit the museum due to a variety of reasons, including disability, financial, and location-based based obstacles.
Another highly discussed museum trend is the introduction of three-dimensional touchable painting reproductions created for the Touching the Prado exhibition, which opened in January of this year (figure 5). For this exhibition, the Prado commissioned the creation of reproductions of six collection favorites, including a copy of the Mona Lisa (made as a study by one of da Vinci’s pupils), and paintings by Goya, Correggio, El Greco, van der Hamen, and Velázquez. This collection of paintings was produced at a studio in Bilbao, Spain, and each reproduction was custom-made using a relief printing technique developed by Estudios Durero, and the cost of $6,680 per painting. These new paintings were created with the specific intent that they would be used by blind and vision impaired visitors as a new way to interact with the predominantly visual collection. While there are still some kinks to work out, particularly with distinguishing the difference between the texture of hair and textiles, this exhibition has been deemed incredibly successful for both sighted and non-sighted visitors, and might predict a turn toward touchable engagement in future museum practice.
RETURN TO THE ART INSTITUTE
Through my research over the course of this semester, all roads led back to the Art Institute. The critiques I held upon my departure from the institution found some solutions, as well as the beginnings of a potential shift within the museum structure. While the building is ADA compliant, there’s a question of how inclusive the programming and exhibition designs are with regard to disability. This past year there have been some small victories stemming from initiatives put in place by my former colleagues in Museum Education. In order to put change in place, there needs to be action steps and often a source of funding for implementing change. For example, one of the museum educators approached the Office of Development about applying for a grant within the healthcare industry to potentially fund a series of disability-focused educational programming. Development steered him toward Cigna, the healthcare provider for Art Institute employees, and a grant proposal was created and later accepted.
With the funds from this grant, the Art Institute was able to implement ASL tours, which were initiated by Noel King, a deaf graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. King’s background is in art therapy, but she has extensive training in giving ASL museum tours from her time working at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and a desire to put something similar in place at the Art Institute. Initially created as a bit of an experiment, these programs soon gained momentum, partially due to the use of social media, but in large part due to the community want for a program like this (Figure 6). I had the pleasure of attending one of the ASL tours and enjoyed the learning process, the enriching dialogue, and the fact that some 65 people joined the tour – a large number for a touring group regardless of the language it was conducted in.
What had me the most excited was that this was the only tour offered on Thursday evening, the night the museum is free to the public. My takeaway from this observation is that with the ASL tour being the only tour that evening, meant that it was no different from the general guided tours, but rather a regular tour communicated in a different language. Though the museum is by no means done with the work toward making a wholly inclusive space, by making the ASL tour the only tour for the evening, the question of difference and the label of “other” was removed for me – disability was beautifully and seamlessly woven into the regular programming of the institution.
Other programs in the works included the use of captioning in a Member lecture on Degas this summer, something the museum has yet to try. And a longer term goal on the wish list of the educators is to create a “style guide” for how to speak to audiences with disability, how to speak about audiences with disability, and how to incorporate disability in the general exhibition programming – not only in terms of content but also in exhibition design, lighting, and labeling methods. Potentially modeled after a preexisting guide created by the Steppenwolf Theatre, this manual would ideally shift the attitudes of museum workers across the spectrum of departments, and force a turn in the operations of the museum to create a more fully inclusive and welcome space. Though it is interesting that the Art Institute did not participate in the ADA 25 Chicago initiative, it is clear that by creating smaller-scale internal changes one department at a time, a shift will begin to occur. Judging by the high attendance of individuals with and without hearing impairment on the ASL tour I attended, the audience exists and is interested. There is an appetite for this kind of a museum, and if we build it (ADA compliant), they will come.