Museums Are Finally Taking Accessibility for Visitors with Disabilities Seriously
This summer, while the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) closed its doors to complete its $450-million overhaul, its frontline staff received some crucial training. In three-hour workshops, employees from the divisions of visitor engagement, security, retail, and other public-facing sectors learned how to better serve museumgoers with disabilities. Their educators included nearly 10 individuals with diverse impairments whom MoMA had invited to share their experiences at cultural institutions.
“They acted out scenarios with us—what has happened to them when they go to MoMA or other museums, or getting around the city, and so on?” said Francesca Rosenberg, MoMA’s director of community, access, and school programs. “What is it like for them? Where are their barriers?” Each scene was filmed and studied as a group for areas of improvement.
MoMA has had an accessibility task force for several years, comprised of representatives from different departments who discuss the needs of its disabled visitors. Rosenberg’s team also includes employees with disabilities. But the museum’s hiatus provided a rare opportunity to hold extensive lessons on inclusion. “The goal behind all of it is to be the most welcoming museum we can be,” Rosenberg said. “Because people with disabilities are part of our general public.”
Though that statement might seem obvious, it’s one that cultural institutions often fail to uphold. Art museums, specifically, are working to become more accessible to a wider public and stay relevant in the 21st century—whether through initiatives like free admission or by mounting blockbuster exhibitions. But at times, their solutions do not consider accessibility in another sense: design that ensures access for all users, including visitors with physical impairments, intellectual disabilities, mental health conditions, or vision or hearing disabilities.
In rare cases, such negligence at American museums leads to lawsuits allegingviolations of the now-29-year-old Americans with Disabilities Act. In the social media era, getting critiqued online is a more common result. Museumgoers have taken to Twitter to complain about the inaccessibility of Yayoi Kusamaexhibitions; the Guggenheim’s monumental Hilma af Klintshow; and a London design exhibition that didn’t provide a tactile experience for visually impaired visitors.
Really disappointed by poor level of access at AI exhibition @BarbicanCentre Inaccessibly designed exhibits, crampt spaces, broken lifts, interactive displays for everyone unless you use a wheelchair. An @ace_national funded organisation should offer far better pic.twitter.com/6r5x12nM40— Andrew Miller (@AndrewM_Arts) June 19, 2019
For Andrew Miller, a trip to the Barbican Centre for the immersive exhibition “AI: More than Human” was a journey through poor inclusive design. Miller, the U.K. government’s disability champion for the country’s arts and culture sector, as well as a wheelchair user, said the exhibition was too cramped for him to easily navigate. It also featured display cabinets at a height that obscured his view, along with many interactive elements that required users to stand in order to engage with them.
“The institutional thinking around disability is not advanced enough,” Miller said. “If you compare it [to other art forms], visual arts have got quite a long way to go. And I think galleries and museums need to consider how they can diversify their audience but also diversify their talent pool within their organization.”
Hiring people with disabilities can vastly improve how a museum examines and refines its inclusive practices, and many institutions can do better. A recent report by Arts Council England showed that just 4 percent of staffers at major English museums identified as disabled. In New York, a report released in July by the Department of Cultural Affairs found that 8 percent of culture workers had a disability—compared to the city’s overall percentage of 11 percent.
The museum accessibility debate most recently came to the forefront when Ciara O’Connor, a wheelchair user, visited the Tate Modern. On view as part of a highly sensory Olafur Eliasson exhibition is an installation titled Your Spiral View (2002), consisting of a mirrored walkway that viewers must climb steps to reach. When asked if the gallery could provide a ramp for O’Connor, the attendant told her it was a curatorial choice to not have one. As she recalled, he added: “You can go around the side.”
Installation view of Olafur Eliasson, Your spiral view, 2002, at the Tate Modern, London, 2019. Photo by Anders Sune Berg. © 2002 Olafur Eliasson.
“That’s the story of my life, and of every disabled person’s life,” O’Connor later tweeted. “Going around things. Looking from the outside.”
The Tate later apologized for not being able to provide wheelchair access, issuing a statement that “even if a ramp were added, the mirrored walkway that is an integral part of the sculpture is structurally too narrow to be made safe for wheelchair use.” Today, Your Spiral View is accompanied by a video documenting the artwork’s interior, and signage acknowledging the work’s physical limitations.
Technology has become one tool museums use to try and make artworks more accessible. In 2017, when the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden hosted a monumental exhibition of Kusama’s “Infinity” rooms, it created a virtual-reality simulation of three mirrored chambers for wheelchair users who could not enter those spaces, which have narrow platforms. This summer, the New Museum also created an experiential video for visitors who could not walk through the psychedelic maze of rooms that made up Marta Minujín’s exhibition “Menesunda Reloaded.” Working with individuals from Adapt Community Network, the museum also offered an accessible tour, reservable one week in advance, that provided access to certain rooms through emergency exits. Touch objects also allowed visitors to feel specific materials that make up the rooms.
Further uptown, MoMA frequently works with artists to make their works accessible. When the museum screened Christian Marclay’s 24-hour video The Clock (2010)—which drew over 40,000 viewers—the artist agreed to introduce an induction hearing loop for visitors who are hard-of-hearing. Activated by individual hearing aids or cochlear implants, the loop amplifies the work’s sound while keeping ambient noise at a minimum. When the new MoMA opens on October 21st, the technology will be available across the museum, from its theaters to the front desks, Rosenberg said.
Last year, Park McArthur also helped to create an audio guide for her MoMA exhibition that provided visually impaired or blind audiences with a visual description tour. This fall at MoMA, Composers Inside Electronics Inc. will realize a multisensory installation by David Tudor; the group is currently conceiving of ways to provide equal access to the piece, titled Rainforest V (variation 1). And a work by Pope.L that requires visitors to ascend stairs and view a video—to be shown in the artist’s forthcoming survey at the museum—will be paired with an iPad so people can watch the video from the floor.
Educator Lauren Ridloff leads a Whitney Signs tour at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo by Filip Wolak. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
From Miller’s perspective, some of the solutions being developed by museums are “reasonable adjustments”—but they still do not provide equal access to an experience. “There’s a responsibility on the artist,” the disability rights advocate said. “And it requires somebody within the gallery establishment to be able to have a conversation with the artist and say: [This work] isn’t accessible to our audiences, how can we sort that out?”
How creative an institution gets with removing barriers may ultimately lie in how receptive artists are to altering their work. Last month in Berlin, the artist Christine Sun Kim attended an exhibition opening at the gallery PS120. Kim’s own work was displayed near Adrian Piper’s The Humming Room (2012), a participatory installation that instructs its audience to hum before it enters a space. Kim would not enter; as someone who is Deaf, she did not want to hum because she isn’t comfortable using her voice in public. Interested in exploring how she could experience The Humming Room without humming, Kim suggested in an email to the exhibition’s co-curator Justin Polera and Piper’s studio that she clap rhythmically. Piper told Kim that humming was the only way she could enter the room and encouraged her to practice at home, with some instructions.
For Kim, the experience was frustrating, with the installation serving as a reminder that “I have to use my voice to access [spaces],” she said. “It’s like that all my life.”
“It’s fucked to even think that I don’t hear my own voice, and I have to depend on hearing people’s approval to make sounds,” she added. “I choose not to use my voice as a form of self-protection, not self-censorship. I can hum, but I choose not to.”
Kim’s frustrations with navigating the hearing world were on display at this year’s Whitney Biennial, part of which closed last month. Her charcoal drawings of pie charts visualized “degrees of Deaf rage” in various spheres, including the art world. One chart, labeled “Full on rage,” read: “Museums with zero Deaf programming (and no Deaf docents/educators).”
Installation view of “Being Human,” at the Wellcome Collection. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Many museums provide sign language interpreters on tours, but receiving information from a hearing educator can lack nuance, Kim said. “It’s not really the same as having a direct experience in your own language,” she explained. “Like if you had a docent speaking English, then having someone there to translate it into Spanish—it’s not exactly the same as getting it in your first language. And it loses a little bit of the cultural sense of it.”
Kim added: “I’ve never had that perfect experience where everything has been 100 percent described. I feel like we always have to settle for less.”
As an educator who formerly worked with the Whitney, Kim helped to develop programming for the museum’s Deaf visitors. One still-running resource is the Whitney Signs tours, during which a Deaf educator guides Deaf patrons in American Sign Language. “It takes years and years of going to museums and finally realizing the way you’re going to get a Deaf audience is by having Deaf docents,” Kim said. “And some museums still won’t do it.”
In London, the Wellcome Collection is one institution that, by public request, recently began running Deaf-led British Sign Language (BSL) tours. But the museum of science and medicine is also incorporating thoughtful measures for equal access directly into its architecture. Last month, it opened a new permanent exhibition that prioritized inclusive design to the extent that the New York Times asked in its coverage: “Is This the World’s Most Accessible Museum?”
The group show, titled “Being Human,” examines a universal topic: the state of health and well-being in the 21st century, and through the lens of diverse identities—including works by artists with disabilities, like Yinka Shonibare. So it was even more appropriate that the museum designed the space to be inclusive of all bodies. The Wellcome Collection consulted with many disabled individuals and groups to conceive and execute the gallery, from prototyping plinths based on wheelchair users’ experiences to developing a social story (a narrative that prepares visitors for situations they will encounter in museums) with the British charity Ambitious about Autism. Many features are subtle and can easily be replicated by other institutions.
Deborah Kelly and collaborators, Latai, from “No Human Being Is Illegal (in all our glory),” 2014–2018. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Yinka Shobare CBE, Refuge Astronaut III, 2019. © Yinka Shonibare CBE. Image Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection
“The plinths’ bases are colored black, partly because it’s beautiful, but also because it provides a very clear visual contrast with the floor,” curator Clare Barlow said. “We made sure that the benches in front of any screens were offset so it’s very easy to bring a wheelchair alongside and have an equal experience.” Exit signs are also visible from anywhere in the gallery, and digital BSL interpretation—accessed through a device—is available for every object on view. Additionally, visitors can choose an object to touch or smell from a list of multisensory works.
“We want people to have intriguing, deep conversations with one another,” Barlow continued. “It’s really important, if you’re going to be thinking challenging thoughts in the space, that the design of the space is not itself a challenge for you.”
As a wheelchair user who attends dozens of art events each year, Miller is highly attuned to the language of exhibitions. Speaking over Skype, he expressed disappointment in the Tate Modern’s response to the Eliasson work, as well as in a stepped public monument by Jeremy Deller that was unveiled in Manchester in August. He also recalled attempting to visit a Bridget Riley survey at the National Galleries of Scotland, only to learn that the parking lot was inaccessible as the museum is undergoing refurbishment.
But in August, Miller visited a sprawling Dale Chihuly exhibition at Kew Gardens that earned from him a rave review. The glass sculptor’s intricate, undulating works were set off from the pathways, so visitors could not get too close. For Miller, this meant his view was never interrupted. “I was able to experience it in precisely the same way everybody else [could],” he said. For someone who has spent his lifetime going around the side, the exhibition’s design—simple as it might have been—made all the difference.
“If it’s not instantly accessible to me, I’ve got other things to do,” Miller said. “I’m not going to engage with it. Because life is too short.”