The author gives a detailed account of a visit to the Seattle Art museum, with observations about audio tours, staff training, signage, audio backgrounds to visual displays, and other exhibit elements. He argues that inclusive design will only come about when underserved groups are understood "not as targets to be reached but rather as the knowledgeable curators of their own experiences."
The pursuit of inclusivity is widely regarded as a hallmark of excellence for the socially relevant museum of the twenty-first century. This article represents what has been at times my very personal journey into understanding this important and often elusive goal. As a newly emerging museum professional who also just happens to have a degenerative retinal disease, I've known a unique perspective on the movement to more effectively connect museums with the visually impaired. As a student of museology, I've met many individuals who, with passion and creativity, strive to honor their roles as the stewards of our cultural heritage. As an enthusiastic lifelong museum-goer, I've enjoyed the great fulfillment of engaging our nation's extraordinary wealth of arts and cultural institutions. Now, since the loss of the majority of my vision, I've also known the frustration that feeling excluded from the museum experience can cause sight impaired visitors. It's a curious position to be at once a museum insider and also a member of what they often refer to as "underserved audiences." For some time now I've been fascinated with the question of what I can do to help create museums that I could actually attend and enjoy.
Many museums today are mission-driven to connect with larger and more diverse audiences, yet finite and often inadequate resources limit their ability to do so. My experience has been that it's not at all by choice that museum exhibition formats often seem to exclude visually impaired would-be visitors. I've never heard of any museum professionals advocating for their institution to alienate anyone, anywhere from experiencing their programs. Simply put, museums are not in the business of turning away visitors. The challenge is deciding how the inclusion of low vision audiences should be expressed through policies and programming, and, further, how they can really be sure that their strategies are working.
Let's face facts here: There's no quick fix for making the museum experience available and inviting to visually impaired audiences. The term museum describes organizations of all sizes and missions, from art and history collections to archives, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and national parks. Because there are so many different types of environments a visitor may encounter, a specific definition for what it means to be a truly accessible institution for persons with disabilities is difficult to nail down. Further, it would be a mistake to assume that the term "accessible" has remained a fixed concept over time. In recent years we have seen a notable expansion of what we mean when we say something is or is not accessible. Important legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) challenged museums to take great steps to promote entrance to their facilities and services, and this was a significant milestone. It's necessary to differentiate between the kind of basic access many initial interpretations of the ADA generated and the more recent goal of "cultural accessibility," whereby programs and services are designed to optimize the visitors' opportunities for equal access to the informational content and services offered by organizations to the public.
To differentiate between earlier notions of access and more recent inclusive practices, let's say that access begins with the legal standards for physically orienting doorways, objects, and spaces to facilitate entry for persons with disabilities. Certainly, if a museum patron is unable to enter the building, safely navigate the spaces within, or use the lavatory, he or she will experience the most obvious barriers to attendance. This is the most basic and easily understood consideration of accessibility. We, as patrons, have physical needs that must be understood and provided for, but this is only one facet of a much larger issue. It's highly unlikely that museum visitors choose to attend simply because the building is physically accessible. People don't go to the Getty to use the bathrooms. They're not travelling to the Smithsonian to enjoy the water fountains. Common to our many reasons for attending is our understanding that we are all invited and that we will be able to engage the culturally significant experiences made available and approachable within.
We have broadened our concept of accessibility to examine much more than just whether disabled visitors can get through an organization's door. Now we're considering how much of our exhibit information is understandable to them as well. We're not just examining the possibility of a visit, but, instead, we are considering the quality of the visually impaired patron's experience. We are learning about what programs or devices are genuinely making a difference to low vision audiences. We're realizing that for visitors like me, being unable to experience a satisfying connection with the exhibit content means that even the most extraordinary museum will be dull and disappointing.
Expectations about the kind of experience a museum should provide play an important role in connecting museums and the visually impaired. In our efforts to make museums more inviting and usable to low vision patrons like myself, consistency must be a consideration in our strategies for promoting and evaluating inclusivity. Without widely-embraced guidelines for low vision engagement, both sight impaired patrons and program designers invariably encounter significant obstacles to creating a successful museum experience. Sight impaired museum visitors often cannot know to what extent or in what manner they will be able to engage the content of museum services. Will the museum they plan to attend next provide any of the services or assistive devices they found useful and comfortable at another institution? Inconsistencies can result in a disappointing museum experience. For some, it might not take many unsuccessful attempts before they just don't want to face the possibility of another unsatisfying visit. And museum professionals face this same challenge from a different angle, having the difficult task of designing exhibits and programs with few universal guidelines for what the concept of cultural accessibility should look like for low vision visitors.
How then are museums working to address these issues? One important trend is that decision-makers are moving away from the antiquated notion that they should do it all themselves. Many museum professionals are looking beyond their own institutions for guidance. New webs of connectivity developing from organizational partnerships are generating an emerging climate of collaboration focusing on fitting appropriate specialists from outside the museum with the institutions' ever-changing needs. We're listening to new voices as we evolve to serve a more diverse segment of society. We've begun to expand our ideas about what expertise really means and just who is an expert. More and more we are looking at previously underserved groups not as targets to be reached but rather as the knowledgeable curators of their own unique experiences. Taking advantage of the valuable information that can be gained from listening to the stories these experts have to tell can reveal new paths toward a more informed shared understanding of what successful low vision inclusive practices should look like. As we explore these new perspectives we'll continue to encounter emerging success stories of low vision engagement, and by examining these accounts as a whole we may find a far more broadly-applicable best practices model begins to reveal itself.
Low Vision Exhibit Review
Museum professionals are adept at public engagement, but we're not mind readers. Some of the most valuable information we can use to determine to what extent visually impaired patrons are able to connect with our programmatic content comes from anecdotal accounts of their visits. I've included my own story of a recent visit to a large metropolitan museum to add to this ongoing conversation. It's important to note that my intention for sharing this account is not to imply negligence on the part of the museum I chose. I strongly believe that progressive accessibility strategies will come from advocates who speak from an affirmative position. Finger-pointing may well prove counterproductive to the goal of large-scale, long-term collaboration to promote lasting accessibility. My hope is that it will prove helpful to add my story to the conversation about what it's like attending a museum as a visitor with significant visual impairment.
A big challenge in accessibility is the enormous range of types and intensity of individuals' vision conditions. Most of us "blind" people, that is people who are considered legally-blind, have some degree of partial sight. The lack of more successful strategies for engagement may come in part from decision-makers harboring the attitude that it's possible to know what a patron's visual impairment is like. it sometimes seems as though the concept of blindness is envisioned as an "either-or" condition—either you see normally or you need a cane and a guide dog; either you see or you don't. Most people can't tell immediately by looking at me that I'm legally blind. Because my peripheral vision is partially intact, I don't generally need a cane. I don't wear the telltale, medical-issue dark visor glasses. I don't have a dog — I mean, I do, but most of the time I'm the one guiding her around. Despite all this, the visual information that I am able to gather about my immediate environment is a significantly abstracted and confusing version of my surroundings. Without telling exhibit designers detailed information about what measure of their product I am able to engage, it would be nearly impossible for them to guess what is present or absent from my museum experience.
Visiting the SAM: I arrived at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) on May 30, 2012 around 2 p.m.. I chose to use SAM as the setting for this exercise because of the organization's significant size and well-deserved reputation as one of the premier museums of the Pacific Northwest.
Many museums offer low vision accessibility options, so I began by identifying myself as visually impaired and asking the front desk staff about my options.. I was told that the museum provided docent-guided tours. In fact, there was one that day in about three hours, that "takes visually impaired people." Having no tour immediately available didn't seem like a setback, because I'm one of those odd visitors who has never really liked tours. I prefer, when possible, to use various forms of audio devices. On this, the counter staff let me know that no device options were available at that time for the current exhibits. My impression was the people working at the front desk in that moment were not entirely sure if there was an audio guide available or not, but the two friendly customer service people I spoke with suggested that if there wasn't one then there should be.
Initially, I found the prospect of no audio aides surprising. I seemed to recall audio tours being a an interesting component of previous exhibits I had attended at SAM, and I wasn't entirely sure that I'd been given an accurate picture of available services.. Later, I received some clarification about this from a "Sambassador," a knowledgeable roaming docent whose job includes assisting visitors with way-finding and cheerfully answering questions. She indicated that there was an exhibition with an audio component in the building that day, but it wasn't designed with low vision patrons in mind. Visitors could use their own cell phones to dial small numbers located on the signage and listen to a recording, but the information was intended to supplement, not replace, the printed text on the walls.
The Sambassador also recommended that for my next visit I make arrangements to join a guided group led by a docent. While I found it encouraging that there were some options for visually impaired visitors, I prefer to attend alone. I suppose my preference for flying solo developed through my old attendance patterns, and the visits I used to find the most profound were generally those during which I was able to engage in meaning-making without anyone acting as a facilitator.
One of the central issues affecting my visit was a continuous struggle for context. I noticed immediately that I had a desire to know who the featured artists were. The exhibit spaces themselves were easy enough to navigate. There were chairs and benches all over the place. If my intention was to sit comfortably, I was definitely set. I wasn't able to glean much information about the objects around me, though.
In an effort to better understand the installations, I engaged another visitor who agreed to assist me in reading some wall text. The information was helpful, but there was so much more I felt like I was missing about the pieces. Yet, I sometimes feel a strong aversion to seeming overly dependent on others. Often I'd rather choose to avoid asking strangers — at times even ones whose job it is to assist me — for help. The loss of a sense can make one feel one's lost a measure of independence, particularly when it comes to things we used to enjoy differently. The experiences during which I'm able to tap back into that independence are often the ones that I find most satisfying.
I sometimes discover meaningful and stirring connections in unexpected ways in exhibits, and this occurred when I entered one of the smaller galleries displaying a collection of somewhat older objects. Among the displays I found a series of brilliantly colorful stained glass windows flocked by walls filled with paintings rich with the aroma of time. The rich sensory stimuli were augmented further by the fact that here was also the first room in which I was able to read some large written information from the signage. "Gates of the Sun," (possibly) declared the heading. The text beneath was smaller and, for me, unreadable, but even that snippet of information was appealing.
Following that, I entered an area I recognized from previous visits to be the SAM's Native American galleries. Here I was able to experience the weight and impact of the objects. The pieces were larger, and more easily discernible, and perhaps most importantly visitors are permitted to view the pieces in close proximity. For me the option to get close is an extremely important element to interacting with unfamiliar objects. The remaining sight I'm able to use to differentiate nuances of color, texture, and pattern — essentially the vast majority of relevant detail — is often only effective within a distance threshold of one to two feet. To me, the difference between this range and what to most viewers would seem an imperceptible amount of additional distance entirely determines whether I will receive essential information or not. To a low vision person, it is so often the smallest, seemingly insignificant elements that act as immovable barriers to understanding his or her environment. Having permission to explore a comfortable, close proximity to an object can make all the difference.
Bold, large objects and lettering kept my attention better than the smaller and more subtle visual information in the previous galleries . "Voice of the Supernatural" and "Winter Ceremonials" read the titles, and here again the feeling that I was receiving a portion of the information the museum had provided caused me to feel a greater sense of connection with the work. It's not surprising that I'm drawn to large, dark, boldly detailed objects, as they certainly are easier for me to see. This was particularly true of a captivating collection of totem poles in this space, and I stood for a long while among a small group of visitors who had collected to examine the magnificent objects in silent contemplation. Here the sense that I was simultaneously having an independent moment of engagement while experiencing being part of a group of visitors viewing the work in a similar fashion was powerfully gratifying.
Despite some moments of connection, an issue I encountered frequently up to this point during my visit was that I would receive some meaning and impact from what I could see, but I couldn't shake the feeling that there was so much more to the experience overall than what I as a visually impaired person was invited into knowing. For any visitor, it can be a powerfully disheartening experience to arrive at the conclusion that he or she was not considered as part of the exhibit's audience. "This is not for you" should never be the message we inadvertently create as museum professionals.
Although some museum visitors may not invest great interest in the materials and history of the objects and their creators, I find that this is not the case for me. Coming from an art history background, I find these details central to a fulfilling visit to a gallery environment. Without some of this type of context for the objects, I seldom feel the exhibit speaking to me. The less lively the dialogue, the more likely that the collections will seem like rooms full of mysterious clutter.
As I began to resign myself to the possibility that the sense of disconnectedness that characterized much of my time that day at the SAM would define my visit, I came upon the newly installed Australian Aboriginal Art exhibit. I immediately noticed an intriguing audio component filling the rooms. As I entered the galleries, the large, high-contrast, abstracted pieces stood out making a strong impression. I took in the stirring audio accompaniment, which sounded like songs and sounds of nature, perhaps sounds familiar to the creators of the work. The information I began to receive filled me with a sense of immersion in the exhibit. The room and its contents seemed more connected somehow, and I, in turn, felt more connected to it all as well. I suddenly felt like I knew what was going on around me, and my overall reaction was to feel at once fascinated and relaxed with my surroundings.
Moving further into the exhibit I came to a large 4'x8' silent video also being shown that demonstrated work of this type being created. The video was fascinating and large enough for me to see fairly well in close proximity. Even though I was still unable to read the occasional wall text, this didn't interrupt the feeling of continuity. I was able to absorb a strong contextual sense of the work itself. I experienced even greater impact from the designers' choice to paint many of the gallery's walls a deep matte indigo color, and the strong contrast caused the wall-mounted pieces to seem remarkably vibrant. I could have easily lingered all day in those areas just drinking in the stirring multi-sensory information.
Some of the more unconventional design choices for this exhibit seemed to be the ones I found most effective. There were other rooms of the aboriginal art exhibit in which the walls were left a standard shade of gallery white or that had fewer multimedia elements, and I found myself repeatedly returning to the areas with the more intense audio/visual content. It may be important to note also that I was one of many visitors drawn to the gallery areas offering the multimedia presentations. I certainly wasn't the only patron that day that found the new exhibit to be engaging.
I genuinely felt like I was able to have the same kind of experience as the other visitors at this exhibit. The multisensory information used to connect the rest of the audience with the work was also quite effective for bringing me to that same meaning-making place. Innovative new methods like these that build upon more traditional approaches to exhibit design may well offer the visually impaired public a more fulfilling experience. For some of us, either obstacles or bridges to meaning can come from what might seem like insignificant exhibit design choices.
Museum professionals are challenged by the possibility that program and exhibit design decisions may either alienate or invite scores of potential visitors to their institutions. The only way we can be certain which we are doing is to ask again and again. We must strive to cultivate an open, continuous, and lasting dialogue with experts from visually impaired audiences, and we must listen keenly for the suggestion of new best practices for museum inclusivity on the horizon. The potential rewards to be gained from the formation of a reasonable and broadly applicable set of best practices for visually impaired audience engagement are substantial. Opening our institutions to input from a vast chorus of new voices will at times likely seem slow and difficult. Yet each step brings us closer to realizing the goal of the inclusive museum, a place where visually impaired patrons feel as welcome and accommodated as any visitors. I look forward to seeing you there.
Joseph Wapner is a graduate of the University of Washington with an M.A. in Museology. His work focuses on policies and methods for successfully connecting visually impaired persons with arts and cultural organizations.