Museums Lack Accessibility

Katie Lucey, News Editor

In art museums around the world, one warning sign is ubiquitous in every gallery: “Please do not touch the art.”

But what if a visitor’s sense of touch is the best way for them to interact with art? Institutions of culture and learning should offer programs that encourage a physical relationship between the viewer and the artwork if not for all visitors, then certainly for blind and lowvision patrons. Most museums center their exhibitions and educational programming around nondisabled people. What most people tend to do at museums that is, look at art can be a difficult and sometimes impossible task for visitors with sensory disabilities. Traditional museum practices, like tours that require visitors to look and ask questions about the artwork in front of them, are often designed without disabled patrons in mind. This needs to be fixed.

In order to resolve this issue, museums should offer more programs and services that stimulate other senses, like touch and hearing. Such programs could include the implementation of verbal description tours, audio guides, or tactile components such as the use of touch objects replicas of objects on displays that visitors can hold and touch alongside the originals on display. By providing choice and autonomy for blind or low-vision visitors, these programs would enrich the museum experience without segregating those with disabilities from other visitors. Nondisabled visitors could also benefit from these programs, as not everyone learns best in a strictly visual manner.

Various museums around the country, such as the Rubin Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution, offer a variety of programming aimed at increasing accessibility to art for blind and low-vision visitors. For instance, the Rubin, which specializes in art from the Himalayan region, offers “Access Tours” that stimulate multiple senses instead of just sight. These tours encourage the participants to use their senses of touch, smell and hearing to experience art. Since many of the objects in the museum deal with the underlying theme of ritual, the ringing of bells or the burning of incense will often be included on the tour — though it must be acknowledged that these additions can make the tours inaccessible to people with sensory disabilities based around certain sensitivities.

Laura Sloan, manager of docent and access programs at the Rubin, emphasizes the importance of “tweaking the language” to the docents she trains to lead these verbal-description tours. These inquiry-based tours focus on one or two pieces of art, which are described in great detail by the docents to those on the tour.

“We have to be careful how we word things,” Sloan said in a phone interview last fall. “We don’t say ‘over here’ or ‘over there’ when describing [the art].”

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 states, “No qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” Though the ADA outlines specific ways in which this requirement must legally be met, including large-print labels and audio guides, museums ought to go beyond what is legally mandated in order to truly ensure that no one be “excluded from participation.” Programs that encourage multi-sensory learning are a step in the right direction towards accessibility for everyone, and therefore would help museums fulfill this need outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Allen Memorial Art Museum is the perfect testing ground to implement these sorts of accessibility programs. Certainly, its status among the top ranked academic art museums, along with the College’s sustained commitment to accessibility for all, would make it seem so. Yet, the “small museum that has a little of everything,” as it was described by a recent visitor, currently lacks adequate accommodations for disabled visitors.

The historic building has no elevator, leaving visitors with physical disabilities to peruse a binder filled with pictures of exhibition objects and wall text featured in the upstairs Ripin Gallery instead of viewing the artwork firsthand. Additionally, many students are required to visit the print study room for their classes; the room, like the Ripin Gallery, is located on the second floor and is inaccessible to students who cannot climb stairs.

Moreover, some galleries, such as the William-Newell and the Nord Gallery, are arranged “salon style,” meaning that pieces of art are stacked on top of each other. Potentially, this could create problems for visitors with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, as this method of displaying art can be chaotic and overwhelming.

While the Allen has certain accessibility accommodations in place, such as an access ramp in the back of the museum by the courtyard, a “Highlights Audio Tour” and an encyclopedic website with podcasts and high definition pictures of artwork, there are certainly ways to expand its range of accessibility to make it a beacon for the campus community at large. Although it seems that Oberlin makes great strides in discussing issues of gender, sexuality, racism and other political or social justice issues, it has a long way to go in reaching full accessibility to all, regardless of disability.

However, students at the College are working on a project, tentatively titled the Allen All-In Initiative, to make the museum more accessible. The Initiative seeks to build accessible spaces for blind and low-vision visitors by creating interactive ways to touch and engage with art. The venture’s goal is to submit a proposal to the Allen with detailed outlines of the programs it hopes will come to fruition. Such programs include 3D printing replicas of objects in the Allen’s collection to engage visitors’ tactile senses and pairing artwork in the Allen with student-composed music to bridge the connection between the visual and the auditory. The project would be non-invasive and would not require artwork to be moved or touched in the galleries.

Ultimately, art is more than just a painting hung up on a cold, intimidating museum wall. It is a living, breathing document of the past and a mode of expression, whether it be made for simple enjoyment or as a vessel of activism. As such, all people, regardless of disability, should be able to experience it, and museums should do their part in creating accessible spaces by facilitating programs that encourage multi-sensory learning. Even if it means touching the art.