How can we help blind people see art? Is there a way for people with impaired hearing to hear the power of artistic expression? How can we enable a person with a mental disability get the most out of art? In short, how can we improve access to museums and exhibitions for everyone? These and many more issues were the subject of a very intense Conference Day on 26 October, devoted to learning about and discussing the lines of work and the experiences of art museums to become more accessible. The venue: Gaudi’s building, La Pedrera. The speakers and audience: museum professionals and representatives of various disabled people’s associations.
The findings will be presented at the Museums Workshops: Culture and Best Practices. Accessibility and Inclusion to be held in the Museu Marítim de Barcelona from 4 to 6 November. The following is only a summary of some of the presentations.
A lot of us were looking forward to hearing the speaker from the MoMA, and no one was disappointed. Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community and Access Programs in the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Education, gave a clear and complete exposition of the many initiatives they are involved in, such as
– school accessibility programmes (‘Art Looking, Art Making’)
– ‘Interpreting MoMA’ for the deaf: transcripts of the audio guides
– ‘Touch Tours’: tactile visits, material in Braille and audio guides with descriptions for the blind
– a very interesting ‘Teleconference Courses’ project for people who are confined to the house, in which an educator conducts an interactive art course over the phone
– awareness programmes for medical students
– MoMA Alzheimer’s Project: visits for Alzheimer’s sufferers and their carers
Francesca Rosenberg, Director, Community and Access Programs , MoMA. Foto: Robin Holland
And of course we mustn’t forget specific training for museum educators, because a lot of people with disabilities say that society’s negative attitudes towards them are the biggest obstacle they have to face. In the words of Francesca Rosenberg, ‘People with disabilities are part of your general public‘ – a truth as basic as it is frequently overlooked.
Among the keys to success she singled out are: good planning, researching disabilities, having an advisory committee of people with and without disabilities, wide-reaching publicity, taking an in-depth look at the physical space and the acoustics, opening times, being flexible and adapting what’s on offer, and assessment.
The Musée du Louvre, too, has for many years been developing inclusive initiatives in four main areas: the building, the museography, the website and communication. The museum has a regularly monitored Accessibility Plan, and in addition to facilitating physical access to its spaces, notoriously complex due to the monumental size and structure of the building, and providing tactile devices, sign-language guided tours and dramatized visits with mime (International Visual Theatre) it also organizes Rencontres, get-togethers with professionals from the medico-social sector. Matthieu Decraene, Chargé de développement des publics pour l’accessibilité, summarized the four key points:
– a policy of accessibility can only be put into practice with the participation of people with disabilities and their representatives
– an accessibility policy can improve access for all visitors and puts users’ needs squarely at the centre of the museum’s concerns
– it is built up slowly over time – a long process that calls for perseverance
– accessibility is a transverse project that has to involve the entire institution.
Tactile gallery in the Louvre. Photo: Cyril Labbé
I’m writing a long post – even though I’ve left out lots of interesting things! – but I really must mention local initiatives. The most outstanding is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya project ‘Museum, Common Space of Integration’, part of the Educ’Art programme. Teresa González, head of the Education Department, gave an excellent presentation of the accessibility programme, started 10 years ago. The basic principles are being accessible – responding to physical, cognitive, social and economic needs, giving people a personalized welcome, promoting independence and encouraging participation and the three-way cooperation between museum staff, the professionals working with disabled people and the disabled themselves. I’ll confine myself here to activities for visitors with cognitive disabilities. All visits are complemented by creative expression workshops designed to help people develop their cognitive and sensory skills and enhance their personal and social skills by building confidence and self-esteem. At the end of the workshop, each participant presents his or her work to the others. Until last Sunday a selection of these creative expression works was on show in the museum.
Workshops for disabled visitors. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
Teresa ended her talk by throwing out some open questions: how do we go from designing programmes for disabled people to designing programmes with them?
How can we carry over into our accessibility policies all that we have learned from working with disabled people?
How can we make accessibility the heart of the museum’s policy and ensure it is seen as a responsibility by everyone on the staff?
Other examples of good practice presented include the programme ‘The Tactile Gaze’, developed by the museums of the Diputació de Barcelona, the programme ‘Talking with Painting’ for people with cognitive disabilities, developed by the Associació Argadini for the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums, and the experiences of la Pedrera, the Museu Marítim and the Fundació Miró, whose Director, Dolors Ricart, pointed out that there is often resistance from museum staff, designers, art directors and others who set aesthetic criteria above functional values, when what is needed is ‘to make both the heritage and the way we explain it more universal’.
The most memorable part of the day was the round-table with representatives of different disabilities. There was agreement that a lot has been achieved in recent years and that tactile resources, adapted audio-guides and so on are now far more common. Meritxell Aymerich, a journalist who has been blind from birth, said very graphically that ‘when I went to a museum in the old days it was as if the display cases were empty or the canvases blank’. Dolors Òdena, from a psychiatric group, said that for her the MNAC workshops mark a before and an after: ‘you wonder what will come out: you feel emotions, you get to know the materials, you grow in culture and you get rid of the stigma and the fear of doing normal things.’
Among the demands: for museums’ access services to be better publicized in tourist offices, on the internet, etc…; for Braille to be present in museums; for a wider use not only of sign language but of other supports for deaf people who communicate orally; for all videos to be subtitled; for integrated action in the physical space, activities and workshops; for education departments to prepare appropriate materials; for agreements to be drawn up between museums and associations of disabled people, and for training of museum staff.
By now you must be asking ‘what about the Museu Picasso?’ Well, to be honest I must say that we have a lot of work to do in every aspect of accessibility, except for physical access to the spaces and the website. Despite the architectural complexity of a set of five buildings of medieval origin, every section of the museum is accessible, and wheelchairs are available for visitors who require them. The website is accessible too, and applies the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) standards adopted by the European Union. But in other aspects, we still have a long way to go. In the new phase we have recently started at the Museum, accessibility is and will be a priority.
Left: group accessing the museum. Right: the director welcoming a group of senior visitors
As it says in the Commitment made by the seven Articket museums, organizers of the conference, ‘to enable people with disabilities to enjoy the contents of the museum is a challenge and an obligation’ and we will work in this direction. In improving access for people with disabilities we will be improving access for everyone.
What actions to promote accessibility do you think are most urgently needed?
Have you ever had a really bad (or a really good) experience to do with access to a museum?