What is Accessibility?

Above: Olafur Eliasson, Your Spiral View, 2002 at Tate Modern, London, 2019. Photo by Rachel Winter.

During my junior year of college, I left my tiny apartment to go back to my parents’ home for winter break. This wasn’t quite the fun break my friends had planned, as I was having foot surgery. For six weeks after the procedure, I was on crutches (in the middle of Midwest winter!), and I couldn’t put any weight on my foot. My mom promised after surgery that she’d take me to visit my favorite art museum. We called ahead, and the museum mentioned they had wheelchairs to use since I didn’t have the stamina to use crutches throughout the entire museum. 

When we arrived, I realized I forgot to research one key element: how was I supposed to get into the museum on crutches? The entrances I knew only had stairs, and from where we parked, I couldn’t see a ramp. I carefully made my way down the steps into the museum. Being winter, it was a rather treacherous journey. I was only on crutches for six weeks, but my experience made me think differently about how we engage with museum spaces.

Questions about how people experience museums are a part of a larger initiative called DEAI, which stands for diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Art institutions around the world are thinking through and implementing strategies related to these four multifaceted concepts in order to make museums more equitable and accessible spaces that better serve their many communities. I will take a brief look at one aspect of this endeavor: accessibility. When I think about accessibility, I ask myself who has access to the museum, and what are the barriers preventing people from accessing museums?

One way to think about this is to consider how museums make their space and content available to visitors whose experience would be enhanced with select accommodations in response to individual needs. A quick caveat: this is not a comprehensive list of challenges visitors might face at museums, or projects undertaken by museums in order to be more accessible. There are numerous institutions with many incredible initiatives, so this article is only a brief introduction of select ways to define accessibility, and a few accommodations made for visitors.

Accessibility is a broad concept many think of simply in terms of navigating space. For example, is a building ADA compliant? Can someone get in the building? Is there enough space in the gallery for someone using crutches, a walker, or a wheelchair? However, accessibility actually includes much more, which is not limited to but includes things like low vision, hearing impairments, sensory sensitivity, memory loss, those who require a service animal, and more.

While many people think about the museum and art for their visual qualities, institutions are making big changes to ensure those who have low-vision or are blind can still enjoy their visit. This includes things like large-print programs and wall labels for galleries, audio replacements for gallery texts, more comprehensive audio guides with descriptive language, supplemental tours with guides trained to offer descriptions for low-vision visitors, and gallery texts in Braille.

Another initiative is to make models of art for visitors to touch, which the Art Institute of Chicago has done in the form of “TacTile kits.” These models are small, three-dimensional recreations of works of art that render compositions legible through touch, allowing visitors to feel the shapes of a work in the absence of sight, also adding the textures of the subjects, like the leaves of a tree, to help a user comprehend the details of a composition. Braille labels with more information about a work accompany these 3D models. “TacTile kits” are an excellent way to allow low-vision guests to experience works of art in ways they might not otherwise be able to do. However, there are only a limited number of kits, so guests can only experience select works of art.

For those with varying degrees of auditory capabilities, museums can make modifications to ensure that visitors can participate in events. To make sure their content is heard or understood, museums can ask speakers to wear microphones, offer headphones connected to those microphones so the speaker is louder and background noise is reduced, and live-caption events (both online and in-person). Another great way to engage visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing includes offering tours in American Sign Language (ASL), which the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues to do, which makes the collection more accessible and allows guests to participate in a wider variety of events.

Related to sight and sound, museums can also offer sensory maps for visitors with environmental sensitivities due to sensory-processing disorders. This allows guests to know ahead of time where spaces might have a lot of people, low or subdued lighting, tactile engagement, quiet spaces, and more. These distinctions reduce the surprise or shock that might overwhelm guests, and in turn, allow people to better plan their visits.

Other adaptations include creating programs for individuals who have Alzheimer’s or Dementia. One such example is at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, which has special tours for individuals to engage with the museum in ways that respond to the challenges of memory loss.

Although I’ve discussed things museums can do to be more welcoming and accessible spaces, there is another problem still to be solved: what about artists, and works of art? One example comes to mind.

Before the pandemic, I was in London at a retrospective for Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson at the Tate Modern. Known for his experiential installation works, I wandered through various environments that, on some occasions, left the viewer disoriented by their shifting audio-visual sensations. Strolling through the galleries, I came across Your Spiral View (2002), photographed below. I waited my turn before stepping into the tunnel and walking through the kaleidoscopic tube. I found myself mesmerized by the way the fractured, reflective surfaces created a tessellated and overwhelming visual experience. I realized that individuals who couldn’t climb stairs, such as those requiring the assistance of wheelchairs or walkers, would not be able to experience Eliasson’s work, something also explained on a nearby wall label. In creating an experience necessitating walking through space, the artist hindered individuals who have different mobility needs from partaking in his experience. This leaves a lingering question: how can museums inspire installation artists to engage with issues of accessibility?

As questions of accessibility continue to grow in importance, and as our definitions of how to make the museum an equitable and accessible space evolve, it is important to remember that challenges of accessibility extend beyond museums to artists too, requiring a community effort to make the museum a space for everyone.

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Rachel Winter

Rachel Winter is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researching contemporary artists from the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey that are prominently featured in major museums post-9/11. Her dissertation examines the relatively unknown history of curating and collecting contemporary art from the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey before 9/11 in both the US and the UK. Rachel received her M.A. from the University of Iowa in Interdisciplinary Studies: Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies in 2017, where she also received an award for Outstanding Graduate Student in Islamic Studies; in 2015, Rachel also received her B.A. with honors in Art History from the University of Iowa.