What Does It Mean to Be an Accessible Museum?

This series of posts celebrates the 80th anniversary of The Museum of Modern Art’s formal commitment to museum education. Francesca Rosenberg is the director of Community, Access, and School Programs in MoMA’s Department of Education.

Older adults take in a Jackson Pollock during a MoMA Access Program. Shown: Jackson Pollock. One: Number 31, 1950. 1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange). Conservation was made possible by the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. © 2017 Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Jason Brownrigg

What comes to mind when you hear the word “disability”? Close your eyes for a moment and pay attention to what images you see. In developing our disability equality training at The Museum of Modern Art, we asked our colleagues this same question. Most often, they mentioned wheelchairs. On the one hand this makes sense, as the international symbol for accessibility is of a person using a wheelchair. People are used to seeing this symbol in their everyday life — from parking lots to restrooms. Also, a wheelchair is a highly visible signifier of a physical disability.

Yet the term “disability” encompasses so much more. While physical disabilities are prevalent, as are physical barriers, especially in a city like New York, they are only one type. Less visible disabilities such as hearing loss, developmental disabilities, and mental health issues, to name only a few, were rarely mentioned among our staff. Often, unless a person knows someone with a particular disability, one simply never thinks beyond the generalization. This, in turn, creates barriers to full accessibility at the Museum.

With this in mind, my team and I set out to create an attitudinal shift in the way our colleagues think about disability, equality, and inclusion. We knew that people with disabilities often report that barriers like patronizing behaviors, misconceptions, and stereotyping are the biggest challenge they face in society, so we wanted to address these head-on. We wanted to encourage our colleagues to challenge their own assumptions about disability and inclusion and broaden their idea of what it means to be an accessible museum. We wanted them to embrace the social model of disability, which emphasizes that limitations and impairments are a normal part of the human condition and that what actually disables people are systemic barriers, negative attitudes, and exclusion by society. As Emmanuel von Schack, coordinator of Access Programs at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, once described it to me, “I’d say disability is an experience. It is the result of an actual or perceived impairment. My impairment is that I am deaf. My experience as a result of that is that I face discrimination, oppression, and barriers. Those are things that are disabling.” This conception of disability as an experience created by society is revolutionizing the field of accessibility, for it posits that it is within the power of organizations and individuals to remove the barriers to participation that are disabling. (You can hear more from Emmanuel and other New Yorkers on our Training Resources page.)

At the Museum our goal is equality of participation for all visitors, including those with disabilities. While removing physical barriers to access is important, we don’t stop there. We have to ask ourselves, once people can physically navigate the Museum what other accommodations will aid their visit? What barriers to universal design will impede their experience? How will they be treated by our staff? Will they feel welcome? Will they feel valued as contributors to the Museum? To this end, my team has worked with nearly every department at the Museum on removing barriers through disability equality training workshops and customized professional development. Our aim is that the ideals of accessibility and inclusion are embedded throughout MoMA.

A Create Ability session in progress. Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon

We have a long history of serving and valuing people with disabilities, dating back to 1945 and the development of the War Veterans’ Art Center. The operation of the Center was described by Victor D’Amico, its director and the first head of MoMA’s Educational Project: “The principal object of the Center was to help veterans adjust themselves through the creative process.” For four years the Center offered free courses to men and women who served in the US Armed Forces and the Merchant Marine. According to D’Amico, “Classes were organized and discontinued according to the needs and interests of the veterans. 1,485 veterans were served by the Center. These included a wide variety of interest and background such as art students, professional artists, doctors, salesmen, occupational therapists and housewives. A new teaching technique had to be devised to meet the varied backgrounds, but the focus was on individual development and satisfaction.” In 1948, the Museum put on an exhibition of the painting, sculpture, design studies, jewelry, furniture, and ceramics created by veterans who participated. D’Amico said about the exhibition, “[It] shows only the products produced by the veteran, but it is unfortunate that the real satisfaction in individual growth and rehabilitation cannot be demonstrated or exhibited.” The War Veterans’ Art Center closed on June 30, 1948, becoming the People’s Art Center, where veterans were welcomed alongside non-veterans as civilians, “rather than as a special member of society” (from MoMA Press Release, 1948).

The innovative initiatives developed during D’Amico’s tenure were, aside from the War Veterans’ Art Center, meant for all audiences. There are letters describing the experience of deaf students at the People’s Art Center and blind children at the Children’s Art Carnival. We know that the international Carnivals worked very well at a non-verbal level, making the experience accessible for both those who did not communicate verbally and those who spoke other languages. A letter by artist and educator Eugene Grigsby, who was a facilitator at the Carnival in Brussels, describes the experience of exploring the carnival with a blind five-year-old girl. These activities were not advertised as accessible. They were advertised “for all” and attracted, in effect, all kinds of people. The staff and the physical environment were ready to accommodate as needed. Even the furniture designed by D’Amico was adjustable to varying sizes and comfort levels. Through D’Amico’s philosophy, which emphasized catalyzing the creativity in each individual through art experiences, the idea of accessibility was embedded in everything that was offered.

Today my team carries on this legacy, serving over 10,000 individuals with disabilities through direct programming each year. From Create Ability, a studio program for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, to Meet Me at MoMA, our pioneering program for visitors with Alzheimer’s disease, we strive to create programs and resources that support visitors’ diverse goals and learning styles.

A Create Ability session in the galleries. Photo: Manuel Molina Martagon

Beyond programming, MoMA has established an Accessibility Task Force, which enables us to ensure that accessibility continues to be a major priority across the institution. This working group was initiated by James Gara, MoMA’s COO, and is comprised of representatives from across the institution, including front-of-house staff like Security, Visitor Engagement, Membership, and Retail, as well as curators, exhibition designers, A/V, and Digital Media. When I started working at the Museum 23 years ago, I was the only staff member dedicated to working full-time on access issues. The Task Force reinforces the idea that accessibility is not the sole purview of Education staff, but rather a seamlessly integrated, shared responsibility.

Francesca Rosenberg leads a touch tour for the visually impaired in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden. Photo: Laura Lewis

Beyond MoMA’s staff, our other advocates include artists. The creative communities we work with have disabilities and/or are particularly attuned to the needs and interests of people with disabilities. For instance, Christian Marclay was delighted that the 2013 MoMA presentation of his film The Clock (2010) included, for the first time, a loop that amplified sound for visitors with hearing loss. In 2016, Walid Raad was happy to complement programming during his survey exhibition with a verbally described performance piece for our blind and low-vision visitors. Christine Sun Kim led an American Sign Language (ASL) tour of the MoMA PS1 exhibition Greater New York, and her artwork in that exhibition explored the labor of hearing and interpreting sound. In the current exhibition Items: Is Fashion Modern?, pantyhose that designer Lucy Jones developed specifically for people who use wheelchairs are on display. Looking forward, we continue to work with artists whose artistic endeavors broaden our audience. Making art accessible to as many people as possible can be a creative opportunity to think about exhibition design and the many different ways in which visitors experience art. This makes MoMA a more dynamic and relevant cultural institution, and enables us to better serve everyone.

Museums, artists, and educators are responding to their communities and the pressing issues of the time, and in fact are contributing to the cultural transformation in the way society thinks about disability. While there are exciting developments underway, there is still much to be done. Our hope is that, one day, museum programs for people with disabilities will no longer be exceptional and that universal design will truly be universally applied.