Meanings of ‘Accessibility’ in Museum Studies

What makes a museum accessible? To me accessibility refers to the architecture and content accessibility of exhibitions for disabled people. But halfway through a systematic literature review on museum, accessibility and disability, I’m finding accessibility has become a polysemous term in this context, referring both to (1) the accessibility of the whole collection to a larger public and worldwide experts, (2) accessibility to racial minorities and economically underprivileged groups and (3) accessibility to disabled visitors. This is worth exploring as it can both support the convergence between the concerns of different communities; or lead to a confusion between availability and accessibility.

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Dispositifs de médiation pour l’accessibilité des musées aux personnes malvoyantes et aveugles

J’ai récemment publié mes notes de lectures sur le livre de Georgina Kleege décrivant ses expériences des dispositifs de médiation destinés à rendre les musées accessibles aux aveugles. J’ai au fil des ans compilé une série de photos des dispositifs rencontrés et de leur utilisation par différents publics ; conduit quelques entretiens et observations dans plusieurs musées parisiens (Centre Pompidou, Quai Branly, Cité des Sciences) ; fait de la veille sur la recherche dans ce domaine et eu l’occasion de présenter ce travail aux associations telles qu’Accès Culture. Les propositions de ce domaine ayant bien évolué depuis le début (cinq ans déjà !) de ces explorations, il était plus que temps d’écrire un petit texte rassemblant les différentes ressources et initiatives sur ce sujet (que je continuerai à alimenter au fil du temps).
 
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Notes on More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art

With policies and funding bodies encouraging museums to diversify their audiences and guarantee equal participation comes the question of how to design inclusive museums. Although this is not the motivation behind Kleege’s book, it offers insights about how to improve current approaches to accessibility in museums. Beyond insights for design, she builds a solid case for considering how social class shapes sensory experiences and ways of reflecting on these experiences, with a different angle from the previous literature on this topic. I presented this book to the SCHILab reading club. SCHILab explores how to build and use technologies using taste and smell, among other thing in the case of art. Here is an extended version of this presentation.

Kleege is a senior Lecturer at University of Berkeley. Her work often offers a critique of representations of blindness in movies, literature and art. This is the case of one chapter in this book, focusing on uses of braille in art. She also critiques cognitive sciences’ approach to blind cognition. She argues they are primarily rooted in the figure of the hypothetical Blind Man, the thought experiment particular popular with philosophers during the Enlightenment. It goes something like this: What if a blind man recovered sight? How would he connect his proprioceptive sensations to visual ones? Are concepts acquired through non-visual means the same as those acquired using visual representations? Kleege contests these are the right questions to ask:

Scientists are using pictures as an indication of cognitive capacities and conceptualization skills. [They] think of pictures as techniques of representing three-dimensional reality on a two dimensional plane, with a history and an array of conventions. While it is nice that science has shown that blind people can learn to interpret some standard conventions of drawing, I’m not sure it proves that the drawings they learn to interpret or to make are necessarily an unmediated representation of their own concepts about reality. […] These research subjects […] build new theories about human consciousness in general [not theories to understand blind people in particular].

Beyond her questioning of the results obtained in this way, she points out how little the pictures made accessible, in this case tactile, can help understand art:

A raised-line rendering might help a blind person appreciate the bold drawing and skewed perspective of an Henri Matisse, but it would seem an inadequate reproduction of work by Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock.

Yet,

Too often, programmers assume that the point of tactile exploration is to recognize forms through tracing their outlines, as if viewing a work of art  were merely a matter of identifying the objects depicted.

What would be preferable then?

Here’s another thought experiment. If we imagine, after the fashion of H.G. Wells short story, « The Country of the Blind, » a culture where everyone was born without sight, would they develop a tradition of tactile picture making? […] Wouldn’t it be more likely that these blind people would devise a system of symbols to record tactile features of objects beyond their contours such as texture, temperature, volume, and weight? […] and would these pictures be recognizable to a sighted viewer?

So Kleege discusses her own experiences with visits dedicated to visually impaired visitors. She talks us through various adapted representations she has met in various museums over the years. She focuses on audioguides in the later chapters. She discusses Diderot’s lively descriptions of art salons, arguing they are the result of his acquaintance and conversations with Melanie de Salignac, a young blind lady. She also proposes to consider ekphrasis, poetry written about the art, as a design principle for future designs. In other words, she invites sighted scholar to consider what visually impaired people might teach them, instead of only considering how to do the reverse.

Kleege’s book is a useful reminder that there is no perfect answer as to what makes the museum accessible. It is not only about making high quality tactile picture of a few paintings (as she saw at the Prado). It might be about having reproductions at different scales, representations with different levels of granularity, sample of the materials used… The list goes on. Sometimes, it might be a different kind of experience entirely: she suggests « the best way to appreciate a cathedral is to climb its tower. » Not for the view but for the embodied experience of climbing the steps and feeling the walls and the height of that building.

Scale models and plaster casts have their drawbacks. While a scale model can convey a sculpture’s overall form, it cannot replicate the proprioceptive experience of standing before a monumental work. The casts of the Parthenon frieze were made before the marbles were transported to England, and so preserve a record of some portions of the originals that were damages en route. But plaster has a slick, artificial feel with little in common with the cool pleasure of natural stone.

p. 61

She also demonstrates the value of theories of multimodality. She uses the concept of translation (Kress discusses braille as a transduction):

In my head, I was trying to work out how the would have translated these sensations into the necessary eye-to-hand instructions that would allow him to draft a similarly abstracted portrait on canvas. I scanned my memories for some sort of similar experience. All I could come up with was a memory of the difficult mental exercise required when I first learned to type Braille on a Perkins Brailler. […] I said some of this to my docent, attempting to articulate this idea about translation. In the case of my learning to type Braille, it was translating from the horizontal to the vertical. For Matisse, it was the more complex task of translating these three-dimensional forms to two dimensional images. My docent and I had a brief, rather esoteric, discussion of tactile versus visual perception. […] Keller’s description of tactile eloquence emphasizes variety, perhaps even disorder. The point is always made that touch is sequential while vision is comprehensive and instantaneous. […] I refuted this, showing my docent how I could wrap my palms and fingers over and around considerable chunks of the form. My point was that my haptic exploration was not merely to trace the form’s outline with my fingertips but rather to envelop the three-dimensional volumes with my palms and fingers.

Jeannette I-V, by Matisse. The picture, in black and white, depicts five busts. The first, on the left, is realistic, and each bust becomes more and more abstract.

In describing her experiences of museums, Kleege troubles external descriptions of blind phenomenological experiences, and « blindness as a monolithic experience. » She insists that « in defining [her] blind identity, the degree of sight loss is only one of many factors. It is equally significant to consider age of onset and what we might call visual interest or literacy. The simple binary–blindness versus sightedness–is not adequate [when considering experiences of visual arts] » (p. 7).

This book should be of interest beyond sensory studies scholars and museum trying to become more inclusive. Continuing a discussion present in Sight unseen, Kleege highlights how social class and its associated cultural practices shape one’s sensory knowledge:

In Poor miss Finch, a similar connection is drawn between the ability to talk about visual beauty and class differences. Lucilla is accustomed to have the natural world described to her, but she laments that her servant is less adept at the practice, suggesting that these values have as much to do with education and background as with vision alone.

p. 89

She proceeds to demonstrate museums attempt to transmit these cultural practices to children, audioguides being designed to lead their sight in rooms and pictures and encourage reflexivity. They however tend to deny their blind visitors have, or can develop, this knowledge. Audioguides for blind visitors emphasize a stationary, passive vantage point. They describe artworks following a grid instead of dynamically: whereas sight might jump from an object to another, provide a general impression before enabling to examine details, blind visitors are supposed to only be interested in factual descriptions. This participates of their exclusion from cultural practices and museums. Other ways of doing are possible, and more importantly, desirable.

Reference: More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art, Georgina Kleege, Oxford University Press, 2018.