Leadership / 09.10.18
What the Smithsonian Can Teach Us About Accessibility
Sometimes the best inspiration can be found outside of one’s immediate industry; and with the new urgent imperative to increase accessibility for live events, the more inspiration the better. Access found cross-industry inspiration from none other than the Smithsonian.
It's no secret that the Smithsonian ranks as the world's largest museum and research complex, with 19 museums and nine research centers. What's not as well known is the care and lengths to which it has gone in recent years to increase accessibility. Kevin Hull has seen first-hand how the Smithsonian has endeavored to become a museum for all people.
"The Smithsonian has a central office of accessibility with a team of people who are available to arrange services for those with special needs,” Hull said. “This group also serves as an important link for each museum on best practices.”
Hull is the director of public engagement for the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, having joined in 2006. Among his many responsibilities, Hull personally oversees the Hirshhorn's "Gallery Guides,” a group of dedicated individuals who are available on the museum's floor. They are highly trained in providing tours to visitors from all walks of life, and are experts in guiding visitors through the sometimes difficult experience of viewing contemporary art.
“The Hirshhorn, specifically, offers guided touch and visual description tours for visitors with vision impairment, and we offer sign language interpretation for many of our programs without the need to call or make arrangements ahead of time,” Hull said.
The Smithsonian’s accessibility momentum has been powered by active internal involvement.
"At the museum level, the Hirshhorn has an accessibility task force with representatives from all departments,” Hull said. “This group has been instrumental in putting accessibility issues front and center. They’ve championed new processes for ensuring that accessibility is on everyone's mind at all levels of the organization and as part of every project. The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution [David J. Skorton] is also a big advocate of making the museum experience more accessible, and his support and advocacy has ensured that these issues are top of mind among senior leadership across the institution."
To be sure, museums present their own unique challenges where accessibility is concerned. For art museums, one major challenge is that artists are working in so many different types of new media.
"It can be challenging to balance preserving the integrity of the work with the need to make the work accessible," Hull said. "The Hirshhorn is leading a task force on this very issue and has been experimenting with developing some new technologies to help solve this."
One strategy for maintaining this balance is to budget enough time before adding a new exhibit to ensure it will be accessible to as many people as possible.
"More and more, museums are thinking about accessibility very early in the design process," Hull said. "At the Hirshhorn, designs go through several reviews to ensure that the exhibition can be enjoyed by everyone. For our Yayoi Kusama exhibition last year, we identified a need for visitors who use wheelchairs that would not fit into the artist's Infinity Mirror Rooms. We were able to work with Samsung to create an amazing virtual reality experience for those visitors so they could experience the artist's incredible work."
Still, he acknowledges that some museums come up short.
"Museums are slow to change. In some ways, I think this is a good thing — not bending toward every new trend that comes along. But, sometimes, we get too far behind, and the experiences we offer don’t match what our visitors expect from us. I think that in the past, things like creating a written transcript for a video piece were seen as enough to make a video accessible. But experience has shown us that this is not actually the best solution. Our goal moving forward is not to just create an accessible version of the museum experience, but a thoughtful and inspiring one for those who may experience the world around them in different ways. Accessibility should not be an afterthought, but rather completely integrated in the design and implementation of every exhibition and program."
Looking further ahead, Hull concluded, "I think one huge step forward for museums [will be] finding a way to make their collections accessible to those who are not able to travel to the museum building itself. Much of what museums hold in their collections is also kept in storage and not on view at all. Online or virtual reality museum experiences could be a way of addressing this. There are so many places in the country that are geographically isolated from museums. How do we serve this audience?"
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