Beyond Braille on Toilet Doors: Museum Curators and Audiences with Vision Impairment

Beaux Fen Guarini

Abstract


The debate on the social role of museums trundles along in an age where complex associations between community, collections, and cultural norms are highly contested (Silverman 3–4; Sandell, Inequality 3–23). This article questions whether, in the case of community groups whose aspirations often go unrecognised (in this case people with either blindness or low vision), there is a need to discuss and debate institutionalised approaches that often reinforce social exclusion and impede cultural access. If “access is [indeed] an entry point to experience” (Papalia), then the privileging of visual encounters in museums is clearly a barrier for people who experience sight loss or low vision (Levent and Pursley). In contrast, a multisensory aesthetic to exhibition display respects the gamut of human sensory experience (Dudley 161–63; Drobnick 268–69; Feld 184; James 136; McGlone 41–60) as do discursive gateways including “lectures, symposia, workshops, educational programs, audio guides, and websites” (Cachia). Independent access to information extends beyond Braille on toilet doors.

Underpinning this article is an ongoing qualitative case study undertaken by the author involving participant observation, workshops, and interviews with eight adults who experience vision impairment. The primary research site has been the National Museum of Australia. Reflecting on the role of curators as storytellers and the historical development of museums and their practitioners as agents for social development, the article explores the opportunities latent in museum collections as they relate to community members with vision impairment. The outcomes of this investigation offer insights into emerging issues as they relate to the International Council of Museums (ICOM) definitions of the museum program.

Curators as Storytellers

“The ways in which objects are selected, put together, and written or spoken about have political effects” (Eilean Hooper-Greenhill qtd. in Sandell, Inequality 8). Curators can therefore open or close doors to discrete communities of people. The traditional role of curators has been to collect, care for, research, and interpret collections (Desvallées and Mairesse 68): they are characterised as information specialists with a penchant for research (Belcher 78). While commonly possessing an intimate knowledge of their institution’s collection, their mode of knowledge production results from a culturally mediated process which ensures that resulting products, such as cultural significance assessments and provenance determinations (Russell and Winkworth), privilege the knowing systems of dominant social groups (Fleming 213). Such ways of seeing can obstruct the access prospects of underserved audiences.

When it comes to exhibition display—arguably the most public of work by museums—curators conventionally collaborate within a constellation of other practitioners (Belcher 78–79). Curators liaise with museum directors, converse with conservators, negotiate with exhibition designers, consult with graphics designers, confer with marketing boffins, seek advice from security, chat with editors, and engage with external contractors. I question the extent that curators engage with community groups who may harbour aspirations to participate in the exhibition experience—a sticking point soon to be addressed.

Despite the team based ethos of exhibition design, it is nonetheless the content knowledge of curators on public display. The art of curatorial interpretation sets out not to instruct audiences but, in part, to provoke a response with narratives designed to reveal meanings and relationships (Freeman Tilden qtd. in Alexander and Alexander 258). Recognised within the institution as experts (Sandell, Inclusion 53), curators have agency—they decide upon the stories told. In a recent television campaign by the National Museum of Australia, a voiceover announces:

a storyteller holds incredible power to connect and to heal, because stories bring us together (emphasis added). (National Museum of Australia 2015)

Storytelling in the space of the museum often shares the histories, perspectives, and experiences of people past as well as living cultures—and these stories are situated in space and time. If that physical space is not fit-for-purpose—that is, it does not accommodate an individual’s physical, intellectual, psychiatric, sensory, or neurological needs (Disability Discrimination Act 1992, Cwlth)—then the story reaches only long-established patrons. The museum’s opportunity to contribute to social development, and thus the curator’s as the primary storyteller, will have been missed.

A Latin-American Perspective

ICOM’s commitment to social development could be interpreted merely as a pledge to make use of collections to benefit the public through scholarship, learning, and pleasure (ICOM 15). If this interpretation is accepted, however, then any museum’s contribution to social development is somewhat paltry. To accept such a limited and limiting role for museums is to overlook the historical efforts by advocates to change the very nature of museums. The ascendancy of the social potential of museums first blossomed during the late 1960s at a time where, globally, overlapping social movements espoused civil rights and the recognition of minority groups (Silverman 12; de Varine 3). Simultaneously but independently,  neighbourhood museums arose in the United States, ecomuseums in France and Quebec, and the integral museum in Latin America, notably in Mexico (Hauenschild; Silverman 12–13).

The Latin-American commitment to the ideals of the integral museum developed out of the 1972 round table of Santiago, Chile, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Giménez-Cassina 25–26). The Latin-American signatories urged the local and regional museums of their respective countries to collaborate with their communities to resolve issues of social inequality (Round Table Santiago 13–21). The influence of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire should be acknowledged. In 1970, Freire ushered in the concept of conscientization, defined by Catherine Campbell and Sandra Jovchelovitch as:

the process whereby critical thinking develops … [and results in a] … thinker [who] feels empowered to think and to act on the conditions that shape her living. (259–260)

This model for empowerment lent inspiration to the ideals of the Santiago signatories in realising their sociopolitical goal of the integral museum (Assunção dos Santos 20). Reframing the museum as an institution in the service of society, the champions of the integral museum sought to redefine the thinking and practices of museums and their practitioners (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization 37–39). The signatories successfully lobbied ICOM to introduce an explicitly social purpose to the work of museums (Assunção dos Santos 6). In 1974, in the wake of the Santiago round table, ICOM modified their definition of a museum to “a permanent non-profit institution, open to the public, in the service of society and its development” (emphasis added) (Hauenschild). Museums had been transformed into “problem solvers” (Judite Primo qtd. in Giménez-Cassina 26). With that spirit in mind, museum practitioners, including curators, can develop opportunities for reciprocity with the many faces of the public (Guarini).   

Response to Social Development Initiatives

Starting in the 1970s, the “second museum revolution” (van Mensch 6–7) saw the transition away from:

traditional roles of museums [of] collecting, conservation, curatorship, research and communication … [and toward the] … potential role of museums in society, in education and cultural action. (van Mensch 6–7)

Arguably, this potential remains a work in progress some 50 years later. Writing in the tradition of museums as agents of social development, Mariana Lamas states:

when we talk about “in the service of society and its development”, it’s quite different. It is like the drunk uncle at the Christmas party that the family pretends is not there, because if they pretend long enough, he might pass out on the couch. (Lamas 47–48)

That is not to say that museums have neglected to initiate services and programs that acknowledge the aspirations of people with disabilities (refer to Cachia and Krantz as examples). Without discounting such efforts, but with the refreshing analogy of the drunken uncle still fresh in memory, Lamas answers her own rhetorical question:

how can traditional museums promote community development? At first the word “development” may seem too much for the museum to do, but there are several ways a museum can promote community development. (Lamas 52)

Legitimising Communities

The first way that museums can foster community or social development is to:

help the community to over come [sic] a problem, coming up with different solutions, putting things into a new perspective; providing confidence to the community and legitimizing it. (Lamas 52)

As a response, my doctoral investigation legitimises the right of people with vision impairment to participate in the social and cultural aspects of publicly funded museums. The Australian Government upheld this right in 2008 by ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (and Optional Protocol), which enshrines the right of people with disability to participate in the cultural life of the nation (United Nations).

At least 840,700 people in Australia (a minimum of four per cent of the population) experiences either blindness or low vision (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2009). For every one person in the Australian community who is blind, nearly five other people experience low vision. The medical model of disability identifies the impairment as the key feature of a person and seeks out a corrective intervention. In contrast, the social model of disability strives to remove the attitudinal, social, and physical barriers enacted by people or institutions (Landman, Fishburn, and Tonkin 14). Therein lies the opportunity and challenge for museums—modifying layouts and practices that privilege the visual. Consequently, there is scope for museums to partner with people with vision impairment to identify their aspirations rather than respond as a problem to be fixed. Common fixes in the museums for people with disabilities include physical alterations such as ramps and, less often, special tours (Cachia). I posit that curators, as co-creators and major contributors to exhibitions, can be part of a far wider discussion.

In the course of doctoral research, I accompanied adults with a wide array of sight impairments into exhibitions at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, the Australian War Memorial, and the National Museum of Australia. Within the space of the exhibition, the most commonly identified barrier has been the omission of access opportunities to interpreted materials: that is, information about objects on display as well as the wider narratives driving exhibitions. Often, the participant has had to work backwards, from the object itself, to understand the wider topic of the exhibition.

If aesthetics is “the way we communicate through the senses” (Thrift 291), then the vast majority of exhibits have been inaccessible from a sensory perspective. For people with low vision (that is, they retain some degree of functioning sight), objects’ labels have often been too small to be read or, at times, poorly contrasted or positioned. Objects have often been set too deep into display cabinets or too far behind safety barriers. If individuals must use personal magnifiers to read text or look in vain at objects, then that is an indicator that there are issues with exhibition design. For people who experience blindness (that is, they cannot see), neither the vast majority of exhibits nor their interpretations have been made accessible. There has been minimal access across all museums to accessioned objects, handling collections, or replicas to tease out exhibits and their stories. Object labels must be read by family or friends—a tiring experience. Without motivated peers, the stories told by curators are silenced by a dearth of alternative options.

Rather than presume to know what works for people with disabilities, my research ethos respects the “nothing about us without us” (Charlton 2000; Werner 1997) maxim of disability advocates. To paraphrase Lamas, we have collaborated to come up with different solutions by putting things into new perspectives. In turn, “person-centred” practices based on rapport, warmth, and respect (Arigho 206–07) provide confidence to a diverse community of people by legitimising their right to participate in the museum space.

Incentivising Communities 

Museums can also nurture social or community development by providing incentives to “the community to take action to improve its quality of life” (Lamas 52). It typically falls to (enthusiastic) public education and community outreach teams to engage underserved communities through targeted programs. This approach continues the trend of curators as advocates for the collection, and educators as advocates for the public (Kaitavouri xi). If the exhibition briefs normally written by curators (Belcher 83) reinforced the importance of access, then exhibition designers would be compelled to offer fit-for-purpose solutions. Better still, if curators (and other exhibition team members) regularly met with community based organisations (perhaps in the form of a disability reference group), then museums would be better positioned to accommodate a wider spectrum of community members. The National Standards for Australian Museums and Galleries already encourages museums to collaborate with disability organisations (40). Such initiatives offer a way forward for improving a community’s sense of itself and its quality of life.

The World Health Organization defines health as a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. While I am not using quality of life indicators for my doctoral study, the value of facilitating social and cultural opportunities for my target audience is evident in participant statements. At the conclusion of one sensory based workshop, Mara, a female participant who experiences low vision in one eye and blindness in the other, stated:

I think it was interesting in that we could talk together about what we were experiencing and that really is the social aspect of it. I mean if I was left to go to a whole lot of museums on my own, I probably wouldn’t. You know, I like going with kids or a friend visiting from interstate—that sort of thing. And so this group, in a way, replicates that experience in that you’ve got someone else to talk about your impressions with—much better than going on your own or doing this alone.

Mara’s statement was in response to one of two workshops I held with the support of the Learning Services team at the National Museum of Australia in May 2015. Selected objects from the museum’s accessioned collection and handling collection were explored, as well as replicas in the form of 3D printed objects. For example, participants gazed upon and handled a tuckerbox, smelt and tasted macadamia nuts in wattle seed syrup, and listened to a genesis story about the more-ish nut recorded by the Butchulla people—the traditional owners of Fraser Island. We sat around a table while I, as the workshop mediator, sought to facilitate free-flowing discussions about their experiences and, in turn, mused on the capacity of objects to spark social connection and opportunities for cultural access.  

While the workshop provided the opportunity for reciprocal exchanges amongst participants as well as between participants and me, what was highly valued by most participants was the direct contact with members of the museum’s Learning Services team. I observed that participants welcomed the opportunity to talk with real museum workers. Their experience of museum practitioners, to date, had been largely confined to the welcome desk of respective institutions or through special events or tours where they were talked at. The opportunity to communicate directly with the museum allowed some participants to share their thoughts and feelings about the services that museums provide.  I suggest that curators open themselves up to such exchanges on a more frequent basis—it may result in reciprocal benefits for all stakeholders.    

Fortifying Identity

A third way museums can contribute to social or community development is by:

fortify[ing] the bonds between the members of the community and reaffirm their identities making them feel more secure about who they are; and give them a chance to tell their own version of their history to “outsiders” which empowers them. (Lamas 52)

Identity informs us and others of who we are and where we belong in the world (Silverman 54). However, the process of identity marking and making can be fraught: “some communities are ours by choice …  [and] … some are ours because of the ways that others see us” (Watson 4). Communities are formed by identifying who is in and who is out (Francois Dubet qtd. in Bessant and Watts 260). In other words, the construction of collective identity is reinforced through means of social inclusion and social exclusion. The participants of my study, as members or clients of the Royal Society for the Blind | Canberra Blind Society, clearly value participating in events with empathetic peers.

People with vision impairment are not a homogenous group, however. Reinforcing the cultural influences on the formation of identity, Fiona Candlin asserts that “to state the obvious but often ignored fact, blind people …  [come] … from all social classes, all cultural, racial, religious and educational backgrounds” (101). Irrespective of whether blindness or low vision arises congenitally, adventitiously, or through unexpected illness, injury, or trauma, the end result is an assortment of individuals with differing perceptual characteristics who construct meaning in often divergent ways (De Coster and Loots 326–34). They also hold differing world views.

Therefore, “participation [at the museum] is not an end in itself. It is a means for creating a better world” (Assunção dos Santos 9). According to the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Gillian Triggs, a better world is:  

a society for all, in which every individual has an active role to play. Such a society is based on fundamental values of equity, equality, social justice, and human rights and freedoms, as well as on the principles of tolerance and embracing diversity. (Triggs)

Publicly funded museums can play a fundamental role in the cultural lives of societies. For example, the Powerhouse Museum (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences) in Sydney partnered with Vision Australia to host an exhibition in 2010 titled Living in a Sensory World: it offered “visitors an understanding of the world of the blindness and low vision community and celebrates their achievements” (Powerhouse Museum). With similar intent, my doctoral research seeks to validate the world of my participants by inviting museums to appreciate their aspirations as a distinct but diverse community of people.  

Conclusion

In conclusion, the challenge for museum curators and other museum practitioners is balancing what Richard Sennett (qtd. in Bessant and Watts 265) identifies as opportunities for enhancing social cohesion and a sense of belonging while mitigating parochialism and community divisiveness. Therefore, curators, as the primary focus of this article, are indeed challenged when asked to contribute to serving the public through social development—a public which is anything but homogenous.

Mindful of cultural and social differences in an ever-changing world, museums are called to respect the cultural and natural heritage of the communities they serve and collaborate with (ICOM 10). It is a position I wholeheartedly support. This is not to say that museums or indeed curators are capable of solving the ills of society. However, inviting people who are frequently excluded from social and cultural events to multisensory encounters with museum collections acknowledges their cultural rights. I suggest that this would be a seismic shift from the current experiences of adults with blindness or low vision at most museums.

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Keywords


museums; community; disability; social justice; inclusion; vision impairment



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