Archive for the ‘The Disabling Museum’ Category

MoMA NYC: Still Pretty Dim

November 30, 2012

On a recent trip to New York City, we stopped in at the Museum of Modern Art. An otherwise interesting exhibition on the work of the Brothers Quay was marred by a series of ridiculously unreadable labels in a gallery that featured the artists’ dioramas.

bros q dim label

Yes, there’s a label in that murk. The image was taken using the available light in the gallery.

If a visitor came equipped with night-vision goggles, a flashlight, or the eyes of a nocturnal creature, a label might look like this:

q b lit

For most of us, however, it looked like this:

bq black

This is the opposite of access, comfort, and common sense. There is no excuse for it.



LACMA: White cubes still rule

April 11, 2011

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art still believes in white cubes – those minimalist display spaces that are an essential part of the modernist art experience in contemporary museums.

It seems to be a requirement that the white cube, in its purest form, must have no seating, as in this photography exhibit in the newly opened Resnick Pavillion.


Across the way at the Broad Contemporary (a museum within a museum), the scene could have been lifted from any major art museum any time in the last 50 years:

White walls, wood floors, no seats, pensive visitors in black, and a television on the floor – cathode ray, no less, for that classic touch.

An adjoining gallery had the requisite ambiguous constructions:

And to complete the sense that the visitor is but an acolyte at the altar of culture – a mere supplicant who must work hard for any rewards the art might have to offer – we have the inevitable unobtrusive label in the small typeface:

The Broad’s insistence on the old-fashioned “display-space-must-not-in-any-way-compete-with-the-art” aesthetic would almost be endearing if it didn’t make for so much discomfort.


Worst Seating Award: Palazzo Grassi, Venice, Italy

October 12, 2010

Palazzo Grassi is a museum of contemporay art in Venice, Italy. From the outside, it’s a classic Venetian palazzo fronting on the Grand Canal. The interior has been extensively remodeled into a series of classic White Cubes displaying a major collection of minimalist and conceptual art.

Here is a photo of the only seating in the whole place:

That’s it: two padded cubes in one room of a huge five floor museum. A grim denial of the frailty, or even existence, of the human body. Talk about suffering for Art.

On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of competition for these cubes. We were two of only about a dozen visitors in this heavily promoted museum – in a city that gets tens of thousands of tourists a day.

The Disabling Museum, Part 3: Restrooms

May 26, 2009

Slide 33

Museum restrooms are great places to get a sense of how well not just so-called disabled visitors are accommodated, but anyone who might need space or privacy in a restroom. This might include larger visitors, people with ostomies, visitors with small children, etc. 


Slide 34

Here’s an “accessible” restroom that can be cruel to the user. Notice that immediately after you enter, you have to make an immediate sharp right turn and open another door — outward — with barely enough room to maneuver. And if someone comes out the door you’re trying to enter … trouble, potentially.  This could also be awkward for someone with a bag, or an overweight/obese visitor, or someone who maneuvers their wheelchair with difficulty.


Slide 35

Here’s another so-called disabled accessible restroom in another museum. It features a door that opens outward in a narrow corridor. This photo is foreshortened and does not convey just how narrow. On top of that, this restroom is located in a dark, creepy space in an out-of-the-way location. And this is in a major museum that has been renovated in the last couple of years. 


met restroomBy contrast, here’s a restroom in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A wide door and then a straight shot, with plenty of maneuvering room. And the stalls are adequate for most visitors’ needs. The downside is that because of the straight access, you can see right into it when the door is open — but that could be taken care of with a privacy wall or privacy screen in front of the door. 


The next time you visit a museum, notice the number and location of the restrooms. Are there enough? And are they conveniently located? This will tell you a lot about how thoughtful the museum is of visitors’ basic physical comfort.

The Disabling Museum, Part 2: Disability & Hidden Disability

May 24, 2009

Disability in the United States

 According to US government statistics, 26 percent of all Americans are officially classified as having a disability. What’s not captured in that figure, however, is that two in three Americans are overweight, and one in three is obese. From a purely clinical perspective, this is likely to lead to difficulties in walking, standing, and moving, especially in confined spaces.


Also, vast but unknown numbers of Americans have chronic back pain, which is of course a disability.


Hidden Disabilities

Many disabilities cannot readily be seen. These are hidden disabilities.

Here is a brief list, generated after about a 15 minute Google search, of potentially disabling diseases and conditions — most of which you would not notice in a museum visitor:


Sometimes, a disability is hidden even to the person who has it — for example, early hearing or vision loss. There are thousands more of these potentially disabling yet hidden diseases and conditions.





Kathleen’s story

Kathleen Dunleavey wrote this email in response to Steve’s essay in the September/October 2008 issue of Museum magazine:

“I am partly like the average museum visitor you describe in your column… I am strong, thin, childless and have good vision without any obvious sign of disability (unless being 56 years old with silver hair counts as a disability).  Yet, like you, I have wondered, for 2 personal reasons, why the hell there are no benches in many Museum galleries.  The first reason, I have a lung disorder which causes me to tire after 30 minutes or so of walking and the second reason, I long to be able to gaze at an object with the serenity of stillness that sitting gives.”


This active, vibrant woman has travelled internationally on a container ship. But she also has a disability — although you wouldn’t know it to look at her. By her lights, museums do not meet her needs.


Our friend Viva is another good example of why you want to look at individual needs, not at group disabilities. 

Slide 31

To meet her, you would not know she is in chronic pain. And she has another non-obvious health issue:  Gluten intolerance.

The Disabling Museum, Part 3: Beyond Braille

April 17, 2009

When most of us think about visual disabilities, we think about blindness. 

 slide-112This is our picture of blindness – a totally blind person with a white cane. Most museums accommodate blind visitors with Braille labels and signage.

But Braille is not nearly enough. There are different kinds of blindness, and many, many degrees of visual impairment.  

  • Most Americans over 40 are farsighted. 
  • 20 million Americans age 65 and over have cataracts.
  • Eight million have major visual impairment.
  • Two million are legally blind.
  • Of the legally blind, only a small percentage are totally blind — that is, entirely without vision.
  • Of the totally blind, only 5 percent regularly read Braille.
  • Only 10 percent of totally blind children are taught Braille.

 So while Braille is certainly a good and correct accommodation, it addresses the needs of only a vanishingly small percentage of museum visitors.



The Disabling Museum, part 1: Beyond ADA

April 16, 2009

The concept of The Disabling Museum is that because of oversights and errors in design and attitude, museums often fail to meet the basic needs of visitors, whether or not those visitors are identified  — or self-identify — as disabled.



 To deal with the issue of disability, and to accommodate visitors with disabilities, most museums rely on ADA —  the Americans with Disabilities Act. This landmark legislation has done much to correct longstanding injustices and inequalities. However, an unintended consequence  of ADA is that museum exhibit planners, designers, curators, and others tend to categorize visitors as either “able-bodied” or “disabled.” This is reductive and overly simplistic. 

In reality, we all fall somewhere on a curve, from Olympic athletes in perfect health with perfect vision and hearing to people commonly defined as severely disabled. On any given day, most museum visitors fall somewhere in the middle. Perhaps they’re tired that day, or pregnant, or forgot their reading glasses. But they are impaired — yet not perceived or treated as disabled. 

Carla’s Story

A woman, her mother-in-law, and a baby walk into a museum … and walk out disabled.

This is a true story. Carla, her mother-in-law, and Carla’s large one-year old baby visited an exhibition at a well-known art museum. Her baby was in a stroller. Museum personnel told Carla that strollers were not allowed in the exhibition. The baby was too heavy to carry, and there was no place in the exhibition to sit and rest.

Carla, who knew her rights under the Americans With Disabilities Act, said to the museum, “You must accommodate me and my baby.” The museum provided her with a wheelchair — which happened to be much larger than the  stroller. Carla sat in the wheelchair with the baby in her lap. Her mother-in-law pushed the chair.

The baby felt confined and unhappy; the mother-in-law, who was inexperienced in pushing a chair, ran over her own toes; and of course Carla was also unhappy. All three were impaired in some way by the museum’s shortsighted accommodation policies. They cut the museum visit short, and Carla vowed never to return.

Slide 2