|Experts: Culture institutions not inclusive|
|Written by Associated Press|
|Sunday, 28 September 2008 18:00|
MIAMI (AP) - Vizcaya was completed in 1916 at a time when America's wealthy created lavish homes inspired by Europe's palaces. Making the home friendly to people with disabilities was not part of its initial architectural design.
Almost a century later, in its new incarnation as the county-owned Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, curators have had to come up with ways to make it accessible to all visitors.
This is a challenge for cultural institutions throughout the United States as they focus not only a building's physical accessibility, such as wheelchair ramps, but on making programs inside more inclusive so that people with all types of disabilities can enjoy them.
This means incorporating new technology, hiring sign interpreters, changing exhibition placement and even rethinking seating arrangements at events.
"I think that up until now its been bricks and mortar," said Bob Dillon, who is in charge of accessibility for the San Diego Zoo. "We are moving to the next level, communication and interpretation of exhibits."
But much still needs to be done, experts said.
"We still don't live in a completely inclusive society," said Betty Siegel, director of accessibility for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Siegel, who routinely offers advice to institutions around the world on how to become more accessible, said the large number of baby boomers and veterans from conflicts Iraq and Afghanistan, will mean more people with disabilities will be visiting museums in the coming years.
"We're at a time when we know we are going to need more access in 10 years to serve the same audience," said Siegel, who is striving to give people with disabilities an equivalent experience as to those who do not have disabilities.
Beth Ziebarth, director of the Smithsonian Institution's accessibility program, said much of what remains to be done in the museum world has to do with laying out exhibit space so work is mounted at the height of wheelchairs and providing access to people who are blind or who have cognitive disabilities. Questions that face administrators include: "How do you take the entirety of the exhibition and let somebody who is blind have access to all it?" she said.
To train staff, Ziebarth will sometimes review an exhibit along with people who have disabilities. "It's well received. Staff always say it gives them a much better understanding," she said.
At smaller museums and historic buildings, such as Vizcaya, accessibility has to be thought through carefully, Ziebarth said. The administration has to think long term and consider renovations or add-ons that won't damage the building, such as an elevator.
Vizcaya's floors are uneven. The sprawling garden is paved with gravel and coral rock, and there are many steps inside and out. Some of the rooms are not accessible, so there is a video that can be viewed on the first floor with room for wheelchairs and a place for people to sit. Some changes like a wheelchair lift and some ramps have been added, but the original layout has not be altered.
"We can't change the structure that much," said Kyndal Campbell, Vizcaya's intergovernmental affairs director.
There are also guidebooks in Braille and in large print as well as guided tours. Sign language tours can be arranged.
Meanwhile, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the museum's accessibility experts are part of the entire process of setting up each exhibition. "Our philosophy is really to offer a menu of choices," said Rebecca McGinnis, the museum's access coordinator.
Museum staff also go to schools, group homes and community centers to bring the art to people who cannot go to the museum. They have a handling collection and materials that can be taken with them. They bring slides or PowerPoint along with art-making materials.
But as far as being inclusive of everyone, McGinnis said, as a nation, there is a long way to go. "I always say that my aim is kind of to do myself out of a job," she said.
At the Miami Art Museum, accessibility experts and people with disabilities will be consulted during the planning stages of the new building. The museum already has a touch tour for those who are blind. The staff and volunteers who conduct tours have also been trained in audio description, which is describing the artwork for those who are visually impaired or blind. Periodically, there are exhibits that appeal to other senses - an artist once created sea water ice cream for blind patrons to taste.
"There is nothing too small or too large that can be done. There are always more audiences out there to reach," said Kerry Keeler, the museum's associate curator for education.
But reaching all patrons isn't everyone's priority, experts said.
"People are interested. They just haven't been able to implement," said Marian Winters, executive director of VSA arts of Florida, which helps organizations to increase accessibility. "It hasn't become a priority for everybody...I think that it's inadequate communication about what it takes to become accessible."
Winters said that institutions often think it will be very expensive to make them accessible.