THESIS ABSTRACT 2004
Through the Front Door of a Contemporary Art Museum: A Museum Educator Envisions Accessibility with Persons with Visual Impairments
The American Federation for the Blind states that there are approximately 10 million people who are blind or visually impaired in the United States. Due to a rising number of persons with age-related vision loss, many artists and museum visitors find themselves outside the public that museums serve. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Department of Justice (2000) state that places of public accommodation, museums included, “must comply with basic nondiscrimination requirements that prohibit exclusion, segregation and unequal treatment” (p.5). Contemporary art museums claiming compliancy with ADA are often housed in newer buildings, exhibiting multi-sensory artworks, and state in their missions that they aspire to “engage broad and diverse audiences.” However, actual museum practice does not always reflect museums’ missions. Often, contemporary museums consider wheelchair accessible entrances to be adequate accommodations for the disabled population. Gallery guides are not offered in large print and security staff deters visitors with visual impairments using assistive devices to view artwork. Many museums tend to think of access only in terms of mobility impairments, which ignores the largest segment of persons with disabilities. Building on recent museum accessibility research, this thesis will demonstrate that the only way museums can create accessibility and offer meaningful learning experiences for this increasing segment of our population is to include persons with visual impairments in the process.
In my role as a museum educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, I facilitated a critical case study including in-depth interviews with museum employees, a focus group, and walk-through of the collection with visitors with visual impairments. My collaborators in this process were museum employees and persons with visual impairments. In addition, I surveyed and interviewed museum professionals from four other contemporary art institutions around the country comparable to MCA in size, collections, and programming.
This project contributes to the field of accessibility research by surveying museum mission statements and practices and by offering practical solutions for contemporary art museums. Specifically, this thesis recommends the use of an educational forum in which a dialogical exchange can occur between museum staff and visitors with disabilities. Even with limited resources, accessibility and meaningful museum experiences for a larger segment of the public may be achieved, challenging larger institutions with abundant resources to achieve accessibility.
Lea Lovelace received a BA in Art History from Luther College in 1997. While manager of school programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Lea developed teacher resources and workshops, as well as programs for students with visual impairments. Lea currently teaches in the art department at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota.
Thesis Advisor: Drea Howenstein Associate Professor, Art Education
Thesis Reader: Rebecca Ray Independent Consultant on Museum Accessibility
Second Reader: John Ploof Assistant Professor, Art Education; Director, MAAE Program