To Curate as to Care for the Community Through Access to the Arts
Museum Professionals Seminar
With the commodification and dilution of the word “accessibility”—equitable access to all those on the continuum of human ability—there has been a wave of performative acts of accessibility programming within the museum context. More specifically this has happened within curatorial practice, which is the most common and prevalent point of access between the public and the museum. The word “curate,” from the Latin curare, “to take care of,” holds immense power over art practice, specifically within the world of art museums and art institutions. Deconstructing this word to its roots aligns it with the idea that the museum provides a service to its community and places a greater responsibility on the act of curating. In this time of upheaval of traditional institutions, the museum must be reclaimed and reimagined as for and by the people it claims to represent or who fund it with tax dollars. The museum needs to be held to the standard of a public entity, with a responsibility to be an accurate archive of the people and culture who support its existence and to foster arts and culture education for them.
The first step in the reclamation of true access in museums is to bring back the people who have been persecuted, excluded, or forgotten by these institutions. This is not one to be taken lightly or perceived to be easy; it requires centuries’ worth of apologies and reparations of care. People cannot just be invited back to institutions that have never cared for them before. They must be given a space and a voice to create a new institution that includes and celebrates them.
Representation of differently-abled bodies in museum positions shows us the disparities, blatant ableism, and exploitation of labor in hiring practices. Ableist employment practices can range from not providing adequate healthcare coverage, to not offering paid sick leave, to a lack of accommodations, such as interpreters or mobility aids. They also include fostering workplace environments that expect and demand overwork to complete projects, all for inadequate pay. These practices keep a marginalized group from being able to work in the field, let alone feel welcome within the space. They are not a part of a museum’s design. Many museums begin their accessibility programming by making people ask for access to a space that everyone else already has access to, such as requesting translators weeks in advance or having to enter and move through the building in alternate ways. This practice further alienates and disregards people by positing them as an afterthought or a burden.
Museums are often thought of as archives of culture and humanity, but when a population is so blatantly excluded from these institutions and collections, that archive is no longer an accurate depiction of the culture. It leaves out anyone who does not fit a mold of ”normal” palatability. This is a prime example of how accessibility cannot be an afterthought, an amendment to an existing system, but must be built up from the very beginning. For this work to be done from the founding of an institution, there must be people there, advocating for that space. There must be representation in the director’s room, in the staffing, in the planning, in the artwork.
Museums across the country have begun to take steps toward accessibility, with speech-to-text accommodations, audio tours, and sensory-based exhibits. These are baby steps, but not enough. Examples of working toward “enough” could be more equitable pay with benefits, having a designated accessibility department, or designing exhibitions and museums spaces around not only the experiences of able-bodied people. Ableism runs deeply through our society, and always will, until ideas, experiences, and lives are valued over traditional standards of efficiency and productivity. It is the responsibility of museums to provide accurate access, and there should be no rest or sympathy for those who have not yet done so.
Discussions on accessibility in museums often revolve around practices and traditions, but not the buildings in which these institutions are housed. As a Western society, we view museums as pillars of knowledge and culture, often equating one’s ability to gain access to these pillars with wealth. These buildings choose to convey their perceived value to society in different ways, frequently by taking inspiration from European architecture, with the use of large columns and grand staircases—picture the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Often aesthetics win out over functionality and inclusivity so that ramps and other accessibility-friendly additions are left out or pushed to the side, intentionally or unintentionally alienating those who need them.
As beautiful as many of these architectural choices are, they are reminders of other Western institutions that have a history of marginalizing Black and brown people, or anyone who does not fit within the mold of those societies. Much like the language of art history—rooted in colonialism—the architecture marginalizes set groups of people.
It is not only architecture that plays a role in accessibility, but also location. Ironically, while you can find the world’s most renowned and famous museums in hubs of diversity and culture—bustling cities and accredited universities—these worlds are most accessible only to those society deems acceptable, that is, white, middle- to upper-class, with some higher education. The problem arises because these museums are frequently sited in PWIs (Primarily White Institutions) and neighborhoods that are primarily white and wealthy. These locations have made it clear that “others” are not welcome, which makes it nearly impossible to feel comfortable there; it can even be dangerous for certain groups to be there. As museums move forward they must be aware of the physical restrictions that they put on the public, while also acknowledging that proximity to whiteness is not a valid marker of an institution’s worth. Museums must instead be open to decentralization, judge one’s value on how many communities the museum interacts with.
Beyond just equity and ease of use, accessibility must also include and address culturally and linguistically diverse communities, often Black and brown people who have been alienated and exploited by museums. Achieving full accessibility requires that museums transform into mirrors, places where communities see themselves. The galleries and programs must become platforms for celebrating histories, accomplishments, and values. The reimagined museum should forge a path that genuinely values the lived experiences and expertise of Black and brown people, and views them as essential to shaping and enriching the institution. This process should prioritize and foster inclusion, human-centered practices, and collective agency.
Taking accessibility and inclusion beyond affirming exhibitions and programming means having culturally and linguistically diverse staff members. These staff members are essential to each department of the museum and all levels of decision-making. This shift will allow diverse communities to move past representation and into presence, resulting in institutions that are shaped with the voices and visions of the community—and claimed by them. In this museum, there is an authentic narrative, unfiltered for the white lens, and a sense of safety, belonging, and care for culturally and linguistically diverse people.
In order to decolonize and become accessible, museums must be comfortable with exploring new realities and facing hard truths. This requires humility and knowing that there is no one way to share knowledge, culture, and being. Museums should not expect conformity, but rather value the experiences and diversity of people above all else. It is essential to realizing their role as cultural archives, which must be done by implementing inclusive hiring, decision-making, and curatorial practices. This will result in an archive that is an accurate representation of the various communities it stands for. Thus, creating accessible museums can only be achieved through authentic inclusion and care for diverse communities.