August 31, 2021

Accessibility during the Pandemic—In the Case of Mie Prefectural Art Museum

[2021.8.31]

Mariko Suzumura
Educator/curator,
Mie Prefectural Art Museum

Faced with unprecedented challenges in the museum industry, how are museum professionals in Japan responding to the COVID-19 crisis and pursuing their efforts? In this monthly column, ICOM Japan members share their stories during the pandemic.

Mie Prefectural Art Museum held a special exhibition titled “Making Art Accessible: An Invitation to the Multisensory Exhibition” (hereafter referred to as “Making Art Accessible Exhibition”) from June 5 to August 1, 2021. In this case, “Accessibility” is defined as “equal rights and opportunities for the disabled and non-disabled visitors.” As the head curator for the exhibition, I will be introducing how this exhibition came to be and how the coronavirus pandemic impacted the museum.

1. Until the Coronavirus Outbreak

Creating a “universally accessible” museum environment is stated as one of the guidelines of the “Mie Prefectural Art Museum: Our Mission,” which was implemented in March 2018. During the years 2015 to 2017, the museum has collaborated with special needs schools within Mie Prefecture to build a more accessible environment. The collaborative project was adjourned in 2017 after three years, but the museum staff has since continued its research on museum accessibility. In 2018, I oversaw the research of accessibility in local museums in New York, USA. The results were eye-opening. “Seeing” by “touching” was prioritized in accessibility programs that were not specifically targeted for visitors who are blind or partially sighted, and multisensory experiences are integrated into programs for the “non-disabled” community.

Researching American museums brought back memories of an art appreciation program we orchestrated in 2016. The program was held at a special needs school, where students with intellectual disabilities could appreciate sculptural works of art through tactile perception. (Image 1)

図1:Scenes from the “School Art Museum” held at Mie Prefectural Special Needs School Nishihino Niji Gakuen in 2016

This program was inspired by request made by a teacher in charge, who informed us that tactile experience is an effective method for interpreting works of art. When “seeing” and “touching” were used together, there was an evident improvement in communication between the viewers, and the students seemed more interested in the artworks. Many people find it difficult to appreciate art, regardless of their abilities, and it is certainly not easy to find a way to appreciate art in an inherently gratifying way.

So, how can we make the viewing experience more immersive? – this is the most challenging issue of art appreciation. But the clues in solving it may lie within the Accessibility Program, where we integrated multisensory experiences, especially tactile perception.

We wanted to organize a program where various people, regardless of whether they have disabilities or not, could have a multisensory and multimodal viewing experience. With this hope in mind, we planned to launch the “Project to Promote Accessibility in Art Museums” (hereafter referred to as the “Accessibility Project”) in 2020. At the time, there were already talks about how we can showcase the results of the accessibility-related collaborations in an exhibition planned for the early summer of 2021. We wanted to work with people with various disabilities and display the results in a special exhibition. However, as we were awaiting the result of the grant proposal, the coronavirus had begun to spread throughout Japan.

2. Accessibility Program—The First Year

As the route of infection became increasingly known, our museum staff came to realize that it would be extremely difficult to carry out a program that would involve touching, smelling, or tasting for the time being.

As the project leader, it was unrealistic to gather a large number of people to conduct a program that emphasized “touching” without ensuring the safety of the participants. After much discussion between the museum staff, the scale of the Accessibility Program for 2020 was drastically reduced. A workshop, where we had planned to invite a wide range of participants, including people who are blind/partially sighted, was changed to a smaller viewing program with a few users of the Mie Prefecture Center for the Visually Impaired.

Under the extraordinary circumstances, many museums began to shift their in-person programs to online. But several of our visitors, including people with disabilities, do not wish to use digital devices, and that kind of exclusion and division is difficult to bring forth and visualize. Above all, it is difficult to share the sense of touch, smell, etc. through a monitor. Due to such concerns, we hesitated to digitalize the Accessibility Program.

But on the other hand, some museums that have digitalized their programs have had positive feedback, especially from people who have had difficulty accessing them in the past. Going online was a giant leap forward for the improvement of accessibility. With the pandemic, there is an urgent need to ensure accessibility to new and increasingly difficult-to-reach museum visitors. That is why in the year 2020, our museum finally decided to offer online viewing programs for children and their parents.

3. Accessibility Project and Making Art Accessible Exhibition—The Second Year

Making Art Accessible Exhibition, which had been held as part of the Accessibility Project since June 5, 2021, showcased the results of recent collaborative projects as well as the museum’s educational programs and viewing support materials developed in the past, and attempted to present the museum’s collection and teaching materials in a way that is “accessible to all.” The subtitle of this exhibition is “An Invitation to the Multisensory Exhibition,” suggesting an appreciation method that not only utilizes sight but tactile and auditory perception as well. It also evokes the sense of hearing, smell, taste, and skin perceptiveness through imagination. Over 40 works from our collection, including oil paintings, etchings, watercolor drawings, and sculptures had been on display. Five of the bronze sculptures could be viewed by anyone using tactile perception at any time during the exhibition.

For the exhibition design, we tried to include as many persons with disabilities as possible to assist us. For example, the tactile map (Image 2) installed in the exhibition hall is a tool that was suggested by a visitor of the Center for the Visually Impaired, who had visited the museum for the Accessibility Program in 2020. In March 2021, two other visitors from the Center tested a sample of the tactile map in the exhibition room and discussed where and how to install it, and what information to include. Initially, only one tactile map was to be installed in the entire venue (four rooms), but after the visitors offered their advice, four maps were installed, one for each room (Image 3).

Image 2: Tactile map installment in Special Exhibition Room One (created by product designer Ken Michida)

Image 3: Tactile map installment in Special Exhibition Room Four

Nevertheless, we were unable to obtain feedback for every life-size sample, and so we utilized case studies from other museums and referred to the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design, Smithsonian, n. d. (2010)[1] to finalize the dimensions, placement, and materials. The exhibition has had a wide viewership since the opening, and we were gradually able to gather their opinions regarding accessibility. Their feedback is invaluable to us in planning future exhibitions.

In addition, five different related programs were held during the Making Art Accessible exhibition. From online viewing workshops to in-person workshops where participants used clay for balance (Image 4), and a program where participants could submit their acrostic on a postcard, we took into consideration the convenience of all people to create a well-balanced and varied array of programs. Even though I’m the lead curator and educator for the Making Art Accessible Exhibition, I couldn’t have managed these diverse projects without the help of everyone in the Curatorial Department.

Image 4:Exhibiting the results of the workshop, “Balance Between You and I.” (Workshop instructors: artists Yukino Miyata and Mitsuo Kim)

The biggest obstacle in preparing for the exhibition was the coronavirus pandemic, especially with the arrival of the “fourth wave” of infections colliding with the opening of our exhibition. As I stated before, ever since the first stage of planning the Making Art Accessible Exhibition, we have aimed to create an environment where everyone can have equal access to the works and materials. Due to the prolonged pandemic, many museums have found a way to conduct both hands-on exhibitions while taking the necessary prevention measures. In the previous year, we referred to such efforts while preparing for the exhibition. As we neared the opening, however, the coronavirus situation had worsened, and we were forced to reconsider the prevention measures once again—should we limit the schedule and the access to the works only for visually impaired visitors?

Protecting the artworks, protecting the visitors from a mass infection, responding to the diverse needs of all—there were insurmountable things to consider. We consulted many times with the deputy in charge of the exhibition as well as the head of preservation about the flow of events, such as what stage visitors should put on protective gloves, how should the staff approach the visitors, where should they remove their watches and rings, and how should they disinfect their hands. Lockers, tables, gloves, automatic sensor garbage bins, etc. were set up strategically in the exhibition rooms (Image 5).

Image 5: Making Art Accessible Exhibition Part 3, “Touching the Sculptures” reception area

One of the most frequently asked questions during the Making Art Accessible Exhibition was, “Is this an exhibition for people with disabilities?” When you look at the accessibility of the exhibition, we have prepared braille and transliterated handouts, installed an audio playback device (Image 6), tactile maps, and graphics. We also publicized the exhibition to special needs schools, support centers, and other related organizations. It is merely the museum’s objective to publicize the accessibility of information and offer a chance to touch the artworks, and not necessarily the wish of the people. The museum should make efforts for accessible exhibitions not only this special exhibition but also much larger scale exhibitions that people with disabilities earnestly want to attend with their friends and family.

Image 6: Audio playback device was installed underneath the commentary panel

This has been an ongoing topic of discussion within the museum, and what we collectively decided upon was the importance to continue this initiative, and not limit it to the Making Art Accessible Exhibition. In addition, this year’s accessibility program aims to “improve the overall quality of the museum experience” for visitors, not only in selected exhibition rooms but also in other areas of the museum, as well as the revision of the signage. Beyond creating a “universally accessible” museum environment lies the larger issue of improving the quality of life of each individual who makes up our society. The exhibition room is connected to a wider society outside of its walls, such as the lives of the visitors are connected to the future. Our efforts as a museum should not be confined within the narrow framework of an exhibition room, museum, or exhibition period. What we can and should do as a museum is to take steps, however small, for the benefit of all people.

(Mariko Suzumura)

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[1] Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design, Smithsonian, n. d.(2010)

Photo credit: Yutaka Matsubara

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