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The Changing Face of Museums, Art Galleries and Historic Properties

Editor's Note: John Rae is 1st Vice President of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) and lives in Toronto. He is an avid museum goer, and writes and speaks on ways to make museums and art galleries more accessible to people with disabilities.

For many persons with disabilities, the prospect of visiting a museum, art gallery or heritage property can be rather intimidating. Many of us assume such facilities will have little to offer us. Times, however, are changing, and this no longer need be the case.

Many museums and art galleries began as institutions that were little more than storage spaces for works of art and archaeological artefacts aimed at satisfying the curiosity of upper-class dilettantes. Today, museums, art galleries and heritage properties are the treasure houses of our civilization--repositories of our historical, artistic, scientific and cultural heritage. They are also much, much more.

Over time, the roles of these institutions have evolved. These days, they are involved in acquiring, conserving, researching, communicating and presenting exhibits and information, for the purposes of research, education and entertainment, for all members of the community. Perhaps the key word here is "all."

Too often, however, access to these incredible heritage collections is still limited for individuals with disabilities. To make these facilities welcoming to all members of the community, museums, art galleries and heritage properties need to adopt a more inclusive concept of accessibility, encompassing much more than just providing physical access to their facilities.

For many blind patrons, being able to touch objects on display is paramount! In heritage facilities, like pioneer villages or historic forts, implements used in the building of this country are often out in the open, easily available to touch. In larger museums and art galleries, however, our desire to touch objects often brings us into conflict with conservation staff, who are afraid that tactile access will result in irreparable damage to these irreplaceable objects.

As a history and museum lover, I am equally concerned about preserving remains of the past, and believe firmly that conservationists' fears can be mitigated. Most tactile tours cover less than ten objects in a 60-90 minute tour, and the more objects that are available to be touched, the less frequently each will be handled. The use of gloves will also go a long way towards preserving these collections.

Today, a range of approaches are being employed to expand our appreciation of collections, including the use of replicas, raised line drawings, accessible materials on websites, new technological innovations, audio guides, and audio-described tours. These approaches, however, do not replace our desire for tactile access to objects in the regular collection.

A number of museums and art galleries have begun offering "multi-sensory" tours. A typical multi-sensory tour at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) lasts 60-90 minutes with two Gallery Guides and includes up to ten visitors. The first such tour that I took included the smells of dried lavender or cloves contained in snuff bottles from the Thomson collection, verbal discussion of several pieces of art augmented by a musical component, and the opportunity to touch a number of items like Henry Moore's "Reclining Woman” sculpture.

An additional Component of these tours is usually a discussion of how the artist created the work being described; for example, "perspective" or how an artist constructs a painting on a canvass can be explained through the use of cut-out sections of board representing a landscape and different layers of a painting.

Valentina Gal, of AEBC's Toronto Chapter, commented: "I didn't realize how complicated the idea of depth and perspective is, as it is experienced by seeing people. The overlays they made that show how the artist starts by painting the horizon and then putting in background, and then moving forward and so on, were fabulous. It is the best example of a teaching tool that I've seen in a long while."

Multi-sensory tours also expand the horizons of Gallery Guides. Jessica Duarte, who leads many of these tours at the AGO, says, "It's the simple exercise of looking at art by means of all my senses, and engaging in thorough discussions with visitors about this experience, that opens my mind to its various levels of meaning."

Duarte adds, "The fulfilling part of multi-sensory tours comes from the emotional and intellectual reward of making a small difference in people's lives through art, and discovering deeper ways of appreciating art and human understanding."

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, currently under construction in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has some different challenges. Its emphasis is on presenting information, not artefacts, and it has been consulting extensively with Canadians, including members of the disabled community.

Increasing access to museums, art galleries and heritage properties, like most other facets of life, requires more work on our part. Some facilities welcome our involvement; others do not--yet. We, those who are blind and partially sighted, must continue to push for more access and consultation opportunities.