Do Not Touch!

Blind people in museums and the value of inclusion

The tactile models at the Villa Vauban  will be used for guided tours and special workshops as mediation tools
Foto: Christian Wilmes
d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 14.05.2021

How do blind people experience the visit of a museum? I first began wondering about this in early autumn in 2019. My interest was sparked in an art museum in Berlin, the Berlinische Galerie, where the exhibited paintings are enhanced with corresponding tactile models. Slightly embarrassed I realised that I had previously never thought about the experience of blind people in museums. Many museums follow a “Do-Not-Touch”-policy – visitors are asked not to touch the exhibits. This does not only restrict access to blind people, but also foregrounds a sensory experience that is predominantly visual. But, cultural inclusion, it seemed to me, could only be possible if we were actually allowed to touch things in the museum. In my research for my bachelor’s in social anthropology, I explored how museums can become more inclusive with regard to how blind people experience a museum.

My research took place just before the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, so I had the chance to physically engage with different people and museum spaces. Especially, my acquaintance and later friendship with a blind artist opened up new worlds for me. “In the museum – when are you ever allowed to touch something?” she asked me when we first met. A crucial aspect of making museums more inclusive is to challenge the “Do Not Touch”-policy and offer object-handling and tactile models.

The right for cultural participation has influenced new kinds of access policies. The demand for equal opportunities and rights for people with disabilities can be traced back to activist movements in the US in the 1960s. The idea of inclusion is mirrored in the identity political slogan of “Nothing about us without us”. This focus on regaining control and authority over one’s life marks a shift from integration to inclusion, in which disabled people themselves design processes of inclusion. In 2002, the claims of the disability rights movement were taken on by a Committee of the General Assembly of the UN that started discussing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCPRD) and finally came to an agreement in December 2006. In 2009 the convention was ratified in Germany, two years later in Luxembourg. Article 30, Paragraph 1 claims the right to cultural participation for people with disabilities. The activist demand for equal cultural participation for disabled people thus became an official requirement for cultural institutions.

How is this idea of cultural inclusion carried out in practice? In Berlin, many museums have committed to the project of becoming more “inclusive”. But what does inclusive mean in this context? I learned that inclusion starts outside of the cultural institution. People with disabilities need to plan their visit to museums. It is crucial that they receive adequate information beforehand, either online or when calling the museum. There are specific requirements for designing an accessible website, starting for example with the possibility of using keyboards and speech input to navigate the website. Beyond this technological accessibility, a website also fulfils the crucial role of attracting new visitors to the institution. Directions on how to get to the museum, information about the building’s accessibility, but also the educational and outreach programme need to be stated here.

Inside the museum, inclusion becomes even more tricky. Just as inclusion does not start with the physical accessibility of a building, it does not end there. This does not mean that physical accessibility is not important – on the contrary. It means that inclusion conceptualises places like museums not as static, but as being in constant development. Inclusion cannot remain a checklist completed by museums to be able to state themselves as “inclusive”. It must be an ongoing practice. But why is this process so difficult for museums? Why are we not allowed to touch things in the museum?

A simple answer to these questions relates to the societal role attributed to museums. A museum acts “in the service of society”, as the Icom museum definition suggests. It must grant access to its collections and exhibitions, just as much as it must conserve the different objects to make sure they are preserved for future generations. Especially touch can be harmful to objects, which is why museums remain predominantly visual places. But, precisely touch forms an integral, often undermined, part of our sensory perception. Complementing artworks and objects with tactile reproductions is a great way of dealing with this tension between conservation and access. It allows visitors, blind and non-blind, to have a tactile experience without potentially harming the exhibits.

Inclusion is about more than accessibility. It challenges the idea that museums act only in the service of society and proposes an active engagement of visitors instead. The idea is that visitors can enrich the museum through their different sensory perception. An inclusive museum is not only a museum for all, but just as much a museum by all. Of course, there are limits to this and cultural institutions must be honest and transparent about what they are actually able to do. Talking to curators, mediators and artists that push for more inclusion, I found that inclusion often remains a superficial label that museums put on their website to attract visitors. Inside the museum space, actual change was complicated. In the rare case of blind people getting to administrative boards, the final decision remained with non-blind people.

In January this year, the Luxembourgish Ministry of Culture has issued a call for projects for cultural inclusion. Given the struggles cultural institutions faced in times of the Covid-19 pandemic, public financial support was welcomed. However, conditioning it on inclusion can be perceived as the last straw to break the camel’s back. As museums are immensely vulnerable at the moment their main focus can be more about not losing current visitors, rather than attracting new ones. Even though museums in Luxembourg have reopened their doors, they had to face hardship over the last year. It might be worthwhile for them to think about tackling new audiences and extending their offer. Since the lack of budgeting is a recurring issue in the road to becoming more inclusive, extending precisely that budget can be of great value.

Even if inclusive practices, such as tactile models or tailored audio-guides, often tackle specific disabilities, the outcomes are enjoyed by many. As blind people so obviously clash with the access policy of museums, their involvement can be a fruitful way for museums to become more inclusive and diverse. A striking example was the Berlinische Galerie’s exhibition on Bauhaus, developed with the Allgemeiner Blinden- und Sehbehinderten Verband Berlin. It actively encouraged visitors to “Please touch”’. The exhibition attracted an exceptionally high number of visitors and received particularly good feedback. Similarly, the Villa Vauban, in the centre of Luxembourg-City, has taken on the project of becoming a “museum for all”. It not only provides a broad range of offers for people with disabilities, such as tactile models, hands-on sculptures and different explanatory films, but also diverse offers for children. In this sense, inclusion is not only about disability, but about changing the general museum experience.

Inclusion can be difficult as, especially in art museums, adding tactile models and changing the light condition, can potentially inhibit the full potency of some exhibits. But, again the goal is not to make everything accessible for everyone, but to re-think the overall space of a museum so as to allow an enjoyable and uncompromised experience for a more diverse public. Inclusion is a learning process and an ideal that might never be fully achieved. This does not mean that achievements – however small they might be – should not be acknowledged. Transparency and accountability are important aspects of inclusion to counter the utopic vision of universalising access.

If anything, the current circumstances highlight the importance of cultural participation and inclusion even more. Even though Luxembourgish museums can welcome visitors again, many museums are still struggling and have to navigate through the challenge of establishing an online presence. This has foregrounded issues of access and put the basic role of museums into question. Should museums educate or entertain? Should they be loyal to their regulars or actively attract new visitors? Throughout my fieldwork, I came to learn that these different roles do not necessarily exclude each other. Museums not only guard and conserve collections, they are also fascinating mirrors of society and constitute spaces for the radical imagination of the future. At the same time, they are places of leisure and entertainment and can be a playground to test out these imaginations. It needs a certain level of courage and institutional self-confidence for museums to truly engage in the project of inclusion. But eventually museums themselves will benefit just as much from it as every single visitor.

Lucie Treinen
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