Noelia Hobeika '13 listens to audio descriptions of the exhibition on one of the iPod nanos available to Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery visitors.
Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery Goes All Out to Make Art Accessible
Putting together any major art exhibition is a big undertaking. Beyond determining just the right selection of work, gallery spaces must be reconfigured, lighting must be carefully adjusted, appropriate labels and signage must be devised—all of it focused on finding ways to best showcase the art and help gallery visitors connect with it. For the current Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery exhibition What Can a Body Do?, which features nine contemporary artists who reframe disability, the task has been even more complex.
In the words of curator Amanda Cachia, the work in the show “confronts dominant cultural perceptions of scale, deafness, blindness, mobility, visible and invisible bodily differences, as well as the negative characteristics often attributed to disabled people.” Given that theme, the challenge for the organizers of What Can a Body Do?, which closes December 16, was accessibility: How to take an art exhibition—typically a visual event experienced by walking through a space—and make it something that people, whatever their abilities, can experience in a variety of ways.
To do that, the exhibitions team devised a number of strategies that included hanging the art at a height accessible to visitors in wheelchairs, bringing in sign language interpreters for several exhibition-related events and talks, and including in the show catalog (also available in a braille version) an audio CD with recordings of the full text as well as supplemental audio material.
In an ambitious project carried out by 11 Haverford students who worked on the exhibition and in the gallery, audio descriptions of the work were recorded and placed on the exhibition website and on iPods nanos (which feature new software that increases their accessibility) available at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery front desk for visitors to use. Those recordings offer multiple perspectives and include the voices of the artists themselves as well as descriptions recorded by the students.
Michael Rushmore ’14, co-manager of the gallery staff with Aubree Penney ’13, handled the recording and editing of the sound files. “We recorded people in a few rooms around campus using a microphone from the Instructional Technology Center and Audacity, a simple sound recording program,” he says.
“All of the text was written by the students participating in the project,” says Penney, who coordinated the planning and writing. “It was a pretty incredible collaborative effort.”
Also completely rethought for What Can a Body Do? was the exhibition’s web presence. Haverford’s Web Communications Designer Sebastianna Skalisky and Senior Web Communications Developer David Moore strategized with the organizers to design a website that could accommodate visitors who are color blind, have low vision or contrast issues. They also included an audio-only interface for people who use voice-over technology on their computers.
“We had to make sure everything on the site was accessible regardless of how the visitor would be interacting with the content,” says Skalisky. “Some will only experience the site via a screen reader or other assistive technology, while others may rely upon captioning and transcripts to ensure a rich experience when interacting with video or audio content.”
“Typically it is large museums and galleries that provide significant access features for people with disabilities,” says Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing Kristin Lindgren. “The Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery staff, the John B. Hurford '60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and the web designers in College Communications are breaking new ground on what’s possible for small galleries.”
Lindgren, who co-organized in/visible, a 2011 symposium on disability and the arts with Assistant Professor of English Debora Sherman, reports that What Can a Body Do? curator Amanda Cachia has spoken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about the audio description project that was part of the exhibition. “Haverford is way ahead of the curve in terms of creating multiple modes of access to a small gallery exhibition,” says Lindgren, who observes in the foreword, co-written with Sherman, to the exhibition catalog: “Access involves more than checking off a list of practical accommodations. It is a way of thinking about the world that challenges us to imagine how another body, another self, experiences it.”