One of the most important – and sometimes most difficult – questions museum leaders must ask themselves today is one that may seem to have a simple answer, but in reality, is far more nuanced than it appears.
How can I make my museum accessible to everyone?
The deeper root of this question lies in one thing: a museum’s resources. How can a museum use its resources – human or otherwise – to make their collections, exhibitions, and staff accessible to the diverse communities they serve? At the Joseph F. and Helen C. Dyer Arts Center at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, NY, the staff faces the challenge of understanding how to properly utilize all available resources in order to create a safe, open, and diverse space for the deaf community – and all the various communities in Rochester – head-on.
The Dyer Arts Center opened its doors in 2001 with a mission of showcasing artwork created by students and alumni of NTID, along with works by nationally and internationally known artists, all of whom are deaf, hard of hearing, and allies of the deaf community. Besides the Gallaudet University Museum in Washington, D.C., the Center is the only arts center in the United States whose sole focus is collecting and exhibiting artwork by deaf individuals. As of this year, the Center’s permanent collection is home to over 1,000 pieces created by deaf or hard of hearing artists – the oldest piece in their collection is from 1925.
Tabitha Jacques, who has been Director of the Center for three and a half years, says that the work she and her staff do to service the deaf community is an opportunity to represent their culture. “Often people don’t understand that people with disabilities may have a culture, and deaf people definitely have a culture,” she says. “This is an invaluable resource for deaf people, for deaf young people, to come in and take pride.”
This semester, the Center is home to three different exhibitions, each of which take inspiration from the idea that the Center is a space for the deaf to manifest pride in their community. The first exhibition, 50 Artists 50 Years, the NTID 50th Anniversary Art Exhibition, opened this summer in celebration of the NTID’s 50th anniversary. Located in the Elizabeth W. Williams Gallery (the Center’s main exhibition space), the 50 Artists 50 Years features art created by 50 different NTID alumni artists, along with pieces from the Center’s permanent collection. This exhibition, along with a mural by NTID alumna Susan Dupor on display in the Glass Room, will close October 20.
For the second half of the semester, the Center will zero in further on the theme of pride and accessibility with two new exhibitions, Cultivating Connections and 6x6 Deaf Pride. Cultivating Connections, which will open November 2 in the Williams Gallery, will be a celebration of the Rochester community as a whole. “We have solicited artwork from anyone in the Rochester community, deaf or non-deaf,” Jacques says. “The point is to have a diversity of artwork representing the collective of Rochester.” Jacques’ initial plan for the exhibition was to focus solely on local deaf artists, she says. “But then I thought, ‘Well, why am I now siloing the deaf artists from the Rochester community?’” Because the Center is primarily an exhibition space for deaf artists, up to 50 percent of the artists exhibited in Cultivating Connections will be deaf or hard of hearing, while the rest of the artists will be anyone from the Rochester community as a whole.
The Center’s third exhibition of the semester, 6x6 Deaf Pride, also opening November 2, will take a similar approach to engaging the community as Cultivating Connections by inviting deaf and hard of hearing artists, interpreters, and allies to submit small, 6x6 artworks that focus on what deaf pride means to them. “I wanted to give the opportunity to ask people, ‘Why don’t you represent yourself? Who are you as a member of the community?’” Jacques says. All of the artwork displayed will be up for sale, with the proceeds going directly to the Center.
While inspiring deaf students and visitors to find pride and empowerment through a celebration of deaf culture is the primary goal of the Center, Jacques says that other museums need to utilize their resources to create accessible spaces for deaf and hard of hearing people, too. “Deaf people have different needs, and that doesn’t mean that they can’t absorb information,” she says. “Museums really are an alternative educational center in some ways, [where] you can engage the person in learning. But if the person doesn’t have an accessible space, then you’re blocking them from being able to learn.”
This block, Jacques says, has had a serious impact on the actual amount of cultural education available to deaf people, nor have there been any solid methods for documenting and collecting art by deaf artists. “For me, I feel like this is a necessity. We have to do it,” she says.
But how can other museums do what the Center, a university-backed museum, does? “It’s vital to partner with the community,” Jacques says. “Step one: be open-minded. Deaf people historically have had a negative relationship with museums…engage the deaf community in the discussion.”
Earlier this year, the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) reached out to Jacques and other community members to get their input on a new exhibition they were prototyping on the science of sound. Jacques says that after they sent their initial didactic information, she and the others noticed the approach the RMSC was taking was too paternalistic. “It was more medical, focusing on hearing loss,” she says. “One of the members of our team talked to them about the concept of deaf gain and other concepts, like, it’s not bad to be deaf. It’s not a loss if you’re deaf. If you’re born deaf and you grow up deaf, you haven’t lost anything because you’ve never had that in your life.”
The RMSC listened to the feedback from Jacques and her team and added information about deaf gain to their prototype. “I was so appreciative because they were very open-minded,” Jacques says. “They wanted our feedback, they wanted our input, they wanted to partner with us, and they wanted to recognize deaf people because they do know that deaf people are critical mass here in Rochester.
So, to circle back to the question that all museum leaders are asking themselves in an age where the recognition of diverse identities is directly correlated to a museum’s accessibility, how can we make our museums more accessible to everyone, and why should we? The first and most important step, as both Jacques and the RMSC have shown, is to be open to accepting and listening to oft-forgotten voices.
“Deaf art has been in the works for over one hundred years, but there’s no real space to actually show it and talk about it and learn about it,” Jacques says. “I feel honored to work in this area and to continue the mission of making sure that the deaf community all over the world cherishes who they are and what deaf culture has produced and will continue to produce into the future.”