Sunday, January 30, 2000

Art Museum designing own program to boost access

Enquirer contributor

        The Cincinnati Art Museum launched an impressive program last week toward a goal of becoming a visitor friendly, inclusive museum. Initiated last summer with a $50,000 grant from the Fidelity Charitable Trusts, the Museum's new visitor satisfaction program aims to follow the Disney model for customer satisfaction and incorporate ways to make every museum visitor more appreciative of art.

        Although Sheila Hunt, visitor satisfaction coordinator, has been interviewing people at museums around the country and conducting visitor surveys, the effort took a definite public step last week.

        In a special program Tuesday for museum staff, volunteers, and other interested guests, Dr. J. Webster Smith, associate professor of interpersonal communications at Ohio University, delivered an entertaining lecture on improving communication with visually impaired visitors. With anecdotes and practical advice, Dr. Smith reminded the audience that visually impaired visitors will see with their hands and ears, are as interested or disinterested in art exhibits as their sighted peers, and may sometimes have more knowledge of art than the docents who greet them.

        The museums's mission statement is to “actively engage a diverse and growing audience with great art for their enrichment and enjoyment,” says Ms. Hunt. “All too often, people think of diverse as meaning only racial and ethnic groups. We want to broaden that and look at all types of visitors.”

Special tours
        The museum's research has revealed what museums around the country are doing to make exhibits more accessible to people with disabilities. Some have “touch tours,” designating particular pieces of art that can be touched. Others use repli cas of art, giving visually impaired visitors an imitation of the real experience. Still others train volunteers to provide “verbal imaging” of pieces seen throughout a given gallery, or use support materials such as large-print programs, tactile graphics or audiocassettes.

        In other words, “what we found is that no one has a plan,” Ms. Hunt says. The Cincinnati Art Museum intends to be the first museum to develop a comprehensive plan of visitor services , which it will share with others.

        At present, the Museum's provision for visually impaired visitors is a 14-piece self-guided touch tour. A blind or visually impaired visitor must come with a friend who can read the printed information sheet, and inter pret the signs throughout the museum to locate the 14 designated pieces. There is far more promised in the emerging design.

        Beginning with Dr. Smith's lecture , Ms. Hunt plans to train all docents in diversity, and in interacting and communicating with people with disabilities. Eventually, she says, volunteers will be available to assist visually impaired visitors through the established touch tour and to expand the number of pieces included in that exhibit.

Other ideas explored
        Such additions as tactile drawings, Braille capabilities for museum literature, and a “random access” audio system, enabling visitors to hear detailed descriptions of art by operating a kind of mobile phone, are being explored. Now, most of the museum is accessible to wheelchairs but additional renovations are under way, and a TTY (text telephone for the deaf) will be installed this week.“Every museum is different, Ms. Hunt says. “One visual art organization actually said they had no program because, "Why would blind people want to come to a museum?'... We want to establish trends, to do it right.”

        Cincinnati writer Deborah Kendrick is a nationally recognized advocate for people with disabilities. Write her at Cincinnati Enquirer, Tempo, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202. E-mail:


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