Who should have access to a museum?


By Andrew David Baker

Two recent articles highlight the challenges museums often face as they strive to provide spaces for everyone to interact with art. Blake Gopnik enjoys the opportunity to view art up close in uncrowded galleries and wonders if “museums have to rethink or reverse decades of growth in buildings, budgets and programming.”

Indeed, any visitor to a major museum knows the frustration of trying to see the art while navigating a sea of the backs of other people’s heads, not to mention the glare of their phones as they photograph the masterpieces and move on. Gopnik’s opportunity to “commune this deeply” with art in an empty space is a dream many of us wish for. But other aspects of his paean to untrammeled museum visits are more troubling. He writes, “As museums everywhere contemplate their post-Covid future, their Covid-troubled present carries us back to a glorious, more art-friendly past.”

What makes a past with fewer visitors more friendly to art? It seems Gopnick is on the verge of suggesting that great art be locked up in inaccessible temples, or at least hard-to-access temples. To make this happen, he wonders if museums should institute “a limited supply of timed tickets” to stem the tide of visitors. As someone who believes in the social impact of museums, I cannot agree with any suggestion that includes the word “limited.”  If anything, museums should fling their doors open wider and for longer periods of time to allow for more access, not less.

In this spirit, Zachary Small describes museums who are welcoming art from artists with disabilities. One artist, Panteha Abareshi, “examines the disabled body as a depersonalized object in the medical system. It’s a feeling now understood by more of the general public,” Small writes. One reason museums are reaching out to such artists is that “virtual programming opened the door,” Small continues. Perhaps this is an example of every cloud having a silver lining, as the pandemic forces museums to rethink what they do while at the same time creating opportunities for wider access. Small quotes Bethany Montagano, director of the USC Pacific Asian Museum, who says that her institution plans to “no only include but buoy the voices of sick and disabled artists.” Later, Small points out that the Munch Museum has “plans to translate a contemporary art exhibition into sensory experiences for audiences.”

Let’s hope that such sensory experiences are enjoyed by multitudes, enriching the lives of as many visitors as possible.

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