In an effort to promote inclusivity and expose their collections to as wide an audience as possible, art museums are improving accessibility by offering special tours for disabled visitors and on-site baby-sitting services.
At a special session held in early September at Yokohama Museum of Art, nine men and women with a range of visual impairments toured the exhibits accompanied by volunteer guides.
“This is the face, and here are the eyes. It’s a rather flat face,” a volunteer said as he guided the hands of a visually impaired male participant over a bronze sculpture depicting a human head.
Touching the slim and elongated head, the man smiled: “It’s shaped like a loaf of bread.”
Also among the participants was Hitoshi Nakamura, 81, who lost his eyesight over 10 years ago.
Appreciating art is his hobby, the Yokohama resident said. During the tour, he listened to the guide’s verbal description of an abstract statue and pictured in his mind a woman sending a man off to the battlefield.
“Even if it’s not entirely the same as what’s seen by people who can see, I was able to imagine the concrete figures relying on the verbal descriptions,” Nakamura said.
Since the fiscal year starting in April 2012, the Yokohama museum has been regularly holding special sessions during which visually impaired visitors and those not disabled tour the exhibits in pairs.
Major exhibits in the museum are accompanied by descriptive guide sheets with information such as the size and colors used, that helps the visually impaired imagine how the artwork looks.
“Even sighted people can experience new things when they try to observe the exhibits in order to describe the details (to the visually impaired),” said Satomi Okazaki, a staff member at the museum in charge of organizing the special tours.
From 2008 to 2011, a group formed by supporters for the disabled and others compiled a list of some 1,300 concerns and requests after conducting museum visits with the impaired, the elderly and others with special needs.
Among the issues raised was that coin lockers at accessible height to visitors in wheelchairs were often fully occupied, that intellectually impaired visitors were spoken to in “baby talk” and that parents were worried that their young children might suddenly start crying and disturb others.
To put parents at ease while taking in art exhibitions, a growing number of museums now offer baby-sitting services for a fee.
The National Art Center, Tokyo, commissions a child care service company to provide baby-sitting for children up to 12 years old in a room inside the museum three times a month.
Although the service requires reservations and a fee of ¥1,000 to ¥2,000 for three hours, depending on the child’s age, nearly 1,000 visitors have made use of the service since it began in 2008. During popular exhibitions, there is sometimes even a waiting list.
A couple who visited the museum appeared very satisfied with the baby-sitting service. In the past, they toured the exhibitions carrying their child in their arms and had to duck into the resting lounge once the child became tired and cranky.
“This time we could take our time to look at the exhibits while discussing our impressions,” one of them said. “It felt like being on a date once again.”
Similarly, the Tokyo National Museum offers a baby-sitting service during special exhibitions, while the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, in Ishikawa Prefecture, has a permanent nursery room.
“This is an effort (by museums) in response to the wishes of those who used to have to think twice about visiting to enjoy art,” said Yasuyuki Hirai, an associate professor at the faculty of design at Kyushu University. “In the future, we should aim for museums that are open and accessible to all.”