After a long and cold winter in New York, I found myself waiting outside the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco on a warm and sunny day. As I was waiting for my appointment with the museum’s Education and Access Manager, I was already comparing San Francisco with New York, and my hometown of Istanbul, in terms of accessibility and whether museums in these cities are relevant to people with disabilities.
I was mainly interested to know about how people with Alzheimer’s and dementia are included at museums in San Francisco, as in Istanbul museums have only now started to recognize this part of a population that has mostly been excluded from museum programming. During our meeting I learned that there are similarities between the Contemporary Jewish Museum and what we do here at MoMA, in terms of creating a safe but challenging space for participants to engage with art and foster their imagination, self-confidence, and sense of belonging to a community. Similar to our Meet Me at MoMA program, participants are encouraged to have an engaging conversation about the art works and feel welcomed in the museum while learning more about a specific exhibition.
In addition to the gallery tour with educators, they have workshops under a program called Memory Arts Café, where early-stage dementia patients and their caregivers engage in conversations about art through music, poetry, and movement. Because of San Francisco’s literary heritage, the workshops sometimes involve reading and discussing works from the Beat movement. It was also exciting to see that the bodily experience of all kinds of abilities is being encouraged, through series of dance workshops that are organized in the museum during free Family Access Days. After my visit in the Contemporary Jewish Museum I went to de Young Museum, to enjoy their exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe and later meet with the Accessibility Coordinator of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. I had an insightful meeting with the coordinator and access intern, during which we were able to share our internship experiences. Apart from offering diverse programs like ASL and touch tours for visitors with disabilities, both de Young Museum and Legion of Honor offer a program called Artful Explorations for Veterans, which only started a year ago. The program, realized through a partnership with San Francisco VA Medical Center, offers a tour called Personal Response Tour for veterans, in which participants are given prompts that allow them to form connections with the artworks in the collection, and after a 30 minute walk in the galleries each person presents their object to the group. I really liked the idea of having a personal interpretation of an object and presenting it to other participants.
Speaking with these two accessibility colleagues in San Francisco made me realize how the commitment to access in museums started out with a personal passion for the subject. They both emphasized social justice as a motivation for building up these programs and how museums should promote equality through them. This is also why in 2011 two colleagues came together to found Bay Area Arts Access Collective, which aims to provide a forum to share best practices around the Bay Area to make museums more accessible for people with disabilities through a range of professional development training and panel discussions about different themes that concern access and teacher workshops. It was very rewarding to be in San Francisco to see the inception of different access programs and the accumulated effort to reach out to more people who were less represented in the cultural arena. I hope to bring forth this excitement when I go back to Istanbul.