June 26, 2012  |  Intern Chronicles, Viewpoints
The Language of Access

The Louvre at sunset

How do you say “accessibility” in French? As the Community and Access Programs Twelve-Month Intern at MoMA, I had the opportunity to venture to Paris and see how museums there provide access for people with disabilities. It turns out that the French word for accessibility is, believe it or not, accessibilité, and what I found abroad paralleled much of what we do here at MoMA.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci. Portrait of Lisa Gherardini (known as the Mona Lisa). c. 1503–06. Wood (poplar). Photo © 2007 Musée du Louvre/Angèle Dequier

No trip to Paris is complete without a day at the Louvre, and my visit this time was especially rewarding because I was able to observe an access program for individuals with dementia. This program, like our own Meet Me at MoMA,  encourages people with dementia to engage with art. The goal is not to give art-history lectures but rather to use great works of art to inspire conversation among participants. The program leaders want to create a safe space that fosters participants’ sense of self-worth and independence. The day I observed the program was a rainy afternoon on a Tuesday, when the museum is closed to the general public. There were only about 15 of us, and the agenda that day included a visit to the Louvre’s most famous resident.

Being alone in a room with the Mona Lisa was a truly special experience, and participants found much to discuss in that famous enigmatic face. The entire session was relaxed, contemplative, and sprinkled with laughter—something every museum educator would hope for in a gallery discussion no matter the audience. Although Meet Me at MoMA is structured quite differently, I noticed almost identical techniques in how the group leader facilitated conversation. Questions such as “What do you notice?”, “Do you like this painting?”, and “Would you hang it in your home?” worked as well in French as they do in English for eliciting responses.

I also spent time at the Louvre’s Touch Gallery, which is an alcove of about 10 sculptures, all exact replicas of original works, intended to be explored by touch as well as sight.

Touch Gallery Large

A Touch Gallery sculpture at the Louvre. Each sculpture’s object label includes Braille and has a corresponding audio guide stop so that people who are blind can visit the space independently.

The Touch Gallery at the Louvre. The rubber guideline on the floor parallels the handrail to make navigating the room easier.

The Touch Gallery is not separated from the rest of the museum in any way and is open to everyone. Although especially important to blind or partially sighted visitors, it is a useful educational space for all. The process of “seeing” an artwork by touch is a great exercise for understanding the piece section by section, and exploring how each detail comes together to contribute the work as a whole.

I also visited the Quai Branly museum, which is an incredibly accessible space. Like the Louvre’s Touch Gallery, Quai Branly uses raised rubber guidelines on the ground to make navigation easier for visitors who are blind. Many of their exhibition texts, in French and Braille, also include audio and video components as well as touchable miniatures. They design accessible brochures for people with developmental disabilities by culling the most essential information and framing it in basic language. The lobby at the Quai Branly has a computer connected to an internet webcam so that deaf visitors who use LSF (French Sign Language) can have their signs translated into spoken French by an online relay service. Visitors enter the permanent collection by climbing a long, winding ramp complete with landings where wheelchair users can take a break.

The Quai Branly Museum

While at Quai Branly, I also visited their special exhibition L’invention du sauvage, or The Creation of the Savage. L’invention du sauvage examined the long and troubling history of human zoos. These human zoos put people whom society had deemed “freaks” or “monsters” on display for public spectacle. The exhibition demonstrated that differences, no matter how they are manifested, have long been sources of fear, curiosity, and misunderstanding. It also offered a nice affirmation, especially in conjunction with all that I had observed during my week in Paris, that we’ve come a long way in accepting difference as something not which separates but merely diversifies and enriches our society.

After my time in France, it became abundantly clear to me that the language of access is universal—not only from English to French, but as a means of communicating via touch, sound, sight, and as the basic desire of every individual to be treated with respect and dignity.

For more information about Access Programs at MoMA, visit our website, e-mail [email protected],  or call (212) 408-6347.