Using inclusive design for their presentation of Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, the Boise Art Museum reduced barriers to participation by expanding accessibility.
In summer 2021, the Boise Art Museum opened Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, an exhibition that challenged colonialist constructions of the American West through works that center Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ histories and experiences. Many Wests featured work from the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the Whatcom Museum and the Boise Art Museum and is the culmination of a multi-year, joint curatorial initiative, the Art Bridges Cohort Program.
This expansive historical reframing inspired the Boise Art Museum (BAM) to shift their organizational thinking around design, interpretation, and accessibility and to form an Inclusive Design Advisory Group (IDAG). The Group was broadly representative of persons who identify as having a disability and included members from the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Idaho Assistive Technology Project Advisory Council, Idaho Center on Disabilities and Human Development, Idaho Commission for The Blind, and the Idaho Access Project.
Over the course of many months, IDAG members worked closely with the museum and accessibility organization, Prime Access Consulting (PAC) to discuss and test new affordances that expand physical and conceptual accessibility. Specifically, the museum aimed to engage individuals who are blind, color blind, or have low vision, those who are deaf or have hearing difficulties, people with mobility impairments and those with cognitive disabilities.
To successfully create and incorporate inclusive design principles into Many Wests’ presentation, the museum took deliberate, intentional, and strategic steps to meet visitors the way they wanted to be met. This not only involved time and trust, but a commitment from the museum to reimagine their thinking around visitor experience. By responding to the needs and interests of communities with disabilities, the museum began to broaden the possibilities of how the exhibition could be experienced.
The BAM reduced the real and perceived physical and conceptual barriers to Many Wests in several ways. For every exhibition artwork, they created one or more affordances (a tool, tactile, or accommodation) that expanded accessibility for visitors with disabilities. These included tactile reproductions (touchable, three-dimensional reproductions of select artworks), visual descriptions, and large print labels that featured braille. The BAM’s website also included label texts in Spanish and audio and text transcripts accessible to those using assistive technologies like a screen reader. Further, they built an audio guide that featured exhibition artists speaking about their art-making practices. Visitors shared that they were proud to have a museum in their community that celebrates and amplifies marginalized voices.
On the exhibition’s accessibility affordances, a member of the IDAG shared:
“Due to a progressive eye disease, I no longer have vision. Through touch and sound, I got to experience some of the art pieces included in the Many Wests exhibition. I was in awe of the detail and creativity in the inclusive methodologies. Getting to interact with the art through touch and sound allowed me to be affected by the art in a way that just listening to someone describing it could not achieve. Since this visit, I cannot stop thinking about the art pieces and am excited for my friends, family, and colleagues to visit BAM, too.”
As museums have long privileged the experiences of non-disabled people, the project’s goals were significant both institutionally and field-wide. The BAM’s project not only expanded accessibility for Many Wests visitors but also laid the foundation to use accessible and replicable design practices more widely in the future.
The opportunity to learn from and with individuals who have disabilities was also significant in shifting how the museum thinks about and practices inclusive engagement. The museum also learned that the integration of accessibility features served those who are both disabled and non-disabled, exemplifying that inclusive design benefits everyone and deepens and improves visitor experiences.
We love that the Boise Art Museum took crucial steps to broaden access so all visitors may have the opportunity to enjoy, connect, and grow from experiences with art. Further, we love that the BAM’s work with the IDAG helped build their capacity to think further about accessibility, inclusivity, design, and the future of community building with visitors who have disabilities.