Interview: Creating Engaging Accessibility Programs With Sandy Guttman

A fair-skinned hand holds a small tactile replica of Yayoi Kusama’s painting Infinity Nets Yellow. The small square-shaped painting is bright yellow with a black background, and is five inches by five inches in size, with yellow paint that is applied over the black paint in a swirling repetitive net pattern, fanning out from the corner of the canvas similar to a spiderweb. The large painting, in the background is also bright yellow with a black background, and measures at about eight feet by ten feet. The small painting is meant to be touch by visitors while discussing Kusama’s painting methods. All images and verbal descriptions provided by Sandy Guttman.

This month we talked with Sandy Guttman, Curatorial Assistant at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. about her role in bringing accessibility-based programs to the museum. In addition to co-founding the museum’s Accessibility Task Force, Sandy also spearheaded the implementation of verbal description and American Sign Language tours, produces transcripts for time-based media, and collaborates with ArtLab+ to create 3D tactiles for touch tour experiences. You can learn more about Guttman, her role at the Hirshhorn, and the reason she uses verbal descriptions on Instagram in our new interview below.

Exhibitions on the Cusp: What are the most common accessibility programs present in large museums/institutions?

Sandy Guttman: Accessible tours tend to be fairly common in large museums. These tours utilize multiple forms of communication, which might include American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation, touch tours, and verbal description tours for visitors with vision impairment. While some institutions have incredible robust programming, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, each museum is different based on their visitor base, funding, and their educational programs. It really varies from museum to museum.

Other initiatives also include programs like the Smithsonian’s Morning at the Museum, which is designed for visitors with cognitive or sensory processing disabilities, and invites visitors to experience the museum before it opens, while also providing hands-on activities, and a quiet space to take a break from the exhibition. In order to prepare for the visit, a social narrative is shared with program participants, which details what the building is like, what they might experience when they get here, and some of the objects they may encounter.

Which accessibility programs do you hope to be common in museums in the near future?

This isn’t a program per se, but the implementation of captioning and transcriptions for time-based media and artworks that have sound is a growing interest in the field of contemporary art. With many art museums collecting and exhibiting works that include sound, there is the question of how the work may be made accessible to Deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences, as well as those who might not understand the language spoken in the artwork. The production of transcripts for these works is one way to make them accessible, though it is not a common practice in all museums.

Storytime at the Hirshhorn Museum inside of the Mark Bradford work “Pickett’s Charge” this morning – with American Sign Language interpretation. This is just one of the accessible programs we’ve started in the last year, and seeing these young visitors engaging with the work fills me with such joy. Bravo to our team of educators! [Image description: A crowd of children and adults gather in a museum gallery looking at a person reading from a book for Storytime. A woman in a blue shirt stands next to a woman leading Storytime, interpreting the story in American Sign Language. The walls in the gallery are covered from floor to ceiling in an abstract work made up of torn paper and colored paint. The work is by the artist Mark Bradford and is titled “Pickett’s Charge.”]

What is a program you are working to implement or hope to implement in the near future at the Hirshhorn?

We were recently awarded a grant to research and develop an app that will take a transcript and caption the video or sound-work in real time. Similar to captioning you would see on television or lyrics on a karaoke screen, this app would deliver the transcript onto a mobile device timed perfectly with the artwork! The idea for this stemmed from an issue – how do we make our transcripts available and easier to use? There had previously been suggestions to caption video works, but adding a caption to a video changes the aesthetic and tampers with the integrity of the artwork. The proposed app would put the accommodation into the palm of the user’s hand, seamlessly syncing the captions with the artwork. No muss, no fuss.

Another similar program we are trying to pull together is a tour of our time-based media exhibition The Message given in American Sign Language. Two of the works in the exhibition have powerful poetic and musical components that simply wouldn’t translate well in a transcript. We are looking into having the works live-signed in ASL, in a way that is demonstrative of the power of the music in the background – similar to the sign language interpreters at concerts and festivals. Following the sign language interpretation of the work will be an educational discussion in both spoken and signed language.

What does the future of museum-based accessibility programs look like?

At a holistic level, museum accessibility will be rooted in inclusion, and will be built into the foundation of the museum – from the curatorial projects, to exhibition design, public programs, and community engagement. A key to the success of some of the programs we’ve implemented at the Hirshhorn Museum in the last year is the creation of our Accessibility Task Force, which includes members from departments across the museum: Curatorial, Exhibits, Public Engagement, Conservation, Photography, and Communications. Our bi-weekly gathering is where we brainstorm programs we would like to see happen, reflect upon programs we’ve completed, plotting our moves for the future – dreaming big and small.

Once a museum has the infrastructure in place to support programs, including accessible exhibition design, accommodations like transcripts and verbal description on audio guides, and staff devoted to improving and maintaining a standard of inclusion, the sky is really the limit.

Nine museum tactiles of various shapes and colors are placed on white table. In the upper left corner of the table are three small replicas of Yayoi Kusama’s sculpture titled Pumpkin. They are black and a translucent yellow color, with raised and inverted bumps that indicate the polka-dotted pattern of the pumpkin sculpture. Below the pumpkin tactiles are two replicas of Kusama’s Infinity Nets Yellow painting, comprised of black painted backgrounds with yellow net patterns painted over them. The painting on the bottom left is small and square shaped, the painting on the right is larger and rectangular in shape. The tactiles on the right side of the table are soft and phallic, made of red and white patterned cotton stuffed with cotton filling. There are four soft tactiles in total, and they are each about the size of a banana.

Can you describe the ways that you give tours of the museum’s exhibitions? How do you view your roll as an interpreter?

My role as an interpreter varies from tour-to-tour. At the Hirshhorn, we’ve devised several verbal description tours for exhibitions and our sculpture garden. Each tour starts with a description of the building, with a moment to touch some of the furniture and architecture in the lobby, which also serves to orient our visitors in the space and give a little bit of background on the museum’s history. Once we’re in the galleries, the tour is very similar to the standard tours we give, about 45 minutes long, often with a guiding theme. What is different about this tour, is that we give a brief description of the work before we discuss it, so that our visitors have some of the visual gaps filled for them. This practice is great as an educator and as a sighted visitor because it invites close and slow looking. In addition to describing the work, we often have tactiles – items a visitor may touch. For Janine Antoni’s work Lick and Lather (1993), we pass around chocolate and soap for visitors to smell and touch, since the sculptures are made of the same materials. For other works, we make replicas either by hand or using our 3D printer. Beyond verbal description of the work, I also like to describe the other work in the room and the way the space is lit to give the visitor a better sense of how the room was curated and what happens when works are placed in conversation with one another. As an interpreter, it is my job to provide our visitors with the tools they need to be an active participant in their own museum experience.

Todd, Félix, and a portrait of Ross. [Image description: A man wearing all black with white shoes and a white tote bag bends down in front of a large pile of colorful metallic wrapped candy, placed on the wooden floor of a white walled exhibition space. The candy is a sculpture titled “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” from 1991.]

Can you talk a bit about why you have chosen to integrate image captions on your Instagram and why others should adopt this same methodology?

Instagram is my favorite social media tool. After conducting research on verbal description, I grappled with how inaccessible it is as an app – that it is image based, but there is no mechanism for describing images. A few of my friends who are disability rights activists started writing verbal description for their photographs and I found the gesture to be both critical and powerful. Writing verbal description is such a beautiful practice. It forces me to think about the image, what I believe to be important about it, and what information I want to communicate. It’s sort of like composing a poem to go along with your image, offering a meditative pause for me and an accommodation for some of my followers.