by Laura Harvey
I have been researching and learning about access issues in museums for over a year as a part of my museum studies graduate program at the University of San Francisco. Previously, I worked at the Children’s Museum of Denver as an Educator and as a paraprofessional one-on-one classroom aide for children with disabilities in the Chico Unified School District. My commitment to access blossomed while writing a research paper on autism for a graduate museum studies class. I began to understand the great need for inclusiveness in museums. In December 2013, I became an Access Intern at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM), where I have had invaluable experiences, mostly because of my wonderful supervisor and mentor Cecile Puretz, The CJM’s Education and Access Manager.
Cecile has been working for many years in Access in the Bay Area and has developed programming and events for CJM, as well as, co-created the Bay Area Arts Access Collective (BAAAC), a group of museum professionals, representatives from cultural arts organizations, and individuals from the disability community who are interested in enhancing accessibility in Bay Area museums, arts, and cultural organizations. When Cecile asked me to join for the Family Access Day I was excited.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum strives to ensure that all of their facilities, exhibitions, and programs are accessible to all of their visitors regardless of age or ability. CJM’s Family Access Day serves families and children with disabilities. Last February’s Sunday event, featured a Studio of the Senses art workshop, a dance workshop, family tours, and a screening of a Frog and Toad movie. Families explored the museum and workshops with flexibility and ease. Programs and events such as Family Access Day not only reflect and support the community of San Francisco, but also reach those who have been underserved by the arts.
In the Studio of the Senses art workshop children created texture books made up of a multiple pages filled with different textures and materials. They were encouraged to experiment by touching and looking at all of the materials, as well as, listening to noises made when materials were rubbed together. They were later able to take the books home with them to become familiar with the textures again. We also created an area for children to use their noses to guess what the scented hidden object was in the box. Engaging different senses allows children to explore the world around them in many ways and facilitates alternative learning experiences.
The dance workshop was crafted in collaboration with AXIS Dance Company, an innovative local dance company consisting of performers both with and without disabilities. For thirty minutes children and adults learned to move their bodies in new ways. Engaging children kinesthetically creates alternative methods to express emotion, express themselves, or just be silly.
During the family tours, visitors were led through the featured Frog and Toad exhibition where original illustrations from the books were on display. Children were asked to use their imagination as the educator read through part of one of the books before the tour began. Inside the gallery families were encouraged to look closely at the different colors, shapes and animals used in the illustrations. At the end of the tour, families were given the opportunity to draw their own pictures and write their own stories. These tours were also helpful because they allowed quiet time for families, which many children with disabilities need.
Towards the end of Family Access Day the films Frog and Toad Together and Frog and Toad are Friends were shown. As everyone sat around the big screen mesmerized by the films, there was a sense of calm that made me grateful to be a part of the event.
Family Access Day opened my eyes to new ways to engage our community with disabilities. It allowed me to see that people of all ages learn in many ways and each way is just as valuable as the next. There was also a sense of community created during the event which further fostered my trust and appreciation for museums that support people of all abilities. If you haven’t already, volunteer at an Access event and see how inspiring they can be.
If we mobilize the spectrum of human abilities, not only will people feel better about themselves and more competent; they will also feel more engaged and able to join the rest of the world community in working for the broader good. –Howard Gardner
Photography by: Gary Sexton Photography