USF's Museum Blog

Robotic Technology & Inclusion at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

by Jenna Hebert

This year not only marks the 10th anniversary of the deYoung’s Golden Gate Park building, but it is also the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislature that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment and public services. There’s a buzz of activity throughout the nation in celebration of this landmark legislation. Amidst all of the excitement surrounding the anniversary lies a longstanding tradition of accessibility at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — which in the 1970s were among the first museums to provide touch tours for visitors with visual impairments and programs for the Deaf community.

Jenna leading an Access Workshop for the Cedars of Marin (artwork by Karen LaMonte).

Jenna leading an Access Workshop for the Cedars of Marin (artwork by Karen LaMonte).

Through the Access Programs, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) continue to provide physical access to the collections, as well as inclusive programming for members of the disability community. FAMSF goes well beyond what the law mandates for public institutions in terms of “accessibility.” FAMSF hosts programs for adults diagnosed with early stage dementia and their care partners, Access Days for temporary exhibitions, ASL Tours (American Sign Language) tours and docent-led Touch Tours.

Artists from the Cedars of Marin viewing Beth Lipman's Candlesticks, Books, Flowers and Fruit.

Artists from the Cedars of Marin viewing Beth Lipman’s Candlesticks, Books, Flowers and Fruit.

Since November 2014, I have had the privilege of contributing to Access Programs at the Museums under the leadership and mentorship of Rebecca Bradley, Manager of Access Programs and ADA Coordinator. I entered my summer 2015 internship at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco with the goal of helping to create an even more inclusive museum experience for visitors with disabilities. In addition to assisting with the programs listed above, I helped to develop art making workshops for adults with disabilities. I led a printmaking project offsite at Senior Access Marin in response to one of the objects in our collection: Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print Irises at Horikiri. I have also been working closely with artists from the Cedars of Marin, providing sculpture workshops at the de Young discussing and responding to works in the collection by David Smith, Karen LaMonte and Beth Lipman. We are hoping these partnerships with local organizations blossom into year round programs available to the entire disability community.

Beam Tour of American landscapes at the de Young. Photo courtesy of the FAMSF.

Beam Tour of American landscapes at the de Young. Photo courtesy of the FAMSF.

I believe the Access Programs succeed by providing a space where participants can gain a sense of ownership of the collection and freedom to experience and interpret the knowledge held in the objects. In April 2014, the de Young Museum began a Beam Tour program, advancing FAMSF’s mission to provide innovative programs and coinciding with an organizational push towards digital engagement. The program utilizes robotic technology to provide tours of the permanent collection to those with disabilities who are not able to physically visit FAMSF. Participants may “beam in” to the Museum by utilizing the BeamPro, a tele-presence robot. Participants then drive through the Museum galleries using wifi, Beam software provided by Suitable Technologies, and a web cam. The Tours occur on Mondays when FAMSF is closed allowing visitors uninhibited access to the galleries.

I have met several visitors from around the country and the globe who are thrilled to have the freedom to explore FAMSF using the Beam. The program is much more than a virtual tour because the visitor is ultimately able to control what they see and do within the galleries. Some visitors are interested in art history, some are interested in technology, but across the board, all are interested in gaining independent access to the Museum. This technology is not only helping to make the world seem smaller, but also creating opportunities for access and learning where those opportunities didn’t exist before.

Through my experience assisting with the Access Programs, I am gaining professional tools for developing successful and inclusive museum programs. I am learning about evaluation processes and how programs are constantly evolving based on visitor needs. I am also able to collaborate closely with museum staff and advisors to assess these programs and provide the best experiences possible for the community.

Docent Wendy Palmer discussing Karen LaMonte's Dress 3 on a Beam Tour at the de Young. Photo courtesy of the FAMSF.

Docent Wendy Palmer discussing Karen LaMonte’s Dress 3 on a Beam Tour at the de Young. Photo courtesy of the FAMSF.

My time as an intern at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and simultaneously as a student at University of San Francisco has allowed me to put social justice theory into practice through helping to create a more inclusive and accessible Museum. Both organizations have greatly influenced my career path by sparking an even greater passion for social justice and accessibility in museums. I am also able to see how much more work needs to be done towards this goal.

For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.

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