Exactly two years ago, I was in New York City walking through the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum carrying a black pen-like device. I pressed this pen against a QR code found on every object’s descriptive label, which saved that objects information and image to a unique visitor URL. The pen could also be used on one of several massive touch screens in the museum, where drawing shapes or gestures on the panel would render images of permanent collection objects that contain or resemble one’s drawn shape. An adjacent exhibition in the museum displayed digital communication tools and accessible design for people with disabilities: eye- tracking keyboards, Nikes with wrap around zippers instead of laces, mobile apps to support social interactions. My experience felt like a strange and fascinating simulation, teetering between attending to the items physically in front of me, and stepping aside to use screens that explored archival works through the pen’s capabilities.
As institutions scramble to update their digital platforms in accommodation of COVID-19’s lockdown measures, they are, in many ways, unintentionally creating a more accessible experience for visitors of varying abilities.
When I imagine what a museum could look like, it tends to parallel that day at Cooper Hewitt: a playground, an interactive space, an invitation to rethink about traditional notions of art and access. Art is buoyant, it’s upsetting, it’s transformational, it’s both simple and mystical. As institutions scramble to update their digital platforms in accommodation of COVID-19’s lockdown measures, they are, in many ways, unintentionally creating a more accessible experience for visitors of varying abilities.
If digitized art is meant to reflect society, or even transcend human capabilities then it must do so in an equitable manner.
The current requirement to digitize exhibition tours, create public programs for at-home engagement, and upload collections online has been long overdue when we think about the museum as an expansive tool for people to actively use, shifting our position from passive viewers to participants and collaborators. The digital museum is not intended as, nor even comparable to a replacement for reality — but it does extend our capacity to engage with art in very real ways. When we talk about reorienting art online to accommodate the lockdown, we are presented with an opportunity to highlight the communities that are institutionally oppressed, focusing on archives and collections of racialized and underrepresented groups. If digitized art is meant to reflect society, or even transcend human capabilities (the zoom feature in Google Arts & Culture for instance) then it must do so in an equitable manner.
I recently received a newsletter from the New Museum in New York City, embedded with a virtual exhibition tour of one of their Spring shows by artist Jordan Casteel. I had been planning a trip to NYC to see this show in person, but since the pandemic, I have found myself spending multiple hours everyday sifting through “home delivery” newsletters from various international galleries — I’ve watched free live streams of curators and artists in dialogue, sat through peacefully filmed gallery tours, listened to playlists curated to accompany specific online collections …It’s quite possible that I’ve engaged with more art in a shorter period of time than ever.
In Toronto’s pre-pandemic world, I tried to prioritize attending local openings, supporting public programs, and sitting in on talks. But my chronic health condition always usurped my agenda, often leaving me too fatigued or sick after a 40 hour plus workweek to do much meaningful participation. Amid our current devastating circumstance lays opportunity for brief relief, allowing one to virtually attend seminars or follow modified workshop instructions at home. The necessity of digitizing information to allow access for more people has always been prevalent, but now, for the first time, institutions are forced to entirely reimagine themselves. And in tandem with this adaptable flourishing of online resources, they must listen to our needs.