what does ‘access’ really mean?

What does ‘access’ mean? What does it really mean?

One of many buzzwords seamlessly inserted into gallery talk titles, curator panels, and symposia I see advertised, ‘access’ has morphed from something seemingly simple and inarguable, into one of those multi-headed vocabulary dragons that we critics feel the need to disentangle, precisely because of its multiple interpretations and charged connotations.

How can we talk together about what ‘access’ means when we all define it in different ways?

Perhaps that is what makes the term so charged – it’s discursive possibilities – and one of those possibilities is its constant flattening into checkpoints. Gallery doorways and exhibition corners have ADA regulated measurements, for example, and often this is the only statement included under “Visit>Accessibility” on museum websites. To be honest, sometimes we see this same attitude translated into education and public programs, where it seems that simply to talk about access in abstract ways – perhaps even as I am doing now – is equivalent to action. These are not ‘bad’ ideas to implement, per se, but their apparent inarguability makes asking for more seem somewhat ‘extra.’ Every institution should ask itself from time to time what checkpoints deserve a second look, or what programs could be freshened up, because what I have come to learn is that ‘access’ is never a checked box. What ‘access’ means is never stagnant — always shifting with individual needs, cultural shifts in civic awareness, and political and geographic context. There may be standards or benchmarks to hit, but an institution should always leave room to react.

There are other definitions of access, too; maybe one day I won’t have to turn to others to find out my own answers, or maybe this is what we all must do. Among the many definitions I have heard recently that tackle this word ‘access’, the most striking comes from Irit Rogoff in her essay “Turning,” part of the 2010 anthology by Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson titled Curating and the Educational Turn (Open Editions, De Appel). In discussing the possibilities of education, she defines ‘access’ as:

“The ability to formulate one’s own questions, as opposed to those that are posed to you in the name of an open and participatory democratic process.”

Rogoff is interested especially in issues of education or intellectual access, and pays special attention to how politics and power come to bear on education and other institutional practices. In a world where ‘access’ can take on the weight and responsibility of saving the world, I appreciate her subtle critique of the term’s co-opting in her very definition of the word. If I ask what accessibility means, I also must ask what can pose as accessibility. And I must also ask myself if these directive questions are coming from my own formulation, or if they have already been posed to me before, in the name of something democratic.

To pose, or a pose, is a gesture. If we want to be linguistic about it, it is a sign, a code that when decoded, points to something else, be it an object or something more intangible, like class, authority, or belonging. What is interestingly always a part of the pose is a speculation that what the code ‘represents’ or ‘means,’ if you will, is fake. Why pose if you already are? And why ever trust a poser?

There seems to be a significant gesturing to ‘access’ in the art world, with less fruitful connections between that signifying word, and tangible possibilities of what ‘access’ could look like or could do. ‘Access’ is too easily commodified and used as a prop for a social justice pose. Rogoff recognizes a kind of paradox in institutions with authority that determine what ‘access’ means for those who might not typically have access. She follows:

“For it is clear that those who formulate the questions produce the playing field.”

To activate more sports language, I remember always being told that the team with the ball wins. As simple as that may sound, it is true, and may be even more salient in its reverse: you can’t win if you don’t have the ball. Rogoff defines ‘access’ by the freedom one has to make their own decisions and to pose their own questions. In the same breath, she recognizes an institutional defense that can sometimes limit the choices people have in how they interact with art, with history, with a space, and with each other. The public are reacting to the institution and its predetermined modes of ‘access’, instead of the other way around.

That is a strong suggestion, I know. You might say that museums these days are too reactionary, implementing yoga programs to establish cultural viability and catering marketing strategy to the visual spectacle and quick swipe of social media platforms. Those examples are valid, but I don’t think they contradict my point; they may even support it. This kind of institutional reaction is still focused on numbers, body count, clicks per post, views per story. These initiatives are still focused on community connection as a checkbox that can adequately be filled by quantity, measured by statistics, and used in the next grant application for a program to improve ‘access.’

There are many ways that museums and other institutions not only pose the questions but write the story for their visitors. Just look at museum maps, tour programs, docent training, accession records, and even the exhibition content and layout itself. Simon Sheikh speaks about this narrative authority in his essay “Letter to Jane (Investigation of a Function),” from the same anthology. Simply and sweetly enough, he says:

“The exhibitionary complex is by definition pedagogic…”

One of my personal favorite ways to describe curating or exhibition design is as a visual  essay, because within the constraints of time and space, you similarly pull together disparate pieces from different authors to form a cohesive narrative. That is perhaps an overused analogy, but my English degree and narrative theory readings nevertheless inform my interpretation of Sheikh’s straightforward, yet packed statement. A story will always tell a perspective, and one of the tricks of the 19th century realist narrator was to make their perspective appear invisible, and thus have the sheen of false objectivity. Donaldo Macedo, the author of the foreword to pedagogical theorist Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of Freedom, 1998, expresses a similar revelation:

“The insidious nature of ideology is its ability to make itself invisible.”

Separate from education and public programs departments, exhibition proves itself to be an inherently pedagogical (or didactic) mode of address. This is especially the case when housed in or endorsed by institutions built on nationalist and imperialist narratives – stories brewed with ideology and wrapped in de-personified objectivity. Narratives that despite being ‘post-colonial,’ still market themselves as centers of ‘culture.’

The call to question institutions for their ideological bend is not exclusive to museums, but rather comes out of a widespread effort – especially considering the American social political culture – to de-condition oneself from inherited ideologies, particularly harmful ones. Paulo Freire – the man who wrote the book mentioned before – in so many words, claimed that “education is ideological,” and put his word on the belief that good teaching would unravel ideologies at play in a child’s environment to help build individuals who can think and decide for themselves. This optimistic, anti-establishment, and humanistic sentiment – that one’s condition needs to be broken down in order to be rebuilt – echoes Rogoff’s point before about questioning ‘access.’

Ideology is about controlling the story, particularly the story of someone else; history is just what others remember for us. So in my desire to question what ‘access’ really means, I must turn to these people who discuss ‘access’ in its close relation to history, museums, and education, as all of these are informed by ideology.

My use of these terms ‘education’ and ‘access’ are expansive, I know, but I believe each of the theorists and critics I have enlisted here would agree that education cannot be limited by a setting, but instead, that any institution that embarks on a mission of representation – of a country, an art-historical period, or an artist – is venturing into pedagogical practices. Following, any institution that does not include issues of misrepresentation and mis-historicization in their evaluation of ‘access’ is ideologically motivated, consciously or not.

Some people in the arts are trying to increase access along these standards by giving people the chance to recount their own stories in the context of the museum – to author their own questions. I recently learned about a project by artists Maia Chao and Josephine Devanbu called “Look at Art. Get Paid.” Simple enough, they paid people of any age and background who had rarely or never before been to a museum to visit the RISD Museum as guest critics, and then the artists shared that feedback to staff at the museum to make positive changes across departments (not just education or visitor engagement). Chao and Devanbu’s project was motivated by many questions, but one sticks out:

“Historically, museums have sought to enlighten and civilize a public. Look at Art. Get Paid. asks: How can the museum be enlightened by those who are not presently served by it?”

This guiding question served them as they built the program from scratch, but this question was not one that they posed to the guest critics. This program was to serve a wider public than the museum was serving, but the artists chose very intentionally not to ask the guest critics to conform to the museum’s expectations of regular guests, but instead asked, “Please tell us what you really think; not what you think we want to hear.” The artists offered the critics a wide assortment of options by which they could interact with the museum’s artwork and architecture during their visit, with the important inclusion, “We want to offer you support if you want it. You are in no way obligated to follow these suggestions.” Setting up mutual expectations in a working relationship is worth the work on the front-end, and the outcome of those relationships provided the critics tools for inquiry, not rules.

Instead of making the guest critics adjust, Chao and Devanbu made it clear to everyone involved, that the Museum wanted to adjust, and that these guests were the ‘critics’ – meaning experts of their own experience – for that adjustment. These artists acknowledged publicly that the museum was the one being critiqued, and that it would react to the feedback it received. Eloquently put, one of the critics shared:

“The Museum has to change before other people’s perspectives of it can change. It has to feel like an actual welcoming experience.”

In the words of a Museum staff member upon hearing the feedback of the program:

“There’s a big difference between theorizing the needs of hypothetical visitors versus really witnessing and hearing about real lived experiences.”

Chao and Devanbu provide a model of assessing ‘access’ that puts the public in the role of expert and author of their own experience, and positions the museum as the reactive institution. This simple action convinces me, but at the same time I wonder if there might be more nuance to proactive versus reactive ‘access.’ Or if, in a twist, these larger questions that Chao and Devanbu ask about the relationship between power, authority, knowledge production, and museums, are important only because of a necessity that the art world has produced.

Image Credit: http://www.lookatartgetpaid.org/home/



  1. this is such a great thought-provoking piece! I think so much of it speaks to change, and whether when institutions claim a commitment to change they mean merely additive or transformative. I think your piece gets at the core of that in a fresh way I hadn’t considered before


    1. thanks, detmer! yeah this is definitely part of a wider conversation – though I recognize that when it comes to transformation, conversation about transformation isn’t that much better than conversation about addition. i definitely think that the term ‘access’ is over- and mis- utilized in these conversations – as an accessory rather than a wrench.


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