Episode 72

72. ‘Speechless: Different by Design’ Reframes Accessibility and Communication in a Museum Context


November 18th, 2019

14 mins 42 secs

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About this Episode

Museums tend to be verbal spaces: there’s usually a lot of words. Galleries open with walls of text, visitors are presented with rules of do and don'ts, and audio guides lead headphone-ed users from one piece to the next, paragraph by paragraph.

But Speechless: Different by Design, a new exhibit at the Dallas Art Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, guides visitors as far away as possible from words with six custom art installations.

In this episode, curator Sarah Schleuning and graphic designer Laurie Haycock Makela discuss how their personal experiences lead them to Speechless, and describe the process and considerations of putting it all together.

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 72. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

Museums tend to be verbal spaces: there’s usually a lot of words. Galleries open with walls of text, visitors are presented with rules of do and don'ts, and artists guide headphone-ed users from one piece to the next paragraph by paragraph.

But there’s a new series ot exhibits designed to be different, to guide visitors as far away as possible from words.

One of those is a collaboration of the Dallas Art Museum and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It’s called Speechless, and to underline the point, it is subtitled: different by design.

Sarah Schleuning: Speechless has been an exhibition that merges research and aesthetics and innovative new design to explore accessibility and modes of communication in the museum setting.

This is Sarah Schleuning, curator of Speechless.

Sarah Schleuning: Hello, my name is Sarah Schleuning and I am The Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and the interim Chief curator at the Dallas Museum of Art. And I love to focus on projects that really explore ideas of how design and art can transform our everyday lives.

The roots of Speechless come from Schleuning’s own rethinking of how to communicate without language.

Sarah Schleuning: The idea really germinated out of something very personal for me which is that one of my children has motor planning disability, a neurological issue that rendered him, when he was younger, fairly speechless and I had to sort of rethink how I communicated with him and how we as a family interacted with somebody where language wasn't the primary avenue. So it started in that idea, but I was also in my curatorial work had been really interested in issues of playscapes and interactivity and how the exposure to aesthetics and design are really great gateways to get people to really think about how that impacts their everyday life. And so this project was a merger of these ideas.

Even museums that specialize in the visual arts have a tendency to communicate verbally with their visitors.

Sarah Schleuning: I think that that was the thing that I realized even for myself here. I deal in visual culture. But the way I communicate about it is through words or through, you know talking about it and and that I myself am hyper sort of hyper-verbal. All of a sudden, I had this very close proximity to somebody who wasn't interested in learning from me through language and what I started to realize really because we started using the Picture Exchange system communication system, which is a series of images that you use to communicate. So you'd say what do you want to eat? And on the sheet would be a picture of a series of different foods and then they could point and so it's very sort of prescriptive. And it would be apple.

And then what I started thinking was we at museums are sitting on this vast repository of images is I mean, you could use Magritte's Apple, there are so many different looks and feels and kind of different nuances to what an apple could be or these images and in essence that communication is kind of a two way thing.

The project is made up of six art installations intended to foster “participatory environments” within a museum context, and in particular, engage the senese.

Sarah Schleuning: We had the opportunity about a year ago to invite 6 design teams to come to Dallas and work on this project. And we invited six specialist from the Dallas community that were scientists, but kind of both theoreticians and practitioners who specialized in fields like neuroscience and autism, dementia, communication disorders, physical therapy related to sensory issues and really to think about the broader spectrum of what disability looks like and how to broaden our own perceptions of how to design for that and think through those ideas.

Sarah Schleuning: But I think the biggest underpinning of the exhibition for me and for the institutions were that it was an experience that ultimately was positive and joyful so that these fully immersive interactive spaces that each design team was creating was really something that was positive and felt like it offered an opportunity to see the greatness in the difference between us, instead of seeing it as a negative.

One of the pieces, by Yuri Suzuki is called ‘Sound of the Earth Chapter 2’ and features a giant, unmarked black globe. Without the context of the familiar outlines of continents, visitors instead hear sounds recorded at the part of the earth while they place their ear against the surface of the globe. Sounds from more southern regions are accessed by crouching down.

Another, by Misha Kahn, features a garden of colorful sculptures that inflate and deflate throughout the day.

The task of bringing all of these tinstallationals together fell on designer and educator Laurie Haycock Makela. Maklela was responsible for the overall graphic identity and the corresponding exhibition publication.

Laurie Haycock Makela: Hi. My name is Laurie Haycock Makela. I'm a graphic designer and an educator and I'm working on the book and some of the kind of related exhibition kind of graphic identity issues for Speechless. As a book designer I deal with words also, so there's a certain irony and working on this project, but it made me really attentive to you know, I'm a typographer, you know, kind of. You know from the bottom of my heart, you know, I look at language as image also,

Like Schleuning, Makela understands what it is like to communicate non-verbally.

Laurie Haycock Makela: I've been a book designer and an educator and all that for years and years and then I had two brain hemorrhages and brain surgery which really made my everything stopped, you know, that was but… So yeah, I think that Sarah brought many of us in here because of certain personal experiences that make it so we really understand in some pretty deep way or experiential way what our options are when we. You know are left with maybe for a while. I couldn't I didn't speak or write or read or anything like that. So I had to rethink all that. So I really identified with the content or the concept of this project from the very beginning, you know.

The six installations only thematically relate to one another, and are introduced by the ground rules “Be curious, be thoughtful, be gentle.” -- one of the few instances of text in the gallery. Visitors can experience the installations in any order they choose by going into rooms off the main area, which Schleuning explains by evoking a sea creature.

Sarah Schleuning: The exhibition itself will be designed kind of like an octopus is I guess the best way I can think to describe it and when you go in the room if you think of the octopus's sort of head, it is actually going to be an empty room.

Sarah Schleuning: And that room will have some furniture and we'll have some things and they'll be these kind of videos that are really going to be sort of short Boomerang videos of each artist in their space kind of showing people what to expect what they would use their and so that then you could understand. Yes, they're six spaces.

Sarah Schleuning: Then the place like Lori's doing is really. We wanted to make a space. That was what we called kind of a de-escalation Zone and you know those spaces typically a museum like sensory spaces and others which are becoming more commonplace in institutions, like Museum often are off of the sort of educational space or in other places, and we wanted to put it primary in the exhibition it we wanted it to be sort of fully accessible and not, stigmatized is probably too hard of a word but making it feel like it was accessible to everyone that everybody may need it the opportunity to just have a moment to take a to sort of reboot and refresh. In that space there will be rockers and weighted blankets and one of our Specialists deals primarily with that. So we vetted that project and what we wanted to use in there in that. And then Lori the book that Lori is done, which really shows the whole creative process of each of the different designers will be wheat pasted on one of the walls and and so we'll both be a place for reflection for people to look at these but also a kind of stabilizing line for people if they need to sort of combat calm down or recenter.

Even though the museum world has a term for visitors needing a break from galleries -- it’s called museum fatigue and you can listen to a brief overview of it on episode 2 of Museum Archipelago -- the causes of museum fatigue and a best practice approach remain speculative.

Researcher Beverly Serrell found that visitors typically spent less than 20 minutes in exhibitions regardless of topic and size before becoming much more selective about what they explore. Her research supports the notion that visitors have a limited time frame after which their interest towards exhibits diminishes.

And this is the reason why you can usually find at least a bench 20 minutes into a linear exhibition -- but it’s clear that museums can do much more. The designers of Speechless hope that their approach can contribute.

Sarah Schleuning: The other thing that I really wanted to make sure happened in the exhibition was that you never walked from one project to another you always go into a space and then you come back into this central, sort of emptier, zone so that you always have a chance to it's almost like a palate cleanser, right? You always kind of go from one experience and then you're able to reflect a decompress and then you can move into another.

Sarah Schleuning: We don't know how it's going to go. I mean part of the idea of being experimental, and I applaud both institutions for encouraging us to go really go for it is that you don't know what's going to be successful or not. And so we are investing in doing evaluations during the project and it's our intention to then publish those findings at the end because we want to.

So much of the planning for this exhibit comes from making visitors comfortable enough to have a non-museum-like interaction with the art, but visitors are used to a museum context with clear text instructions.

So how soon into the visit do they start playing and lose some level of inhibition, loose some of the exhibit context.

Sarah Schleuning: I stay up at night thinking about that. I think it's been really interesting because even with you know, the designers themselves, you know, it's that balance between they want to make something that's really spectacular and it's in an art museum and they want it to really have, you know be elevated at that level and at the same time, how would you interact with this as a child? You know and and how would you change that to be more responsive to that or to think through these things? And trying to work through, you know the best you can but you never know. And and that's what makes it both, you know, exciting and anxiety-producing.

Laurie Haycock Makela: Yeah, I just started biting my nails. Yeah.

Speechless, with its visually-striking rooms is opening into a world more comfortable than ever about expressing itself non-verbally. Audio and images and animations of images are just as easy to create, modify, and share as words. Episode 14 of this show, which was an entire discussion of museum selfies from 2015 feels hopelessly outdated in 2019 -- images are how many visitors “talk” about the galleries they visit.

Like any language, there’s a continually evolving grammar in images and selfie, and one strategy is for a museum to give visitors the tools of that grammar: a dictionary and a thesaurus in the form of strange shapes and a colorful backgrounds.

Exhibits like Speechless give visitors the tools to center non-verbal expression within a museum frame.

Speechless: different by design is now open at the Dallas Museum of Art, and will be until March 22, 2020. After that, the same exhibit will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.