Access+Ability: A Vital and Inspiring Exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art

Sound shirt showcased at the Access+Ability exhibition at CMOA


Access+Ability: A Vital and Inspiring Exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art

Author: Thomas J. Morton

Senior Lecturer, Architectural Studies Program, History of Art and Architecture

As the world continues to refine its thinking on accessibility – perhaps most importantly by expanding the general concept of accessibility – the Carnegie Museum of Art hosted a provocative and timely exhibition, Access+Ability (1 June – 8 September 2019), that showcased dozens of products and designs that are expanding access and ability for many people around the world.

Organized into four large sections: ‘Moving,’ ‘Connecting,’ Navigating the Environment,’ and ‘Living,’ the exhibition highlighted some of the recent products and designs that have sought to great expand access and ability for many. Some of these were to be expected, e.g. better designed walking canes, while others, such as the Soundshirt, which “translates the experience of listening into a physical and sensory experience for people who are deaf or hard of hearing,” were completely new and stunning in their creativity. Wonderfully, within each of these sections there were plenty of objects and displays that encouraged active engagement with the visitor. For example, one could touch the handles of new canes, try out the new flatware, and play with Uno cards that were redesigned for those who are colorblind. In addition, there was a display monitor and program entitled, “I wonder what it is like to be dyslexic.” Each of the four sections did not try to be exhaustive in terms of the objects and designs on display; rather, a tremendous breadth of items was on display. They ranged in scale from the fabulous DotWatch (2017) with its Braille displays for time functions and receiving text messages to inclusive playgrounds such as the Magical Bridge Playground (Palo Alto, CA, 2015).

Each time that I visited the exhibition, I was pleased by the audible gasps of the museumgoers and to hear frequent exclamations such as, “That is pretty brilliant,” and “This is so freaking cool.” The designs on display are awe inspiring, and as it was noted in the wall text: digital technology has completely transformed communication in our lifetime, and people with disabilities have benefitted greatly from these new digital communication tools. These individuals drive innovation, and these new designs are greatly expanding access and ability for many. 

Although the majority of this exhibition’s run has occurred while most classes were on summer break, its final weeks have provided a brief window for students of all ages to engage with the show. I hope that Pitt faculty members in various disciplines might still encourage students to use the exhibit for class visits, assignments, and projects before the exhibition closes on September 8. 

As a side note, I am sure this exhibition will have encouraged the Carnegie Museums to reflect on its own accessibility challenges. It was not lost on the observer that docents had to stand at the entrance doors to the exhibit – an exhibit on accessibility – since there are no blue push pads to activate automatic doors for those with limited mobility. As is equally true of our own Frick Fine Arts Building, the accessibility problems of historic architecture remain an urgent issue for public institutions of all kinds. 

Lastly, one cannot review an exhibition without a few words on the related items in the museum store. The exhibition highlighted products and research, and accordingly, design objects and books with research were for sale in the museum store. I applaud the museum store staff for having affordable objects that would appeal to a range of ages (e.g. Braille math blocks for children and compression socks for adults) and darn good and relatively inexpensive books. Graham Pullin’s book, Design Meets Disability (MIT Press, 2009) and Matthias Hollwich with Bruce Mau Design’s New Aging (Penguin, 2016) stand out among the books; the latter being a particularly enjoyable book to read. 

Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable and inspiring exhibition. Initially organized and exhibited by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2018, the CMOA exhibition was curated by Rachel Delphia, the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design. I applaud her and the museum for bringing such an important exhibition to Pittsburgh and would strongly support the curation of similar exhibitions at the CMOA. As a recent transplant to Pittsburgh, I can state without a doubt that this has been my favorite exhibition at the CMOA.

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