Initiated by Stefanie Wiens with Katrin Dinges, Patricia Carl, Charlotte Röttger, Silja Korn and Hildegard Wittur.
From an inclusive art education project to a company
The name of the former pilot project <Platz da!> says it all: it is about space for new perspectives on art through educators with “disabilities”1. In addition to new perspectives, a blind guide or a workshop leader with learning difficulties also creates barrier-free, innovative education formats. The initial impetus for this was the Master’s thesis People with Disabilities in Museums. A pilot project in the Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin by Stefanie Wiens. In this research, the framework conditions in the museums turn out to be leading for the realisation of an inclusive institution, i.e. an open place for as many different visitors as possible. An important condition is a diverse workforce. A demand, which is known, but hardly realized by publicly funded cultural institutions in Berlin2.
In particular at the management level, we have white, German, married men between the ages of 40 and 55 without any visible “disability”. These decision makers are responsible for hiring new employees, but rarely deviate from the standards set out in their working environment3. How can this often unconscious behaviour be resolved? All people, not only the decision-makers mentioned, are called upon to reflect their own power and privileges. Stefanie Wiens did the same in January 2017 and passed on her art education scholarship to five women with different “disabilities”. In practice, this meant that a blind woman, a deaf one, a hard of hearing and blind one, a woman with learning difficulties and one of short stature, realized art education events at the Kunstverein neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK) in Berlin.
This activist approach at staff level also changed the program and the audience of the Kunstverein. The concept was so effective that the now expanded team of cultural managers, artists, lyricists and educators not only made the project permanent, but founded the consulting firm <Platz da!> barrier-free cultural education and process support for inclusion.
A man before Format (Mensch vor Format)
In 2017, the art educators with “disabilities” realised 13 art education formats together with Stefanie Wiens. There were open and closed ones. Accordingly, visitors were able to take part spontaneously or had to register. In the open formats, they discussed, for example, the Federal Participation Act in the exhibition Dreams and Dramas. Law as Literature. Together with the visitors the act was illuminated from a variety of angles. In addition, a sensitising guided tour on portrait drawings was given and a curator talk initiated (Picture 2 and 3).
It quickly became clear that closed formats are more suitable for those art educators, whose form of communication can be a barrier for visitors. So, among other things, Sign Dating was created. This is a communication format for an equal number of deaf and hearing visitors, in which only non-verbal and written communication is permitted.
The principle that the human kind determines the format and not the other way round was particularly evident in the artistic art education formats that were developed together with the art educator with learning difficulties, her assistant and Stefanie Wiens. The educator adapted artistic strategies and developed her own performances as a reaction to the confrontation with the artworks. Many of these formats had an interventionist and activist character, so the team also intervened directly in the exhibitions.
The exhibition Queerhana, for example, was commented by the educator via video. This video was made available to all visitors right at the beginning of the exhibition and took up the theme of the discursivity of art, which Carmen Mörsch once expressed herself as followed: ” Respect for her discursivity forces the viewers – even out of sheer politeness towards art – to stop worship in the form of silent staring and instead respond to enter the discourse. Art education thus succeeds even when it opens a space for – possibly not foreseen comments – by the art system”4.
This quotation was pinned under the video in the exhibition space. Further interventions in the exhibitions were the joint crocheting with the visitors to one artwork (Picture 1) and the exchange with the exhibiting artist Nina Lundström about borders. Furthermore, a planting action for Lois Weinberger’s exhibition, singing along in the Swan Song Operetta and reinventing one’s own life story on a postcard – based on the artwork Woman to go by Mathilde ter Heijne (Picture 4).
In contrast to the traditional guided tour, which gives the visitors an overview, the <Platz da!> events usually focused only on one work of art. So it becomes clear that the format of an all-encompassing guided tour often does not fit with an inclusive approach. This already begins with the accessibility of artworks itself and includes the information provided by artists and curators on the works of art. Art educators with and without “disabilities” need detailed information in order to develop good education formats. Often, however, these are rather short, written in a difficult language or unreadable for screenreader.
Such barriers could be overcome by the project manager by researching additional sources, translating them into simple language and converting them into screenreader-compatible formats. Nevertheless, limits also became clear: contemporary art is often very conceptual and some of these complex contexts could not be explained in simple language. Therefore such works were not chosen for art education events by the art educator with learning difficulties.
The same applied to some of the blind educators who wanted to develop formats in a purely visual exhibition and were therefore always referring to descriptions of the project team. If the works of art couldn’t be touched, either because they were too fragile or because they did not offer any haptic value, it made things even more difficult – so such works of art were not selected for art education formats. Thus it was often only one suitable, accessible work of art that was in the focus of <Platz da!> workshops and interventions.
In sensitising formats, the team dealt offensively with the described gaps in information about the artworks. The visitors for example first experienced the exhibition not seeing with eye masks and later took on the role of descriptive persons. In the end, it can be said that good art education formats resulted from close cooperation between artists, curators and educators with “disabilities” – but this experience does not differ from that of art educators without “disabilities”.
Differently and/or adapted is only the way of working of the diverse <Platz da!> team. In internal meetings as well as in public art education format, a space is created for encounters at eye level. That includes a general slowing down of usual processes, the use of stop cards for simple language and the setting of clear rules. In addition, the team always works according to the principle of multi-sensory and multilingualism. Contents are always conveyed on different sensual channels; for example visualized and verbalized. In addition, translations are made into simple language and sign language. This is not an extra, but a necessity and improves the communication and understanding of all people.
Reflection, courage and curiosity are required
For some time now and in a growing number of museums, there have been efforts to open up as an institution for heterogeneous groups of visitors; also for visitors with “disabilities”5 . Nevertheless, museum employees with “disabilities” are still a rarity and there is no data about it (for example surveys of personnel numbers). In particular, the exposed position of educators is hardly or not at all occupied by people with different “disabilities”. Although this approach – as shown above – leads to the desired opening of museums in the long term, many museum employees baulk at this radical step.
However, the few existing pilot projects, among them once <Platz da!> itself, show the success of these efforts. These must be expanded and intensified. When working with educators with “disabilities” two important aspects must be taken into account. The education formats should deal with content, i.e. with the art or culture to be mediated and not primarily with the “disabilities” of the educators. It seems almost strange that this matter of course, which is taken for granted in other guided tours, must be claimed here. Unfortunately it corresponds to the experience of the <Platz da!> team, that many visitors are mainly fascinated by the unknown forms of communication and not by the art itself.
Therefore, time and space for sensitisation and questions are needed, yet it must be clear what it is mainly about: the work of art. A balancing act between reducing fear of contact and inviting visitors to ask questions on the one hand and focusing on the actual topic of the event on the other. No or little clarification about a disability or way of communication leads to a missing dialogue: then the visitors are often too insecure to talk to the educators themselves, but only to their assistance.
Intimate, cross-border questions by visitors often result from an open invitation to ask questions. Here, the visitors must ask themselves: would I want to be asked such a question? And would I also ask an educator without a “disability” this question? A second important aspect is payment. A direct comparison with yourself, but also with the situation of educators without a “disability” helps: would you like to be paid for your work? And are other educators paid for their work? The answers make a further explanation needless at this point.
Museum staff working with educators with disabilities gain new perspectives and skills. However, this does not mean that all museum staff support these efforts. That is why, in order to be able to inclusive in the long term, professional support behind the scenes of the institution is needed. The goal of openness must be supported by the management level and be recorded in its mission statement. All employees must take part in training courses and seminars in order to fulfil the educational mission of the museum. It is important to critically analyse the structures in one’s own institution.
This is challenging for all people and can only succeed with external advice, because as Pius Knüsel once stated: “I assume that we, the cultural administrators, cultural sponsors, actors of socio-culture, above all we want nothing to change. We are part of the social elite; we define the concept of culture on which money depends”6. You, me, all people are called upon to expand this concept of culture and to share our power!
1 The quotation marks refer to the opinion of the author, that disability is an arbitrary construct. Cf Palmowski, Winfried & Heuwinkel, Matthias 2010: Normal bin ich nicht behindert!: Wirklichkeitskonstruktionen bei Menschen, die behindert werden. Unterschiede, die Welten machen. Verlag Modernes Lernen (German source).
2 cf Freudenberg, Andreas (2009): Be Berlin – be diverse. Was machen wir mit unserer kulturellen Vielfalt? Ein Symposium der Senatskanzlei – kulturelle Angelegenheiten in Zusammenarbeit mit der Gemeinnützigen Hertie-Stiftung. Dokumentation und Auswertung. URL: http://www.berlin.de/imperia/md/content/senkultur/bediverse/
4 Free translation from the German language to English by Stefanie Wiens.The quotationn by Mörsch, Carmen (2002): Enttäuschte Erwartungen, bestätigte Befürchtungen: Kunstcoop in der Ordnung der Diskurse. In: Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst e. V. (Hg.): Kunstcoop. Künstlerinnen machen Kunstvermittlung. Berlin: Vice Versa Verlag, 76–91.
5 cf. Wiens, Stefanie:“Menschen mit Behinderung“ in Museen. Ein Pilotprojekt im Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart in BerlinWiens (2014).
6 Free translation the from German language to English by Stefanie WiThe quotationation by Knüsel, Pius: Kultur für alle – Illusion oder konkrete Utopie? In: Fonds Soziokultur e.V. (Hrsg.): Shortcut Europe 2010. Dokumentation des europäischen Kongresses zum Thema <Kulturelle Strategien und soziale Ausgrenzung> vom 3. Mai bis 5. Juni 2010 in Dortmund (S. 37 – 41). Essen: Klartext Verlag.