I usually write accessibility reviews of arts events that have accessibility features. This time I decided to write one about a New Zealand Festival event which wasn’t accessible but has the potential to be very accessible in future New Zealand Festivals. It would not be helpful to criticise access in this case without giving useful advice on how some relatively minor things could be done differently to make significant accessibility improvements.
It felt like the last day of summer the day we visited. What could be better, then, than a leisurely outdoors wander around the Civic Gardens, adjacent to The Dowse Art Museum in Hutt City, exploring the Shapeshifter exhibition in the warm sunshine? It was an experience both satisfying and, sadly, frustrating.
Shapeshifter was curated by The Dowse Art Museum’s Director, Courtney Johnston, and her team. It was deeply satisfying and enjoyable to be able to get close and personal and touch many of the exhibits, because being displayed outside they had to be robust. They gave food for thought as well as the pure sensory delight of touch, colour, shape, form and texture, even rich, warm sound.
Barriers to enjoyment
But the sunny weather brought its own problems. Because of the random location of exhibits and the unhelpful catalogue there was no guiding logical order to follow. Frequent reference to the catalogue was needed. Finding shade to remove my sunglasses and put on my reading glasses to struggle to read the small, grey text in the bright light created a significant barrier to my appreciation and enjoyment of the work. This wasn't helped by the tiny exhibit numbers in the catalogue, which were printed sideways.
This difficulty left me feeling tired and irritable, with a slight headache and overall disappointment with the experience, despite the variety, quality, tactile and interactive nature of the work. Towards the end I gave up, not having seen all the work. It was a case of paying the same as everyone else for a lesser value return.
This was a great pity because with some careful forethought and only a little more expense Shapeshifter could have been a very accessible experience.
The daytime opening is ideal for older and disabled patrons who sometimes find evening events difficult, especially where there is a lack of public transport. This is a positive aspect of the exhibition. Fixing some of the other accessibility faults would be appreciated by older as well as disabled people.
With a few adjustments, particularly at the entrance, most of the exhibition could be physically accessible. If an expert environmental access appraisal is sought for future Shapeshifter outdoor exhibitions, advertising could then include specific information on physical access.
We were welcomed very nicely at the entrance, but for me that was where it ended. Feeling welcome is more than a pleasant and friendly greeting. I enjoyed encountering a group of new New Zealanders exploring the exhibition, along with lively groups of school children. Why not welcome blind, vision impaired and other disabled people to an engaging exhibition with such accessibility possibility.
A more thoughtful and logical layout and catalogue presentation for future exhibitions in this space would enable user-friendly navigation guidance for a more pleasurable visitor experience.
Having photographs of the sculptures was helpful, but the accompanying print size and quality was poor. The grey print and tiny sideways printed numbers were very difficult to read. A better quality print and colour contrast of text to background would be an improvement. Being able to download a large print copy in advance would be an extra and much appreciated accessibility feature.
The robust nature of many exhibits, the scope for physical tactile interaction, including interactions to produce beautiful sounds, is one of the strong attractions for me, as a vision impaired person. This interactive element lends itself particularly to audio description for blind and vision impaired people.
Shapeshifters had the potential to be very accessible. It could have been a more exciting addition to the New Zealand Festival programme, which is positively and seriously including disability and Deaf access.
Robyn Hunt is a journalist, communicator, writer and an Arts Access Advocate. A co-writer of Arts Access Aotearoa’s Arts For All guide, Robyn’s communications company AccEase helps ensure websites, information and communications are accessible. This blog was first published on her blog Low Visionary.