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Metropolitan Museum Aims for Accessibility with Sign Language Tours on Facebook Live

52,000 people tuned in to watch the museum’s first Facebook Live ASL tour, which showcased the Rodin at the Met exhibition.

Met Signs in the Studio in ASL (photo by Filip Wolak, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the past couple of years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has made an effort to reach new audiences on the internet. In February 2017, the museum launched its Open Access initiative, making hundreds of thousands of high-resolution images of works in its collections available for free and unrestricted use online. Last fall, the Met’s Access and Community Programs Education Department tapped into social media, presenting its first American Sign Language (ASL) tour on Facebook Live.

Emmanuel von Schack, an art historian and lecturer who gave a Facebook Live ASL tour of the Rodin at the Met exhibition, told Hyperallergic in an email that he was excited about the project for two reasons. First, “it is a tour that anyone in the world with a Facebook account can watch live or afterwards.” And second, “it increases visibility of and awareness about American Sign Language, Deaf identity, and the Met’s commitment to accessibility and inclusion.”

“When Facebook Live was introduced, we saw it as a natural wedding, for our ASL tour guides to be using that platform,” Kimberly Drew, the Met’s social media manager, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview last month. “The response has been extremely positive.” The Rodin tour as viewed more than 52,000 times. The next Facebook Live ASL tour was viewed by 18,000 people. And a recent live-streamed ASL program, on Umberto Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” reached 17,000 views in 24 hours.

Drew said the museum does spoken exhibition tours on Facebook as well, and the ASL tour viewership numbers have been impressive, “comparatively in the same range as other tours.” (These efforts may help to counterbalance criticism of the Met’s recently updated admissions policy, which, financially speaking, makes the museum less accessible to non-New Yorkers.)

Rebecca McGinnis, senior managing educator in the Met’s Access department, said social media can make the museum “less intimidating,” but its online ASL efforts aren’t completely new. “We’ve had ASL programs for a long time. In 2001, we had an Evening of Art & ASL, a tour and reception for the deaf community. During the reception, we talked with the audience. People were interested in giving tours, so we started a program for deaf guides,” McGinnis said.

Met Signs Tours, which take place monthly, led to an ASL art-making program and a project called Viewpoints, exploring sculpture through the eyes of curators, as well as a dancer, a neuroscientist, a musician, and a deaf ASL user, among others. “It was a lovely opportunity to engage the sculptures in the Met collection as an art historian and as a deaf ASL user,” von Schack said. “What makes it more rewarding is that it was a digital project, which means that the videos I created are accessible at anytime to anyone in the world with an internet connection.”

“New York City (the Met and Guggenheim) has probably the most accessible programs for the deaf and hard-of-hearing as well as signing folks that are not deaf,” Dina Rae Padden, an assistant principal at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, told Hyperallergic in an email. Private galleries, she added, have a reputation as being among the least accessible art spaces.

Debra Cole leads a tour in ASL (photo courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“Museums are often more inclusive of various people than other kinds of public spaces,” said Debra Cole, a Met Signs educator, in an email. “I think it is because of the nature of the service. Museums provide cultural experiences that are available mostly through aural means (speaking tours, audio tapes, etc.). So there is a high demand among Deaf patrons for accessibility.”

Von Shack said that some New York museums aim for accessibility not only at special events, but also for drop-in visitors, often using ASL audio guides and ASL interpreters upon request. “I do want to emphasize the usage of transcripts as well,” Padden added, “since there is a good number of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals who do not sign very well.”

Although it would be difficult to subtitle a ASL tour broadcast live online, Drew said the museum already has plans to create titles for the ASL video outlining the Met’s updated admissions policy. And since the Facebook Live videos are available to view weeks after they’ve streamed, the museum will most likely retroactively caption those as well.

Several other museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and Washington DC’s Smithsonian American Art Museum, have prerecorded video blogs in ASL, but as far as Drew knows, the Met is the first to livestream ASL tours online. “We hope other museums take this on, too,” Drew said.

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