Celeste Tooth says their neurosurgeon told them to wear their medical backpack on both shoulders. (photo via Flickr)

The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC, has apologized to a visitor with a disability who was removed from the museum on Saturday, July 22, for wearing a backpack in violation of its bag policy. Artist Celeste Tooth, who uses they/them pronouns, took to Twitter to point out that the backpack contained medical supplies and to decry what they viewed as the museum’s decision to “stop accommodating [their] disability.”

Tooth’s backpack (photo courtesy Celeste Tooth)

Along with other staff members, Tooth, a student and teaching assistant at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), was leading a field trip of 16- and 17-year-old students earning credit at their Baltimore institution when an NGA worker stopped Tooth for wearing a bag on two shoulders. According to the museum’s rules, backpacks must either be checked or worn on only one shoulder. Tooth says a security guard asked them personal questions about their disability in front of their students and was unreceptive to Tooth’s plea to find a compromise.

NGA spokesperson Anabeth Guthrie told Hyperallergic that a security worker “offered assistance and multiple options for storing or carrying the bag in line with our policy to be inclusive and welcoming” but Tooth did not accept the proposed accommodations. Tooth alleged they were asked to store their bag at the front of the institution and that the museum worker told them they were “taking too much time” and needed to leave; then, security escorted Tooth out of the museum.

“It reeks of violent ableism to call a SECURITY OFFICER to escort me out of the building solely because I need a medical bag,” Tooth said, further claiming that no one at the front of the institution had told them to remove the bag and that they had not encountered problems carrying the backpack at NGA in the past.

Tooth explained that their bag holds emergency medication that prevents them from having episodes that can lead to strokes, as well as other equipment including epipens and catheter supplies. Tooth said that after their third neurosurgery for lipomyelomeningocele spina bifida, their doctor told them to wear the bag on two shoulders so that they don’t fall. Tooth was accompanied by their service dog, Willow, who is allowed in the galleries under museum policy.

“It is not uncommon for museum attendants to tell me, ‘You have to carry your backpack on one shoulder,’” Tooth said in a phone call with Hyperallergic, but added that normally when this happens, they explain their medical situation and staff members understand. Tooth said they have never been escorted out of a museum or had any other type of significant issue.

Tooth’s service dog Willow (image courtesy Celeste Tooth)

After replying to Tooth the next day over direct message, the museum publicly responded to them on Twitter on Sunday, saying it was “truly sorry” to hear about their experience and announcing it was reevaluating its bag policy. “Our goal is to create an inclusive and welcoming space for all,” the statement reads. “And it deeply saddens us to learn that your experience did not reflect our values.”

In its public reply, the NGA said it had sent the contact details for its chief diversity, inclusion, and belonging officer to Tooth over direct message and encouraged Tooth to share further details about the incident if they felt comfortable doing so.

“What other information would you like?” Tooth replied in a Tweet. “May I suggest a paid meeting with you to discuss ways in which you can make your museum accessible to people like me —  considering the amount of time and emotional labor this has already required from me as a Disabled person.”

Tooth was flooded with positive responses as Twitter users expressed solidarity with the artist and criticized the museum’s actions.

This isn’t the first time a museum’s enforcement of a bag policy has made visitors feel uncomfortable. In March, Oregon’s Portland Museum of Art asked an Indigenous mother to remove a traditional Karuk baby carrier, sparking outrage online and prompting a promise to review the baby carrier rules.

“So many disabled people have had experiences being excluded at galleries and not being able to attend,” Tooth told Hyperallergic. “A lot of times, disabled people get exhausted from having to ask over and over so they just stop.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.