PARTICIPATE Activates Accessibility at the NCMA

 On view through July 3, 2022, PARTICIPATE: Activate the Senses invites visitors to engage with a combination of tactile and digital stations that connect various senses—sight, hearing, touch, and smell. The interactive exhibition provides a unique experience with minimal barriers to experiencing select works of art in the NCMA collection. Overall, the exhibition features eight works from across five different Museum collections, each with at least one sensory component that aids accessibility and interactivity.


A gentleman reaches out to touch a box of shells built into a white podium that houses a work of art. He is looking at the work of art.
Sensory stations in the NCMA’s PARTICIPATE: Activate the Senses exhibition open doors to accessibility.

One of the most popular stations in PARTICIPATE is the digital touch replica next to Allegorical Portrait of an Artist in Her Studio (circa 1675–85) by Michiel van Musscher. This digital replica has multiple sensory components, including a textured surface that visitors can use their hands to feel. The station’s monitor reads out audio descriptions and historical information for different parts of the painting, and all the audio is captioned in the lower corner of the screen.

A women looks down and reaches out to touch a monitor with a replica of a painting attached to it. On the wall in front of her hangs the same painting.
The touch replica of Allegorical Portrait of an Artist in Her Studio (circa 1675–85) allows visitors to feel different textures represented in the painting.

To create the sensory stations, our curatorial, design, and interpretation staff requested feedback from people with disabilities. We first consulted with the Museum’s Accessibility Stakeholders Committee (ASC), which evaluated PARTICIPATE based on their prior experiences with successful and unsuccessful accessibility-driven art installations. We then researched other former exhibitions in partnership with the ARC of the Triangle, an organization that supports children and adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

Three museum visitors are interacting with different sensory stations. A person on the left is drawing on a screen. Two people on the right are bent down leaning over a podium.
At right a visitor smells some of the foods depicted in the painting Still Life with Fruit, Cheese, and a Pitcher (after circa 1830).

Following those conversations, the NCMA conducted additional in-person surveys that included questions from our staff members. One member of the IGNITE Center of the Autism Society responded to a query by stating that “this opportunity lets [members] be the experts in their experiences, which is usually not the case.” Other members of the community responded to survey questions stating they are excited because they love art, and having these sensory stations with accessible tools connects them with the art in new ways. Ginny Lou Laughlin, an advocate for the blind, shared that when visitors “can come into a museum and have accessible tools available, it does open up [their] world.”

“Not every mind or body will experience art the same way. But every mind and body is entitled to the experience.”

National Endowment for the Arts

Two young children stand in front of an art station. One is watching a video, the other touches a replica of an artwork while talking to an adult on her right.
Young visitors explore an ancient Whistling Effigy Jar (circa 200 bce-200 ce) by touching a replica of the art object and listening to it being played as an instrument.

Throughout the exhibition, we will continue to conduct research on the different aspects of the installation, including user friendliness and visitor satisfaction. These evaluations will determine how we can enhance the stations once they become a part of our forthcoming collection reinstallation in October 2022. This research is also essential because it allows community members with disabilities to become a part of our exhibition process, representing just one way the Museum is working toward the future of more accessible visitor experiences.

Learn more about accessibility at the NCMA by signing up for our newsletter on accessible events and information, or visit our webpage.

Maya Brooks and Felicia Ingram
Maya Brooks (right), Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator, and Felicia Ingram (left), manager of interpretation, accessibility, and diversity, co-curated PARTICIPATE: Activate the Senses at the NCMA.

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