No place I’ve been highlights the failure of the “universal design” concept with such accessible aplomb as the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Whatever I think about the exterior architecture (let’s just say I’m not a modernist and leave it at that), the interior of the de Young is beautiful. Breathtaking. Soaring. It’s got gorgeous works of art from around the world lovingly displayed in big, open galleries.
The de Young was clearly designed with a great deal of thought and attention to the ADA’s rules and regulations. They’ve got the basics down pat: The elevators work. All the bathrooms have big stalls with grab bars and paper towels low enough for wheelchair reach. The cafeteria’s another flat space, with lots of tables but still enough room to belly a wheelchair up to enjoy a local, organic meal. The galleries tend toward wide open spaces, with broad aisles between the displays making for plenty of room to move whether you’re in a sleek manual chair or a wide-bodied ECV. The floors are smooth flat wood, with no carpets, runners, or other trip hazards. There aren’t even any of the bumpy bits that seem so prevalent on the paths in the park below.
Did I say “fail” at the top of this post?
Yes. Yes I did.
Every bit of the intense thought brought to bear on making the de Young accessible seems to me to have been concentrated on one group, and one group only–folks in wheelchairs. Not a bad thing at all in and of itself. As I spend more time working with and for people who use wheelchairs, I’m seeing the world in a new way. And I’m thrilled that this museum makes itself so inviting to a group of people who often have a tough time getting even the most basic access to cultural attractions.
But what about my friend Caitlyn, who’s 8 months pregnant? How about Bari, my fabulous traveling companion whose health causes fatigue? And…er…what about me?
For me, visiting the de Young sucks hard. It’s awful awful awful.
Short story: There’s nowhere comfortable to sit.
Long story: It feels like so much deep thought went into wheelchair use that there was no time and no room to think a little bit broader. Though folks with conditions like chronic pain need less accommodation than wheelchair users, “less” does not equal “zero.” And at the de Young, unless you’ve brought your own chair, the seating options are dismal. Many of the galleries housing the permanent collections have no seating at all. Those galleries that do have seats have…these.
This is a slick-surfaced triangular wooden bench with a seat that’s tilted at a downward angle. Seriously. More of these cluster in visually interesting arrays in the museum’s lobby. They look great when viewed from the second floor balcony. They also make the concept of sitting even less comfortable than that of continuing to stand.
In desperation I eventually found a broad windowsill to sit on, out of sight of the guards.
Nowhere in the entirety of the de Young did I find a single padded seat of any kind, though I did find one narrow-backed bench. Movable chairs with backs appeared in the museum cafe. In normal circumstances I wouldn’t call them comfortable, but after 90 minutes on the gallery floors the cafe chairs felt like the cushiest of easy chairs.
The hardwood floors don’t help the situation. With no cushioning at all, anywhere, my shoes were the only defense I had. My cute little designer sneakers didn’t have anywhere near the orthopedic structure to battle the floor, and my back took quite a beating as a result. I certainly don’t recommend heels at the de Young!
In the bigger exhibits, many of the information placards sit near the bottom of the cases. Because there are no seats adjacent to these cases, I had to either bend at the waist (oh yippee) or squat to read them. The ultra low lighting, which seemed unnecessarily dim in the African Art galleries, made reading even harder. And my eyes work fairly well–if I had diminished vision it would have been wretched.
The Bottom Line
The de Young serves as a prime example of a problem I’d like to help rectify–this narrowness of vision when it comes to “accessible” design. They’ve gotten one thing right in their inclusion of visitors in wheelchairs. But between their narrow definition of accessibility and perhaps an overdeveloped sense of aesthetics at the expense of patrons’ comfort, they fail at providing an inclusive environment for tens of millions of art lovers.