MOST MUSEUMS have been made "handicapped accessible," but that's meaningless so long as most exhibits are designed for visitors who can walk and see. A new show at the Baltimore Museum of Art offers both good and bad examples of how to open museums to the disabled.
The exhibit, on loan from New York's Museum of American Folk Art, grew out of the frustrations of a legally blind art student who was unable to find art history information on audio tape or in large print.
The result is a show that's billed as being designed for the handicapped but really only accommodates fairly tall blind people who can both walk and deal with needlessly confusing information. Very young or short blind people, or anyone in a wheelchair, may find the experience frustrating.
Happily, all the exhibits can be touched, and the show features audio cassettes that not only describe the objects but tell the listener how to get from one to the next. The captions are in braille and also in type large enough to be read by many people with limited vision. Photographs are provided that can be manipulated so that those with tunnel vision can scan them section by section. Docents who have received "sensitivity training" stand ready to assist visitors.
Unhappily, the descriptions generally are too sketchy to be satisfying and some contain misinformation (the bottlecap snake's tongue is not rubber but plastic; swan hunting is regulated, not outlawed). Some of the photographs are murky. The two dozen objects are numbered out of sequence, and many are out of the reach of a person in a wheelchair.
In short, although the exhibition is said to have had a great deal of input from handicapped people, it displays the sorts of tokenism and oversights commonly found in things that are designed for the disabled by people who are able to see and to move around with ease.
Museum directors complain that the cost of designing for the disabled isn't justified because few of them visit museums; many disabled people will tell you they don't go to museums because what they get out of it isn't worth the effort of dealing with the physical and visual barriers.
The designers of this grant-supported show, however, have a special responsibility because of its proclaimed purpose. They should go through the exhibit blindfolded in wheelchairs, and then go back to their drawing boards.
The major beneficiaries of the show are what a legless friend of mine always called "the temporarily able" -- those of us who have not yet been handicapped by illness, age or accident. Freed from the usual don't-touch restrictions, we can run our hands over the fabulously figured quilts, whirl the whirligigs, rock the Shaker rocker and stroke the carved cottonwood coyote.
And perhaps gain some appreciation of what we'll be missing when our own eyes or legs fail us.
ACCESS TO ART: Bringing Folk Art Closer -- Through Nov. 11 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive at Howard Street. 301/396-6310. Open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Friday, 10 to 7 on Thursdays and 11 to 6 Saturday and Sunday. Free admission on Thursdays, and every day for those under 18; adults $3; seniors and students $2. Good wheelchair access.