Designing for Accessibility: Curator Rachel Delphia Celebrates Access through the Decorative Arts

Interview by: Claudia Haines

Pittsburgh-based curator Rachel Delphia has prized creativity and ingenuity throughout her life. From a childhood spent creating with her family to an education in Industrial Design at Carnegie Mellon University, her work is driven by an exploration of the relationship between beauty and functionality.

Rachel, with long brown hair in a black sweater, standing in front of a pastel wall sectioned off to display pastel push vacuums
Rachel Delphia, Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art, in the 2015–2016 exhibition Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk. Images courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

As the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Delphia has curated a series of impactful exhibitions blending design history and technology. In 2017, during a trip to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, Delphia saw Access + Ability, an exhibition that highlights how technology and creativity have come together to create life-changing products to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. For Delphia, Access+Ability made an instant impression as an exhibit that Pittsburgh, a city teeming with technological advances and innovation in design, could benefit from, and she brought the exhibition to CMOA in the summer of 2019. While it was on view, Access+Ability served as a catalyst for conversations about what museums can do better to serve each and every one of their visitors. 

When it comes to accessibility in the arts, one size doesn’t fit all. But as museums proceed into the future, curators like Delphia are committed to showing the importance of inclusive design and the necessity for adaptive and equitable spaces, while celebrating the full spectrum of human creativity and ingenuity in the process.

Claudia Haines: How did you become interested in decorative arts and design?

Rachel Delphia: I come from a creative family. My mother was an art teacher before I was born, and all of the men in my family had woodshops in their basements. I grew up enjoying creating things, but I prefered to make useful and functional objects rather than paintings and drawings. I always enjoyed the challenge of creative problem-solving, which led me to study industrial design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). We’d be assigned a problem to solve and I would have to apply research, creative thinking, and hands-on skills to execute a concept. So I came at the subject first as a maker, and not as a scholar or curator. 

At the same time, I’ve always loved to write, so part of me was drawn to the humanities. I was never particularly captivated with art history as it was presented to me in school. I went to a small public high school, and we learned about Gothic and Renaissance architecture, Italian and Netherlandish painting, and Impressionism, and that’s all I can remember. There was no decorative arts history, so I didn’t really know that was a thing.

When I was a teenager, I went to visit my mother’s childhood best friend, Nannette Maciejunes, who is now the director of the Columbus Museum of Art. She was a curator at the time, and I had an inkling that perhaps I wanted to be a curator too. But it wasn’t until I was at CMU studying industrial design (and also literary and cultural studies) that I started to realize there was a crossover in my interests in objects and art history. It all makes sense now, but it was a circuitous path. Until I was twenty-three I didn’t feel that, with my background, becoming a curator was even a possibility.

How do you feel that curating decorative arts is different from curating paintings or sculpture, media you might traditionally expect to find in an art museum?

I like to think about my work in decorative arts and design as celebrating the whole spectrum of human creativity. For me, that’s how it fits under the umbrella of “art.” I’m not interested in having the discussion about a chair, and asking, “is that Art with a capital ‘A’”? Most of the time, I don’t think it is; it’s a chair. We can look at that chair and appreciate it aesthetically with the same criteria that we would consider with fine art, be it form, line, color, shape, texture. But we can also add the functional dimension and consider how the chair works, the intended users, and the material choices. When we’re talking about everyday objects—where the goal of the maker is to make a chair that pleases the client—then I think we can have different types of discussions.

The nuts and bolts of the curatorial processes are very similar between decorative arts and the fine arts. We identify interesting works of art or design, we put them together in intriguing ways, we set up objects in dialogue so that people can discover their meanings. But with decorative arts and design, there is an added opportunity to invite people to consider something that can be part of their everyday experience. We have many examples of design in the collection that are designed for mass production: items that were and still are affordable and are the kinds of things that might be owned by many people. I think we have the opportunity to ask everybody to reflect on their own life and the objects around them.

CMOA’s introduction to Access + Ability featuring the Accessible Icon. Access+Ability was organized by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. The CMOA presentation of Access+Ability was organized by Rachel Delphia, the Alan G. and Jane A. Lehman Curator of Decorative Arts and Design. Images courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

a blue wall with a white wheelchair icon with the person actively leaning forward, in motion, with the text 'access + ability' written in all capital. white text. in front of the wall are chairs around a table

Visitors explore the “Living” section of the exhibition, featuring designs for dressing, bathing, and eating. Installation view, Access + Ability, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

visitors stand in a white gallery, where a bright green painted wall highlights accessible clothing. the gallery also has seating and biking examples on white platforms

That reminds me of your involvement with the recent exhibition Access+Ability, because one goal of that project was to highlight objects that are both functional and beautiful. Can you tell me about your role in bringing Access+Ability to CMOA?

Access+Ability was a project organized by colleagues at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. I saw the exhibition there about two years ago, and I found it really inspiring. As I said, I’ve always been very interested in the idea of design as problem-solving and how human ingenuity and creativity can address real needs. Especially when we think about disability, needs can be multi-faceted. An individual may need a special shoe because of some limitations with mobility, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of aesthetically attractive design. So when I saw Access+Ability at the Cooper-Hewitt, it struck a chord.

At the time, at CMOA we were talking a lot about accessibility. We’ve made updates to the museum building, like implementing automatic doors and updating signage, updates that mostly improved our spaces for physical accessibility. Now, we’re thinking more broadly about accessibility for all kinds of visitors. For years we’ve had a program called “In the Moment” for people with dementia and Alzheimers to experience the museum. We’ve also created programming specialized for visitors who are on the autism spectrum, who are deaf or blind, or who have cognitive disabilities. 

Access+Ability created an interesting pivot from strategy to subject matter. With the exhibition, museum staff weren’t only looking at making content accessible and asking “What else can we do? What new accommodations can we offer?” but rather sharing content about accessibility. The exhibition felt like a complement to museum initiatives and a catalyst for change.

Visitors view prosthetics, wheelchairs, and wheelchair accessories in the “Moving” section. Installation view, Access + Ability, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

blue rectangles on the wall contain the wheelchair icon in motion and gallery information in white - in front of the walls, wheelchairs and displayed on platforms

Why did you feel like that content was something that Pittsburgh needed to see?

I often think about my position inside the art and design world versus the background of our average visitor, who may not be familiar with the museum field. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to visit museums around the country and around the world, but there are many people who primarily visit museums within their own region. As an institution we need to be proactive about bringing in a whole array of content to engage our local visitors. I don’t think that Pittsburgh necessarily needed this exhibition content over Chicago, Nashville, or Atlanta; rather, Access+Ability was an essential and inspiring project that every human being could connect to in some way. This connection is really important in terms of building empathy and inspiring and empowering people to think of themselves as agents of change.

Access+Ability confronts how capitalism, as a driving force, doesn’t bring everything to market that everyone needs. It often takes an advocate to fight for products that address individuals living with disabilities. This advocate might be a person living with a disability, a friend or a family member, somebody who works in a field that brings them into contact with people with a wide range of abilities—anybody with empathy and awareness to identify a gap, and say, “We can do better.” This type of thinking is critical for our whole society, and it’s part of our role as public-serving institution to further those discussions.

In general, do you feel like museums are doing their part when it comes to accessibility? Or are there still ways in which museums are failing?

I think a lot of museums are very energized about this kind of work; most of us are in this field because we’re passionate about the things we have to share, and we want to share them with as many people as possible. But like all organizations, we have systemic challenges. A lot of museums were built before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. Many museums are in buildings with historic designations, which adds another layer of complication and expense to physical upgrades. So, yes, museums could always do more.

One of the things that Access+Ability highlighted was the range of options for improving accessibility, and simultaneously the need to select the best ones. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything, right? For instance, in an exhibition, what are all of the ways that you can make content accessible to people with different abilities? One option is to use people as the interface—this could mean tour guides with different language skills, ASL interpreters, or people verbally describing works of art visually and objectively for someone who is blind. Technology can also be used, whether there’s a device at each artwork, or visitors rely on their own device. Braille and large print binders can help. You can even have things that people can physically touch in the space to create a multisensory experience with a work of art. There are so many possibilities, but we can’t use every single one of those things in every exhibition with every artwork. So how do we find the most impactful ways to serve the most people?

One size doesn’t fit all. At the same time, one solution with a particular audience in mind can benefit more people than intended or expected. In our collections galleries, we installed two tactile reproductions of paintings—Frederic Church’s The Iceberg (1891) and Mary Cassatt’s Young Women Picking Fruit (1891). At each work, we have 3D surfaces made of white plastic with the composition of the painting raised in relief, so you can feel the compositions with your hands. These were created with blind visitors in mind, but not long after they were installed, we heard from a group for young adults with autism that being able to touch something while considering the art was impactful for them, too. So one size doesn’t fit all, but doing one thing can have greater benefit to many. It’s an exciting and challenging space.

Visitors stand at the junction of the sections “Connecting” and “Navigating the Environment.” Installation view, Access + Ability, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Photo: Bryan Conley.

visitors gather around a display case containing glasses

What kind of impact do you hope your work continues to have on people who visit CMoA?

Our mission is to connect people with art, ideas, and one another, and I really believe in that. Particularly within decorative arts and design, I hope we can stimulate people to reflect on their relationship with the built environment. Yes, we want people to think about design aesthetically, but also we want visitors to learn that objects have meaning, and that things can be well-designed. It’s important to think critically about the things we bring into our lives, and consider how things are made, and who is making them. Objects say a lot about who we are, our values and our priorities as a culture and as individuals. We want people to ask themselves these questions. But I also want people to have fun! We have some truly extraordinary pieces in the collection, and I absolutely want to provide that opportunity for awe, wonder, inspiration, and thinking, “I can’t believe somebody thought of that,” or “How on earth did they make that?” or “That’s just the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen!”

About the author:

Claudia Haines is an emerging art historian and museum professional based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is currently completing her MA in Art History and Museum Studies at Tufts University, after earning a BA in Art History from the University of Pittsburgh in 2020. Her research interests lie in museum education and accessibility, as well as late medieval religious art. She plans to pursue a PhD and a career in museum work after graduating.

Find Claudia on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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