The Redefine/ABLE exhibition at the virtual Peale in Second Life

Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility was an international collaboration that began with the goals of sharing the challenges, successes and stories of people living with disabilities in Baltimore and Maryland at large; interrogating the idea of “ability” within historical, cultural and ethical contexts; and creating a model for the ways exhibits and other information delivery can be more accessible. During the 2019-2020 academic year, the 2020 University of Maryland, College Park graphic design cohort conducted research and worked with disabled stakeholders to create the exhibit under the leadership of Professor Audra Buck-Coleman. The project was presented in partnership with cultural sites in the UK: the De La Warr Pavilion, the Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton, and the University of Brighton, and developed in Second Life by Linden Lab and Virtual Ability, Inc. Halsey Burgund built the open source platform and app, including a new mobile web site, used by the project.

We intended this project to manifest as a cross-platform or “transmedia” exhibition in two different physical spaces—the Carroll Mansion in Baltimore and the Herman Maril Gallery on the University of Maryland, College Park campus—and in an online space, all planned to open in March 2020. Redefine/ABLE became an online-only exhibit due to Covid-19, with an exhibition microsite sharing stories by people living with disabilities via video and essays, and an active social media presence. We were also able to install a re-imagined version of the physical exhibition in the 3D virtual Peale in Second Life thanks to a partnership with Linden Lab and Virtual Ability, Inc. that was a result of the MW20 Conference and the virtual conference space they built for MuseWeb in the virtual world. The digital gallery was modeled on the physical Peale’s “Picture Gallery,” the room that makes the historic museum building architecturally unique. Like the Redefine/ABLE website and social media posts, the exhibition in Second Life is accessible to online audiences 24/7 and engages an entirely new global public for the Peale. Opened August 15, 2020, the virtual Peale already receives more visits than the Peale in Baltimore, even when it is open (the Peale has been closed since September 2019 for renovations). The reach of the online exhibition was further extended by a robust program of online workshops and panel discussions hosted in Second Life, Zoom, the Peale’s website, and YouTube as part of Strawberry Linden’s “Lab Gab” live-streamed variety show, tripling the Peale’s audience engagement numbers in 2020 from preceding years. The project’s Second Life presence attracted groups and bloggers to visit and report on RedefineABLE and the virtual Peale, including Novata, who voluntarily created a comprehensive video for their YouTube Channel and generously created a shortened version of it for this GLAMi award submission.

The pandemic both altered Redefine/ABLE’s installation plans and heightened the pertinence of the project’s mission. By restricting us to online interactions, Covid-19 showed us how ill-prepared we were at the Peale to use technology to its full potential, and where our digital blind spots lay. Even with a technologically-savvy team and a born-digital collection, we found ourselves in April 2020 wondering why we hadn’t been doing more online pre-quarantine, given the extraordinary increase in our global reach and audiences as we took all of our programs online for the duration of the pandemic. For example, the Peale now has a growing audience of Deaf participants thanks to adding captioning and ASL interpretation as standard in all online programs – an inclusive design development that was inspired by the Redefine/ABLE exhibition’s move online and will continue into the Peale’s programming in the physical world as well. What took us so long?

As “the oldest new museum in Baltimore,” the Peale has embraced its unparalleled opportunity to question and reinvent the very concept of the museum for the 21st century, while building on two centuries of cultural, technological, and educational innovation within its own historic walls. Opened in 1814 by artist Rembrandt Peale, Peale’s Baltimore Museum and Gallery of the Fine Art Arts was housed in the first purpose-built museum in the United States. Rembrandt’s museum was inspired by his father, Charles Willson Peale, who had opened the first American museum in Philadelphia in 1786. Rembrandt also introduced gas lighting to the city of Baltimore. By 1816 his Baltimore Gas Light Company was installing the country’s first gas streetlight network, giving Baltimore its nickname, “Light City.”

Peale sold his building to the city to become Baltimore’s first City Hall in 1829, and in 1878 the City located Male and Female Colored School No. 1 in the Peale Museum building: the first of the city’s public schools to offer Black students a secondary school education. After the school moved onto bigger and newer premises, the building was used for manufacturing and finally became a museum again in 1930 – the city’s first Municipal Museum. Part of the City Life Museums, the Peale Museum was known in the 20th century as the go-to place for those wanting to learn about Baltimore, from students to out-of-town visitors, and along with an impressive collection presented ground-breaking and critically-acclaimed exhibitions that focused on the social history and fabric of the city. Unfortunately, the Peale Museum was shuttered in 1997, along with a number of other city-owned museums. Its collection was transferred to the Maryland Historical Society, and the vacant historic building was left to decay for 20 years.

In 2017, we began bringing the Peale back to life as a home for Baltimore stories and a laboratory for museum practice. Today the Peale is the only museum dedicated to the intangible cultural heritage of the city, and stewards the largest digital collection of Baltimore stories in the world. Our aim is to preserve and share the whole story of the city to help people see Baltimore in a new light. At the same time, we are reimagining the 21st century museum as much more than a treasure house: it is a production house of culture, and a laboratory in which we can experiment and share new models for accessibility, sustainability, and relevance while helping create a more inclusive cultural record of the city. The Peale is a platform where local creators – storytellers, griots, performers, artists, architects, historians, students, educators, and other culture-keepers – can produce and present authentic narratives of the city, its places, and diverse communities. In the Peale Museum building, Baltimore’s stories and voices have a showcase that honors their contributions to the city’s cultural heritage.

Redefine/ABLE served this mission by specifically addressing the needs of and inviting people living with disabilities to amplify their voices and share their stories through the Peale’s web-based story recording tools, the free Be Here Stories iOS app, a new web app version of the same, which was made possible thanks to funding for this project, and a free “storytelling hotline” that can be accessed without a smart phone, as well as in-person and online story recording events. All of the exhibition’s events happened online with live professional captioning and ASL interpretation. The recordings of these events and their transcripts remain a free online resource after the end of the project.

Nonetheless, as a panel discussed during the exhibition’s opening event in Second Life, there are barriers to accessibility even in the internet’s oldest and most developed virtual world: sign language interpretation is not yet possible due to the limitations of rendering for avatars, and some find the need to build and navigate the world via an avatar too onerous, either for their technical skills or their computers’ processing power. Even as virtual worlds have enabled access for people of many differing needs and abilities to a wide range of experiences and communities, they are not a panacea for inclusion. With no single platform or solution for universal accessibility, inclusion must be approached, as Debbie Staigerwald from The Arc Baltimore commented during a Redefine/ABLE online event, “one person at a time.”

Spanning multiple physical and digital platforms, the structure of the Redefine/ABLE exhibition reflects the emergent nature of the museum as distributed network even as we address each platform’s affordances and limitations ‘one technology at a time.’ Perhaps more now than even in its original dual-site format, the Redefine/ABLE exhibition represents an important initiative for testing and exploring ways of creating spaces that are not just more accessible but, especially when connected, also more inclusive. The project has transformed the way we approach presenting online exhibitions and events at the Peale, helping us make important advances in the accessibility of our programming, as well as delivering on our mission to be a laboratory for developing more accessible and inclusive cultural spaces.

In a sense, the Peale has never been more accessible than since the pandemic began. The Redefine/ABLE exhibition exemplifies this pivot in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak as well as the Peale’s commitment to inclusion. But is the Peale more inclusive as a result? As the Peale’s focus on online programming since the pandemic started has demonstrated, there are limits to the reach and accommodations afforded by digital technologies. Like the historic Peale Museum building, currently under renovation to add accessible facilities and an elevator among other improvements, the tools and techniques needed to bridge the “digital divide” today are incomplete, in development, and in some cases completely absent. How can we “dismantle the master’s house” using the digital tools currently at our disposal?

Speaking in a panel discussion on this topic as part of the Redefine/ABLE exhibition project, Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, digital artist and educator, argued that we can only be fully inclusive when those who have been excluded by the systems of power and oppression build and control the platforms and tools necessary to create a new cultural discourse. This is an important inflection on the 1980s rallying cry of disability rights activists, “nothing about us without us,” suggesting the need to rethink not only the Peale’s commitment to accessibility, but also its strategy for inclusion. It requires the Peale and cultural organizations of all kinds to commit to capacity-building and enabling access to the means of cultural production for constituents. RedefineABLE took us some way toward this goal by funding the further development of the open source platform on which the Peale’s Be Here Stories app and mobile website are built. Developed by the artist Halsey Burgund, the Roundware framework has been adopted by a number of other institutions and initiatives around the world, including heritage sites in the UK as a result of the RedefineABLE project. The experience of reimagining the Peale in a virtual world and reconceiving an exhibition on “redefining ability” during a pandemic helped the Peale develop new tools, resources, and strategies for bridging the physical and the digital to become a truly global distributed network. At the same time, it opened our eyes to the deep structural re-engineering that we must still undertake in order to facilitate the writing of a soundtrack of the city that, by including all its voices, helps people everywhere see Baltimore in a new light.

In closing, we thank the huge number of generous individuals and institutions whose talent, expertise, and donated time made this project possible under unprecedented conditions. Collaborators included Dr. Audra Buck-Coleman, UMD; Dr. Lara Perry, Dr. Claire Wintle, and Prof. Jeremy Aynsley, University of Brighton; Rosie Cooper, De La Warr Pavilion; Kevin Bacon, The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove; Naliyah Kaya, Montgomery College; and Dr. Nancy Proctor, the Peale. These were joined by Robin Marquis, Cheryl Fogle-Hatch, Ruth Lozner, and Mollie Greenberg who worked with contributors including Marguerite, Joe, Yoshi, and Sabrina to record their stories redefining “able.” Redefine/ABLE physical exhibitions, social media presence, and website were created by UMD students Lily Huang, Jacqueline Kim, Haley McClelland, Aleah McWilliams, Richa Mishra, Grant Neave, Anh Nguyen, Julia Peigh, Elizabeth Pham, Maiu Romano-Verthelyi, Disha Shetty, Jordan Smith, Sanjayan Vijayaverl, Emma Weisbaum, Diana Wikner, and Maram Zehra, with support from Quint Gregory and the Peale’s Heather Shelton and volunteer, Titus Bicknell. The virtual Peale and its 3D exhibition gallery were created in Second Life by Linden Lab’s moles under the leadership of Patch Linden and with the support of Brett and Strawberry Linden, who also made sure the virtual world and the physical one knew about the project! The talented team from Virtual Ability, Inc., lead by Gentle Heron and Eme Capalini, created and installed Redefine/ABLE in Second Life with support from David London, the Peale’s Chief Experience Officer. Novata created and edited the video about the virtual Peale and Redefine/ABLE exhibition for this GLAMI award submission. Halsey Burgund built the Be Here Stories app, mobile website, and their underlying Roundware framework. We also thank the participants in Redefine/ABLE’s online programs: Beth Ziebarth, Director of Access Smithsonian; Jeffrey Kent, Artistic Director at the Peale; writer and educator, Mandla “Kosi” Dunn; George Ciscle, Curator-in-Residence , Emeritus at Maryland Institute College of Art; Monica Rhodes, Director of Resource Management, National Park Foundation; Dr. Jeremy Wells, Associate Professor in the Historic Preservation program in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland, College Park; Noreen Smith, educator and Peale outreach collaborator; Azure Grimes, Senior Program Manager at Libraries Without Borders; Daisy Brown, the Peale’s Storytelling Ambassador and Photographer; Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, artist and Assistant Director of the STEAM Learning Lab at Lesley University; and Debbie Staigerwald, Director of Volunteers and Interns at the Arc, Baltimore. Last but not least, we are grateful to the Peale’s communications team, Maya Wilson and Heather Shelton, whose digital skills also made this GLAMi award application possible.

Redefine/ABLE was made possible in part by a grant from Maryland Humanities, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Maryland Historic Trust in the Maryland Department of Planning, and the Maryland Department of Labor. This project was also made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services grant and received financial support from the U.K. Research and Innovation’s Arts and Humanities Research Council and the UMD Friedgen Family Design Fund. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Maryland Humanities, Maryland Historic Trust, Maryland Department of Planning, the Maryland Department of Labor, or the Institute of Museum and Library Services