An Accessible Art Museum? My Visit to Nashville’s Parthenon

As I mentioned in last week’s Post, I spent last week in Oregon visiting friends, family, and my eye specialist at the Casey Eye Institute. Adventures included hiking a childhood-favorite trail, eating fresh blueberries off my parents’ bushes, and learning some Irish folk dances!

It’s not often i get to describe videos to people, but since I starred in this one allow me to offer a brief caption for my other blind and VIP readeers. This video features four couples arranged in a square facing inward. As the caller shouts instructions, different couples execute spins, twirls, steps, and change positions with each other, all taking turns so that each couple gets to perform each of the combinations in turn. As they take turns, they rotate positions around the square so that a new couple occupies the “top” of the square and becomes the focus of the caller’s instructions.

I am part of the original Top couple, along with an older gentleman who is a founding member of this group and quite experienced. He was both an excellent lead, a patient instructor, and challenged me to step out of my comfort zone. By the end I think we were showing off for the other couples. We finish the dance with a twirl-out and a flourish!

But the adventures really began even before I made it to the airport.

Traveling with a disability tends to produce adventures. Some of them, like the one I will recount below, are delightful. Others, like the one my dear friend Rhianna shares Here, are harrowing and humiliating. It’s never simple, never straight-forward, and never the same thing twice.

Flying out of my hometown is expensive so I often drive up to Nashville to fly out of the Alaska hub there. This time, my friends and I drove up the day before and got a hotel room since our flight left so early the next day. But we planned well; we drove up early enough to enjoy one of Nashville’s most interesting and reasonably-priced attractions. There’s a one-to-one scale replica of the Parthenon in the city known as the Athens of the South.

After writing a two-part series on wheelchair accessibility, I found myself noticing more than just the featured attraction. Read this Post, and its Sequel, to see how the Parthenon in Nashville scores on true accessibility. Should Lady X give it a try?

This beautiful museum features a large number of well-placed handicapped parking spaces, gentle, wide ramps up to the building, and sidewalk tiles advertising an outdoor architectural audio tour describing the gorgeous construction from various angles outside the museum proper. Unfortunately, we didn’t notice the audio tour signage until we were on the way out, but I took the time to look up the Website later and listen from the comfort of my home office.

The Parthenon replica is built on top of a beautiful art gallery and gift shop, complete with more ramps, wide corridors for easy turning radii, and good direct lighting on the displays. Unfortunately, art museums are a lot fussier about people touching things so I had to make do with my friend and co-author’s exquisite verbal descriptions of the currently featured art. But you don’t need to see to feel the scale and magnitude of ancient Greek construction.

Up a flight of stairs (elevator available nearby) and through a break in the colonnade we stepped into a vast cavern of achievement. The muted echoes rippling over distant marble walls reminded me of the awe-inspiring spaces beneath capitol domes, though I suppose the reflection is supposed to go the other way around. Laying a palm on the curve of those seven-story columns reminded me of touching California redwoods, and the rings for opening the largest bronze doors in the world were above my head – and I’m not short!

The tap of my Cain as I drifted across the temple space echoed in a library hush created by the imposing figure of the goddess herself. To me she appeared a vaguely shimmering outline in the dimness, how she might have appeared to Perseus as she bestowed celestial gifts of survival. The silhouette of golden light stretched far, far out of my meager peripheral vision, giving me a sense of endless presence.

As Galadriel described to me the remnants of figures sculped onto the pediments, a museum employee approached us, holding out something bright that stood out against his dark work uniform.

“Here, this is our statue of Athena, you can feel it and see what it’s like,” he held the object out to me.

I now held a miniature replica of the museum’s own replica, about the length of my forearm. Her base included one of the friezes of the larger replica, and the interior side of her shield even hosted a simplified rendition of the interior shield decorations on the original! I carefully traced her snake bracelets with my fingertips and explored the lines of face and mouth to get a sense of the sculptor’s perspective on the goddess’ personality.

On a black background Anneliese’s left hand holds the figurine of Athena. It is roughly the length of her whole hand and about halfway down her forearm. The statuette sits atop a square base, with a tiny frieze on the front face depicting scenes of local life. The goddess wears a traditional dress, helmet, and breastplate and skirt. Nike sits on her outstretched right hand, a long spear rests against her left arm, and her left hand braces the top of a round shield, which sits on the ground next to her. The shield is decorated with Athenian symbols, inside and out, and Athena wears iconic snake bracelets on both wrists.

Caught between wanting to spend more time exploring the hands-on exhibit and not wanting to take up too much of the gentleman’s time as he stood there watching me, I tried to hand it back to him with profuse gratitude.

“You keep that, it’s your gift from the Parthenon!” he told me.

“Really?”

‘Yep, we want everyone to be able to enjoy our statue!” He left, and returned a few minutes later with a box and foam form for packing the statuette safely. “here you go!’ he handed me back the re-packed box. “Enjoy your trip!”

This is hardly the first time someone has handed me a free gift just because they’re excited to share their work with someone who can’t see it, but it always catches me off-guard. I love being able to reciprocate peoples’ enthusiasm for their creations, their charges, their projects. As a creator myself I know there’re few greater pleasures than having your work really enjoyed, and I want to give that gift of delighted appreciation to others. So, maybe I should be used to this by now, but I’m not.

But what really stood out to me about this experience was how intentional and thoughtful the whole experience felt. It was clear that accessibility was part of the design phase. The whole building was constructed with a wide range of guests in mind, from the architecture to the information presented. And this mentality clearly carried through to the staff.

The gentleman who presented me with the tiny Athena had noticed and observed how Galadriel described things to me. He saw what worked, and where the gap between accessibility and preservation of artifacts was. And then he filled that gap.

He could have tried to take over the descriptions, thinking he knew how to describe his statues better than my guide. He could have come up, taken my arm and tried to steer me through the exhibits, which happens far too often in almost Every public context. He could have observed, and done nothing. Instead he took note of what I experienced, how I responded to the help I was currently receiving, and acted in concert with it instead of trying to replace it.

This is a prime example of an intelligent, respectful way to include people with disabilities in public places.

Today your favorite blindfluencer asks you to reflect on the last gift you received, and to savor the spirit in which it was given.

2 thoughts on “An Accessible Art Museum? My Visit to Nashville’s Parthenon

  1. This is the kind of post I would like twice, were I able.

    Getting to examine and handle a miniature of the main exhibit is so freaking cool!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The audio tour is very informative, and so well-described you don’t need to be there to enjoy it. We’re too far apart for you to feel the statue, but you can still visit the Nashville Parthenon if you’d like 🙂 I also discovered they offer it in multiple languages!

      Like

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