Suburban Accessibility: Traveling to Museums

The expansion to a Potomac, Maryland museum has opened this past October and much has been said about its lack of accessibility, mostly from those living in D.C. The issue is its location outside of D.C., not easily accessible via public transportation. Additionally, it is located in one of the wealthiest cities in the country. It also happens to be 15 minutes from the home I grew up in (in the far less wealthier city of Gaithersburg).

Montgomery County, Maryland is a bustling suburban county just outside of Washington, D.C. The cities within Montgomery County, which include Chevy Chase, Bethesda, and Potomac, are the reason it often shows up in lists naming the richest counties in the U.S. The demographics are majority white but the diversity in the area has also grown significantly over the past many years and estimated to continue growing, with “Hispanic” residents currently just under 20% of the population. Growing up and living in one of the richest counties in the U.S., assumptions made about the privilege and opportunities are valid but not entirely accurate. The barriers in the suburbs have its own unique challenges as a woman of color with limited means.

My parents worked hard to provide the family with a normal, “American life,” a life they imagined belonged in the rows of single-family homes with big backyards. And while the suburbs brought about its own real issues where All-American traditions clashed with Bolivian culture, it also provided a sense of security and accomplishment for my parents. The irony of all this, however, is that despite working hard for a better life, lack of accessibility became an issue very early in my life. I never went to a museum until I was a young adult in college. Even while attending graduate school many years later at George Washington University, my ability to get into the city to network and attend museum events was frustratingly limited. Despite the better life I was given, the measure of what made it better reached only so far before you hit a wall. I felt far away from the opportunities cities provide.   

The tired stereotype about the disenfranchised and troubled communities of color living in the inner city has pigeonholed the great many of us who live normal lives in the rows of homes in the suburbs (and frankly, all communities of color living anywhere). So many of us stand firmly between rich and poor, just under middle class or maybe just straddling the line. So many of us find ourselves wedged between two worlds, neither of which you feel you belong. Challenges in the suburbs still exist where being a minority is more than just an outdated racial classification but the reality of actually being outnumbered in your school and in your neighborhood. And although world-class art lived a little less than 30 miles away, it was simply out of reach for me.

Traveling to D.C. meant finding the time, money, and energy around museum hours that never worked in my favor. The metro system runs from D.C. into parts of Virginia and the suburbs of Maryland but is widely known to be unreliable. Still, I would take the bus or my car in the years that I had one, to the metro, making sure I timed my travel correctly to arrive to an artist talk on time. Then I would make that same trek back. For an hour talk or event, I would spent an average 2-3 hours on public transportation, 3-4 if I was taking the bus. It was exhausting but the only way to get myself out there in a field that had already made me feel out of place by its existing model of acceptance.

Accessibility can mean various things depending on who is defining it and if successfully achieved, attention to accessibility is how a museum integrates into the fabric of its community. Addressing barriers to access in an ever-changing demographic landscape will help museums bring in an increasingly diverse audience, but what happens when the word is used to present an issue defined by a single perspective? Not many would argue that the Smithsonian is inaccessible to the public but for many years I had to drive (or bus) 7.3 miles to my nearest metro stop to take the hour-long train ride (if the train wasn’t delayed) to the Smithsonian metro stop. To me, these museums were simply not as easily accessible as I would have liked them to be.

I recognize that because I lived in Montgomery County, I was lucky to have metro access at all. Some parts of D.C. that are significantly closer to downtown D.C. actually have less access to public transportation. The red line that runs from the center of D.C. straight through the wealthiest neighborhoods in Maryland is no accident. But where the majority of Montgomery County have the means to travel back and forth, I found myself again a minority in my financial ability to keep up in neighborhoods that live with an average median income just shy of $100,000. Do we ignore Latinx communities who live in less wealthier parts of Montgomery County because of this statistic?

So who gets to define accessibility and who is to blame for the lack of it? What percentage of the responsibility should cultural institutions take on? This is a complicated, multi-layered problem that is difficult to address overnight. My personal experience is not to supersede the needs of D.C. residents with regard to D.C. museum accessibility but merely add to the discussion and show that to define accessibility, you have to understand the nuances of the issue. Currently, museums outside of a major metropolitan city serve to address the needs of its local residents and museums in larger cities usually have a much wider reach with attention being paid both locally and beyond.

The new museum in Potomac may not be accessible to D.C. residents but on the flip side, the museum has worked with the county to provide bus transportation from the metro and has worked to build a relationship with the Montgomery County Public School system to bring children in, students who like myself at age 15 might have taken this as the only opportunity to go to an art museum. Inaccessibility to me has been shaped by growing up in the suburbs and constantly having to reach out to D.C. hoping my metro card had enough money to get me there. Accessibility is not a one size fits all and we shouldn’t overlook communities of color anywhere they might be, including the suburbs.

Featured image by Blake Wheeler via Unsplash.


Karen Vidángos