Why Museums Need to Embrace a Culture of Accessibility

Going beyond legal compliance, museums need to consider accessibility as a lifelong commitment towards inclusion, writes Loretta Mordi.

Access to heritage and culture can be argued to be a fundamental right of all people, regardless of identity or opportunity. Defined as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment” (ICOM 2007), museums and galleries provide safe, dynamic learning environments that contribute positively to the quality of life of all individuals.

Everyone has the right of access to cultural heritage, and museums need to promote equal access and to ensure a welcoming and friendly atmosphere to inspire visitors regardless of personal circumstances or social background. However, various barriers may prevent people from accessing and taking advantage of the quality of service and opportunities on offer.

Making Sense of MuseumsImage: Access in museums “involves consideration of barriers that need to be identified and removed to improve inclusion and widen participation” (MGS QIS 2010).

These barriers can be physical, sensory, intellectual, financial, cultural, emotional, attitudinal, or simply a lack of information. Other barriers could be restricted opening times and caused by geography, in particular in rural areas where transportation may be limited.

Improving access in museums, while incorporating inclusion and diversity, involves using creative ideas to tackle physical, intellectual and social barriers that prevent people from taking advantage of services. The key challenges facing museums range from complying with the legislative requirements of listed buildings to understanding and meeting the diverse needs of different people.

n a project inspired by the Talking Newspapers for visually impaired people, we have created a Talking Museum to describe our main exhibition to visitors in a handheld audio guideImage: In a project inspired by the Talking Newspapers for visually impaired people, John Gray Centre have created a Talking Museum to describe our main exhibition to visitors in a handheld audio guide.

Museum providers have a duty to widen access and to make reasonable adjustment, but access is not restricted to meeting the needs of people with physical disabilities. Some audiences have complex needs which may not be seen. All forms of disability including restricted mobility; sight or hearing impairment; learning difficulties; limited strength or agility; and speech and communication difficulties should be considered.

Promoting equality of access and inclusion in museums goes beyond compliance: it is about the ‘right thing to do’, ensuring that equality of access is embedded in the culture and structures of the organisation and should not be regarded as an ‘add-on’ service.

The duty for museum is also anticipatory, understanding the needs of visitors and ensuring that these are addressed ahead of their visitation and from the beginning of new projects. Areas for consideration include, but are not limited to:

  • signage, which should be large and well-defined
  • accessibility of visitor information, including details about car parking and toilets
  • ramps at the entrances of the building (remembering that access requirements are not just for wheelchair users; also for people with complex needs)
  • tactile maps
  • labels and texts on panels
  • installing an induction loop and investing in audio guides
  • availability of information in alternative formats (BSL, Braille, STTR, AD), community languages
  • web accessibility – standards and code of practice.

Museums Galleries Scotland is the National Development Body for the museum sector in Scotland. Our role is to work collaboratively to invest in and develop a sustainable museum and galleries sector for Scotland, in line with the aims of Going Further: The National Strategy for Scotland’s Museums and Galleries. The Strategy is now in the third year of delivery. Realizing the Vision, the 2015-2019 Delivery Plan for the National Strategy, provides a national framework to which the museum and galleries sector in Scotland can align their own organisational objectives. It is particularly relevant to promoting access, active involvement and participation of all people in programs and activities to ensure that they take advantage of the benefit of learning programs and activities on offer.

The project is relevant to increasing physical and intellectual access to the Hunterian collections as part of social inclusion agenda through active participation and consultation with people with sensory impairmentImage: The Making Sense of Museums project is relevant to increasing physical and intellectual access to the Hunterian collections as part of social inclusion agenda through active participation and consultation with people with sensory impairment.

MGS has long been committed to supporting museums to make their collections, buildings, programs and services accessible to all audiences and has done so over the years through our Investment Fund. MGS has supported many projects using creative and innovative approaches to improving access and promoting good practice in their museums.

Over the years, museums have continued to use more innovative ways to dismantle barriers and to widen engagement and involvement of diverse audiences and visitors. In recent times, digital technology and social media provide opportunities for museums to engage with wider audiences in more creative and innovative ways, enabling many people to access museums collections, programs and exhibitions. MGS has a Wikimedian in Residence on staff, who is training museums to digitize their collections, making them widely available online. Other simple, inexpensive things you could do include:

  • Planning ahead – having an access policy, audit checklist and plans
  • Consulting, engaging and involving users about their needs helping to provide solutions
  • Working with organisations that provide support for people with disabilities
  • Training and awareness for staff in equality and diversity, including disability awareness training.

It is, however, most helpful to take learnings from industry best practice when considering how to go about improving your access approach. Some case studies that may help include the Making Sense of Museums project at the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, and Talking Museums at the John Gray Centre, East Lothian Museums Council, both examples of positive, inclusive approaches to access.

In conclusion, access to museums, collections, programs and services on offer is crucial. It is important that museums and galleries understand access issues in their museums to continue to find ways to dismantle barriers to ensure inclusive service provision that meets standards and best practice. Commitment to improving access can help to retain and attract diverse audiences thereby increasing footfall, leading to better working relationships and greater contribution of museums to learning, experience and enjoyment of people of all ages.

About the Author

Loretta MordiLoretta Mordi is the Collections and Engagement Manager at Museums Galleries Scotland.

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