Whitney Museum

Crafting an Inclusive Culture within India’s Museums

Policy makers and institutions need to take the lead with inclusionary practices for persons with disabilities within cultural spaces, writes Abhishek Ray.

In the dawn of India’s museum development, we have seen the birth of new museums and the growth of the existing ones as bastions of Indians heritage. Policy makers, curators, designers, and associated museum professionals have been part of a paradigm shift, which has seen new approaches for the first time in 40 years. This evolution in thought and action needs to percolate into every aspect of museum policy and implementation. In particular, we need to see accommodations geared towards persons with disabilities, who are both, visitors to the museum as well as employees at these institutions. The latter, especially, can play a vital role in ensuring that cultural spaces transform into inclusive spaces.

With the Persons with Disabilities Act (1995) in place, our institutions need to first open their doors to persons with disabilities as equal employees of the system. Dismissive as it may seem against the larger ideal of providing for visitors with disabilities, employees with various forms of disabilities bring in a sense of deeper understanding of the needs of the community they are part of in the eco-systems of our museums, which consist of administrative officials, policy makers, designers, curators, researchers, gallery attendants and other associated professionals. Insight provided through observation and participatory approaches in the framing of policy and design can have a long lasting impact on the way institution looks at disability and special needs for its users and its patrons.

Visitors with disabilities have the same right to access and interact with cultural spaces as anyone elseVisitors at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo courtesy Nilofar Shamim Haja.

In my years as a designer for various museum institutions and cultural spaces in India there have been points in my career (as an architect and an activist for inclusion in the built environment) where I have realized the shortfall in the comprehension of disability amongst museum professionals. This also translates to a lack of framework for the policy makers in our cultural institutions to grapple with the notion of accessibility and inclusion, both of which are interconnected.

Insight provided through observation and participatory approaches in the framing of policy and design can have a long lasting impact on the way institution looks at disability and special needs for its users and its patrons.

Our understanding of inclusion is be defined by the generic definition of the word and through an extensive contextual research of how disability and persons with disabilities are perceived in Indian society. Do our children visit museums after the customary visit organized by their school for a 15 minute tour of 3,000 years of Indian history? Do we encourage our senior citizens to visit museums? Are our museum buildings and galleries developed to cater to all of above?

A solution to the problem lies in an effective policy which has its roots in participatory development, (a term that I imbibed in design school), which can have long standing impact on the way we approach this issue and craft a solution. I believe that a top down approach in policy level changes that enforces provisions on institutions such as museums should be supported by bottom up initiatives.

Persons with disabilities have an equal stake in access to cultural venues and participating in the processes of meaning making within the cultural framework.

What are these initiatives? Initiatives can be many and often innovative allowing for small scale revisions. Can a person with disability be a part of the curatorial team? Can a research program be funded by the institution to allow for the understanding of disability provisions in the institution? Can the outreach and education program of a museum work closely with people with special needs to provide intellectual accessibility to content of our museums? Can our curators think of people with special needs accompanied by their able bodied companions and not as a part of a special day for people with disabilities at the museum? Some of these questions have simple solutions but are league apart from the general understanding of museums and inclusion where we restrict ourselves to the physical accessibility of visitors as the most apt design change that we need to bring about.
Nearest Accessible Entrance

India is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities (September 2007) and this propels us to a level where we ought to recognize the community as not only an integral part of society, but as active contributors, participants and leaders of change. One of the first changes comes by adopting the use of the word “inclusion” or “inclusive” instead of focusing only on barriers to disability. It’s the first step towards democratizing our cultural spaces with the museum leading the way.

About the Author

Abhishek RayAbhishek Ray is the Principal Architect at Matrika Design Collaborative, a multidisciplinary design studio engaged in the comprehensive development of culture spaces and museums across India. He is an Ashoka Lemelson Fellow working towards providing design solutions for people with special needs in the built environment. He is currently involved with the design of India’s first Museum on Wheels project which forms an extension arm of the CSMVS Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) outreach and education department and aims to bring the museum learning experience within the reach of marginalized communities in rural and urban Maharashtra.

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