We consider access in museums
Access in museums has come a long way in the last twenty years, but museums are still not always inclusive spaces for disabled people, writes researcher Dr Charlotte Slark. It’s clear that there needs to be a radical re-think about how museums engage with disabled visitors and how they represent disabled people and their stories in museum galleries.
Museums often provide ‘access’ in the form of separate provision (such as audio description and BSL tours or audio-guides) and this not only unwittingly excludes non-traditional visitors from mainstream provision, but also often pushes the responsibility of access onto the visitor – they need to seek out the information of what is available, where and how they access it, and often book in advance. This unnecessarily limits how disabled people can experience a museum visit. If you’re interested in reading more we recommend articles at the Museum Journal and the Journal of Museum Education. If you’re unable to access the articles to read them in full, get in touch with email@example.com.
At the digital launch of the Sensational Museum, Professor Hannah Thompson commented that this has also ‘led to a situation in museums where lots of really excellent provision programming initiatives are put in place for people who are seen to need extra support or extra help to access museums. And… [creating] a split or hierarchical difference between abled people and disabled people.’
It’s time to ask,
‘what happens when we take away the split and find ways of making the mainstream museum experience accessible to everybody?
…We [the Sensational Museum] propose an alternative, equitable and progressive understanding of what it might mean to experience the museum in sensory terms. And so we’re hoping that this trans sensory approach will enhance the museum experience for everyone.’
So, instead of asking what separate provision can we provide to make our museum accessible, we should question what are we doing that make our spaces inaccessible and unwelcoming to disabled people? How are we, as an institution, disabling and what can be done to change that?
Museums are often stuck on a medical model of disability – which presents disability as something limiting which needs to be cured or overcome. This is a model which most disabled people, understandably, want to move away from. Instead, museums should be actively engaging with the work of disability activists and adopting a social model of disability (for more on this see the Everywhere and Nowhere site ). The key difference is that where the medical model offers an individualised and deficit understanding of disability (that a disabled person is lacking in some way), the social model argues that instead, it is attitudes and systematic barriers in society that disables people.
As Curating for Change trainee at Colchester and Ipswich Museums, Karl Mercer created a museum display to celebrate his own experiences as an Autistic man. In a Curating for Change blog post, which you can read on the Curating for Change blog, he’s written passionately about the need for systemic change, beyond short intervention – change that places D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people in positions of power within the museum sector. Karl writes,
‘We urgently need autistic collections to be improved, in the hands of autistic curators, and with interpretation from the autistic community.
But my lived experience, despite my significant achievements in such a short period of time as a Curating for Change Trainee, still make me untouchable to a sector dominated by people with very similar academic achievements and backgrounds. Until the sector is brave enough to value the lived experience and accomplishments of people like me, things will never be any different.’
Professor Ross Parry spoke at the Sensational Museum launch about the importance of this strand of the project’s work, and the limitations of how the sector often considers accessibility, ‘We think a lot about how we design visitor experiences that are inclusive and equitable, accessible to everyone. What we don’t give enough of is to think about whether the workplace and the workspace for museum practitioners is accessible.’
Dr. Sophie Vohra, researcher with the Sensational Museum, makes a clear link between the two, ‘it is starkly evident that there is an absence of disabled bodies and divergent minds in those back of house spaces, and then that very much translates itself into the front of house offers that don’t account for the complexities of the of access that this industry needs.’
By creating interventions for both collections and exhibition professionals, the Sensational Museum will reimagine the museum for everybody.