Opening Doors: Notes on Rethinking Disabled Access and Interpretation

On 15th September 2015, the Museums Association ran a one day seminar entitled Opening doors:  Rethinking Disabled Access and Interpretation In Your Museum. Amanda Peacock, Learning Officer at Chelmsford Museum, attended that day with a grant from Essex Museum Development and has kindly shared her notes from the day:

I wanted to share with you some of the interesting ideas and forward-looking practice that were presented at this excellent MA Seminar on the theme of disabled access and interpretation in the museum. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA), now in its 20th year, was established to prevent discrimination against disabled people accessing goods, services and buildings amongst other things. Other than a lift to get to the top floor and a disabled loo, I was interested to learn what museums could do to further improve access for disabled visitors to their collections as well as to the building itself. Also how, or if, disabled people are represented in museums, whether museum collections include objects that reflect the lives of, or have been created by disabled people in our society past or present. Throughout the day there was a live speech-to-text transcription displayed on a big screen. This service was provided by a company called ‘StageText’, which provides access to deaf and hard-of-hearing visitors.

Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape Arts and our Chair for the day, made the comment in his introduction that, ‘museums should be fully inclusive and welcome people with disabilities not only as visitors, but employees and artists too.’ Improving access and facilities for disabled visitors can be a challenge for those institutions that are in listed buildings, but access is not just about installing a lift, what about intellectual access? Museums need to consider their collections, are they fully accessible to disabled visitors or are there barriers that discriminate? How do they use them – is there appropriate gallery support such as: audio visual aids, subtitles on videos, handbooks, appropriate lighting, considerate interpretation or clear signage?

Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell from the University of Leicester spoke about their work with museums in relation to disability access, participation and representation. A variety of organisations were involved in the project, which challenged museums and heritage sites to look at their own collections in a different way. They evaluated displays for diversity, searched databases for relevant material and considered how they would interpret these objects with disability in mind. One of the more important outcomes was that museums should work more collaboratively with disabled visitors, rather than stating what the museum can offer them. Overall, the project enabled museums to explore the potential to reframe collective attitudes towards difference.

Next to speak was Emma Shepley, Senior curator at the Royal College of Physicians, who discussed its award-winning portraiture exhibition ‘Re-framing disability’, that explored four centuries of hidden history through rare portraits from the 17th to the 19th centuries, depicting disabled men and women of all ages and walks of life. The 2011 project involved 27 disabled participants who explored the human stories behind the portraits and discussed the relevance to their lives. The project culminated in an exhibition of recorded interviews, essays and photographic portraits that went on tour to ten venues, including the House of Parliament!

Anna Harnden, museums, galleries and heritage programme manager at VocalEyes, lead an interesting participatory exercise around object interpretation for blind and partially sighted visitors and those with other sensory impairments. Delegates were given a picture of an object and had to think about the barriers visitors might face in accessing it and how other senses could be utilised for fuller engagement. There were lots of great suggestions, but Anna did emphasise that it is not enough to just describe an object, the reasons why it is important to the museum’s collection is equally important.

To end the Seminar, Becki Morris, collections assistant at Heritage and Culture Warwickshire, explored in some depth how visitors with ‘invisible disabilities’ (dyslexia and other neurodiversity conditions), experience museums and Trizia Wells, inclusion manager at Eureka! (The National Children’s Museum) highlighted how its award winning access programme has been embedded throughout the museum. For example, they asked families what they wanted, which included: an inclusive, welcoming attitude from staff members, affordable and appropriate activities and clear information for visitors. As a result, the museum developed: a training programme for all staff (including online courses), free activities tailored to specific disabilities, support from local groups, an ‘access’ tab on the homepage of the website, a DVD virtual tour of the museum and weekend and holiday clubs to name but a few! In conclusion, the museums that are most effective at removing barriers to access seem to be those that collaborate closely with disabled people and adjust their offer accordingly.

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