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.

Lego: An Ingenious Solution to A Display On A Budget

Dominic Petre from Ingatestone Hall shares his top-tip for displaying museum interpretation:

Displays at Ingatestone Hall

Some words of wisdom. Ingatestone Hall is a privately owned Tudor historic house that is still occupied by the family who built it. We are open for private events but also for general visits throughout the summer. When we threw open our doors to the public in 1992 we bought in a series of glass display cases to display all our small items of interest that were “hidden away in drawers”.

At that time our interpretation of the items was very simple. Each thing had a small label explaining what the item was – which seemed to work quite well. However, in recent years, we have become a little disenchanted with the way it appeared for several reasons:

  • It was fiddly to change the labels when academic knowledge changed making the information displayed wrong or at least misleading.
  • There was a ground swell of comments that the text size of the labels was too small to be read easily but increasing the size would mean that the cabinets would be more label than exhibit
  • Some of the exhibits were very small but had a lot we wanted to say about them making the label size disproportionate to the exhibit
  • And of course the labels were themselves deteriorating and becoming tatty

We decided to refresh the cases some time ago and decided that a fitting solution would be to number the individual exhibits and have a hand held guide referring to the numbered exhibit this, we felt, would solve a lot of the problems viz

  • The text size could be bigger
  • We could go into as much detail as we wanted
  • We could include transcripts of difficult documents to read
  • The cases them selves would be “sharper” and the labels would not distract from the objects themselves
  • We could even have different guide books (for example – one for adults and one for children, interpreting the items in different ways)

We then hit a minor problem – looking on-line for nice number blocks we discovered a number of museum supply companies that would indeed supply numbered blocks but they were all very expensive and well beyond what we would budget for such an exercise. We considered making our own (out of wood) but the result never struck us as professional enough – and so the project stalled.

Using a Lego brick to support a museum labelThen one day, when clearing up my son’s Lego I had a serendipitous idea. The sloping blocks would be ideal for this purpose. Using the on-line Lego shop, I got the correct sloping pieces in the right colour at a very good price. Using those with adhesive labels has I think produced a very professional and clean solution – I commend it to all.

New SHARE Training Calendar – Part 2

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Thank you to everyone who took part in my training needs survey earlier this year. I fed all the information back up to SHARE and they have used it in producing this year’s calendar, which goes live at 9am today.

In today’s blog, I am going to highlight where you can access the training that the majority of people requested in each category. However, it is in no way an exhaustive list of what’s on offer (over 100 training events between now and next spring!) so I do recommend taking time to have a look through and see what would be of use to you and your colleagues.

Of those of you who responded to my survey, only one third had not attended any SHARE training in the last year and of them only 10% said that this was because the training was too hard to get to. If there is training that your museum needs, but cannot afford the travel, it isn’t running or it is simply too far away, please do contact me as I may be able to help.

Several of the training days are running in Essex, but please remember that SHARE have to support the whole of the East of England. Therefore they move they days about and if a particular subject has been in Essex recently, they do have to move it somewhere else this year.

Most Requested Training By Category

  1. Collections

There was a strong “digital element” to the training requests for collections, including Copyright, Digitising Collections and Managing Digital Images.

I have spoken to Simon at SHARE about Copyright and they have identified that it is a need for support with this area, however from their experience they aren’t sure if training is the best way of providing it. SHARE is currently formulating a plan and I will update you as soon as possible. If you do have any urgent copyright questions, please get in touch.

Regarding digitising collections, there are several useful days coming up:

  • “Point & Shoot: Collections Photography Using Digital Cameras” is running on 6th October at Ely Museum and 2nd February in Norwich
  • “Digital Technology & Collections: Promoting Access and Engagement” is on 5th October in Ipswich

For managing digital images, I suggest:

  • “Managing Digital Images” on 15th December at Mill Green Museum and Mill in Hatfield or 27th April in Wymondham Heritage Museum, Norfolk
  • “Create Once, Publish Everywhere: How to COPE With Your Digital Content” on 1st December at the Museum of Cambridge or 20th April at the Long Shop Museum in Leiston

I would also suggest having a look at joining the Digital Development Forum if you are planning on a large digital project. The next meeting is on 20th October in Norwich

Other Collections based training that had a large number of requests are Conservation Basics and Rationalisation.

There are several conservation-themed days coming up:

  • Handle With Care: Object Handling & Packing on 2nd December in Mildenhall, Suffolk
  • “Conservation Uncovered: Major Museum Tours” on 19th November is going behind the scenes at the University of Cambridge conservation lab
  • “Environmental Monitoring” on 26th April at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge
  • Integrated Pest Management: Level 1 on 10th November at Royston and District Museum
  • Integrated Pest Management: Level 2 on 2nd March at University of Cambridge Museums.
  • The 2nd Annual SHARE Collections Care Conference on 20th January at Hughes Hall in Cambridge.

Some sessions are much more specialised but will be relevant to several Essex Museums, including:

  • Assessing and Repacking Military Costume: A Costume & Textiles Network Event on 6th October in Norwich
  • “Preventive Conservation for Waterlogged Archaeology: A Maritime Heritage Network East Event” which is on 15th October at Southend Central Museum

SHARE also have their online Collections Care Syllabus. This current version is available online but it is being reviewed and updated so look out for updates later in the year.

For Rationalisation, SHARE are running “Rationalisation, Review and Disposal: Getting Started” on 8th October. Please note that there will also be funding support for rationalisation available later in the year. It is not compulsory, but I would recommend attending the training if you wish to apply.

2. Audiences

The most requested audience-themed training days are: Writing Engaging Text, Marketing on a Budget, Display Techniques and Understanding Audiences.

There are two different text-writing events booked in this year:

  • Captivating Captions on a Budget is one of this year’s first trainings, happening on 7th September at The Red House in Suffolk.
  • Make it Snappy: Writing Effective Text on 11th April at the Museum of East Anglian Life

There isn’t a generalised “marketing” training on the SHARE calendar this year, so I will organise something for later in the year. However, there are two specialised courses which may be of interest:

  • “Awareness, engagement and impact: Marketing to drive fundraising and income generation – a SHARED Enterprise event” on 25th November at Verulamium Museum in St Albans
  • Social Media Next Steps on 22nd September in Luton and on 9th March (venue TBC). If you feel that you need a “Beginners” level Social Media training, please DO NOT book on to this course. Contact me and I will arrange for help and support.

There are a couple of events coming up for Display Techniques:

  • Basic Display Techniques, 13th October in Stevenage and 12th January at Gainsborough’s House in Suffolk and on 14th April in Norwich.
  • Cutting Edge: Making Professional Labels & Panels on 3rd March at Hollytrees Museum in Colchester

There are several events which will be of interest for those of you who requested “Understanding Audiences”:

  • Front-of-House Forum on 19th October in Norwich
  • First Steps in Community Participation on 14th January in Luton
  • Complaints, Criticisms and Conflicts: How to Handle Them All on 28th January in Ely Museum
  • Managing Successful Events on 25th February at the Fenland Museum and Denny Abbey in Cambridgeshire
  • Working with Different Audiences on 4th March at The Polar Museum in Cambridge

There were also several requests for How to use HistoryPin, which SHARE are offering on 21st October in Ipswich

“Being a “Dementia Friendly” venue” and “Making your museum accessible for people with Autism” were also both highly requested. Working with these audiences will be covered in “Working with Different Audiences” and Helen Griffiths (Essex County Council’s Cultural Access, Learning and Participation Officer) and I am planning to run Dementia Friendly training soon.

3. Children and Young People

The most requested training session for children and young people are Setting Up A Youth Panel/Young Curators, Working with Schools, Child Protection/Safeguarding and Using Digital Technology to Deliver Learning With Schools.

“Giving Young People a Voice: Youth Panels and Young Curators” is running on 18th September at Colchester Castle (NB This will follow the Essex Heritage Education Group meeting).

Regarding Working With Schools, Helen Griffiths and I are planning a series of training in this subject and Child-Protection/Safeguarding for later in the year (look out for more details soon) however, you may also be interested in:

  • Surprising Science For Schools is on 21st January at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket.
  • Learning From Objects on 9th October in Ipswich or 7th December in Bedford
  • Object Lessons 3: SHARE & Bridges Children & Young People Conference on 10th February, venue TBC
  • Consider Yourself: Reflective Learning Practice for Learning Staff and Volunteers in Museums, 18th April, Museum of Cambridge

As you may be aware, I’ve been working with several museums in the county on a digital learning pilot. The case-studies from the project will be shared via my website, SHARE and the Heritage Education Group later in the year.

4. Resilience

The most commonly requested training sessions in this section fall into two categories, Volunteer Management (Volunteer Management, Volunteer Recruitment and Young Volunteers) and Fundraising/Income Generation (Alternate Ways to Boost Your Income, Making The Most of Your Shop, How to Talk to Funders and Other Stakeholders and Writing Funding Applications).

SHARE have recently launched the Volunteer Coordinators Forum, details of which can be found here. This is a great source of support for anyone managing volunteers, including those who are volunteers themselves. I also recently commissioned a volunteer management toolkit which is available here. 

SHARE are offering the following training events:

  • Volunteers: Getting Them In and Keeping Them Happy (a Volunteer Co-ordinators’ Forum event) on 18th April at Ipswich Transport Museum
  • Volunteer Co-ordinators’ Forum: Youth Volunteering, 8th December, John Buyan Museum, Bedford

SHARE also have a Retail Forum which offers peer support to those running museum shops. More details can be found here and there are some relevant training days too:

  • “Top Tips For Retail” on 4th February at Braintree Museum
  • “SHARE Retail Forum: Selling Skills and Sound Retail Practice” on 21st September at the National Horseracing Museum in Newmarket

Regarding applying for grants and other fundraising training, there are lots of options:

  • “Relationship Fundraising and Legacy Giving for Museums – a SHARED Enterprise Event” on 12th October at Colchester Castle
  • HLF Young Roots Seminar on 19th October at the HLF Office in Cambridge
  • “Awareness, engagement and impact: Marketing to drive fundraising and income generation – a SHARED Enterprise event” on 25th November at Verulamium Museum
  • “Enterprise & Philanthropy: building relationships to fund museums” on 2nd March at the Museum of London

I would also like to highlight that my colleague Andrew Ward and I are offering a “surgery” connected to Essex County Council’s Cultural Development grants on 23rd September in Chelmsford.

The other training that I would especially like to  mention is Understanding Museums. This is a six day course (one day a fortnight). While six days is a big commitment, this is the perfect course for anyone who is new to working or volunteering in museums. It explains why we do what we do, how different types of museums operate and looks at the history and ethics of the sector.

I would like to thank the SHARE Museums team (Annette, Simon, Kathy, Miranda and Liz) for all their hard work in pulling together this training offer – and wish them luck when the booking opens at 9 o’clock!