Image credit from Unsplash.
Heather Pressman (she/her) is an educator with a passion for accessibility and inclusion. She believes that everyone has the right to access and enjoy cultural experiences regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Heather currently serves as the Director of Learning & Engagement for the Molly Brown House Museum where she works to expand access, despite the physical challenges of a 133-year-old historic house. She got into this work because she saw through her friend’s experience how much people with disabilities were missing out on in museums and at historic sites. Heather holds a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University where she teaches Accessibility in the Museum. She recently co-authored The Art of Access: A Practical Guide for Museum Accessibility (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and is author/editor on the forthcoming An Accessible Past: Making Historic Sites Accessible (AASLH, 2023).
Hear from a museum expert on ways to make your exhibitions more accessible to those with disabilities.
Diversity, equity, access, and inclusion are likely words you have heard with increasing frequency in the museum world over the past five years or so. Since 2016 the American Alliance of Museums has included Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion, or DEAI, in their strategic plans. Often though, the conversation becomes about DEI, and the “A” gets left off. Given that current estimates are that 1 in 4 Americans have some sort of disability, it is essential as museum professionals that we keep accessibility in mind at all times.
How can you make your museum more accessible with limited staff and resources?
At this point you may be thinking many of the same thoughts that others before you have had–but how? With what? Who is going to do the work?
These questions are why Danielle Schulz and I decided to write The Art of Access. When we first started presenting on accessibility at conferences and such, more often than not we found that our audience was comprised of volunteers and staff from small institutions, some of which had no paid staff. Their question always was “how can I complete this work with no money?”
Our response was that there are many things you can do for little to no money. The key thing to remember is that access work is ongoing and it's always better to do something than nothing. If your organization has the funds to do more then do it, but if you work for a tiny museum never fear! There are still plenty of easy and low-cost things you can do to begin to make your site more accessible and welcoming.
What is access?
In addition to the questions above, you may also be wondering what the heck access is exactly. Broadly, in terms of museums, access means ensuring equitable access to exhibits, programs, and events to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience.
Access can be broken down into several sub-categories as well:
Sensory access: includes making considerations for people who are hyposensitive (seek stimulation) or hypersensitive (avoid sensory stimulation) to external stimuli such as lights, sounds, and textures.
Physical access: looks at not only can people get into your museum, but once they are there can they navigate with ease, engage with exhibits/programs, and have access to basic services.
Cognitive access: ensures that information, materials, and communications are readily available, and easily understandable to people with limitations in cognitive abilities, such as those impacted by learning, developmental, or intellectual disabilities, age, trauma (such as traumatic brain injury), and even access to education.
Language access: English may not be your visitors' first language. What can you do to support individuals whose primary language may not be English, including individuals who speak American Sign Language?
Financial access: people with disabilities are overwhelmingly underemployed or unemployed, meaning that they live on a limited income and may not have discretionary funds to spend on things like museum visits. Financial access takes into consideration that cost itself can be a barrier and looks to create ways to reduce or remove the issue of cost.
Create welcoming exhibits
Keeping in mind different kinds of access, how can you create equitable exhibits without breaking the bank?
Begin by examining your space from a disability perspective. Your goal is to create a welcoming environment for all of your visitors. What supports do you currently have in place to offer to people with disabilities? For example, many museums have wheelchairs they can loan out to patrons. You may never have anyone who uses the wheelchairs you have available, but the fact that you have them speaks volumes.
People do not and will not visit someplace they do not feel welcome, and neither will their friends or family.
You can generate object labels directly from your Artwork Archive account. They are formatted to print on Avery labels and can include QR codes to send views to additional resources. We've seen museums direct the QR code to a translation of the label into a different language, like Spanish.
Anyone who has ever written exhibit labels knows how challenging it can be to find the right combination of words to express everything you need someone viewing the object in question to know. Don’t let all of that work go to waste by placing your labels in inaccessible spaces or ways!
Unsure if your label is going to be a challenge to view? One easy thing you can do is grab one of the wheelchairs you have for loan and use it to view the exhibit from the perspective of someone who is seated or of short stature. The Museum of Science, Boston has a great universal design plan for creating accessible exhibits that can help you figure out label placement, height, text, etc. (and it is free!).
Many museums supplement their exhibits with audio guides that provide additional or more in-depth information. But what about individuals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing?
While some museums have developed apps that meet the needs of their diverse visitors, small museums cannot generally afford technology like this (nor the ongoing support it requires).
One easy option is to upload the text, along with a few images, as well as the audio tracks to a webpage. This could be hosted by your main website or even utilize a free website builder such as Wix or Google Sites and a site like Soundcloud for the audio files.
A simple QR code can direct visitors to the tour where they can read or listen as they like. This is also a convenient simple solution for self-guided tour materials as well.
You can generate QR code labels directly from your Artwork Archive account if you use the platform to host your museum’s collection. Artwork Archive also has a Public Profile (a public viewing portal that can also be embedded onto your website), which you can use to host the text, images and audio mentioned above.
Bigger is better
As the population ages, you can expect an increase in vision-related disabilities. This means that while you may be well-intentioned and all of your wall-text is in 24-point font or larger, an increasingly a higher percentage of visitors will not be able to read your exhibit text.
This is another case where you could put the text on a simple webpage, but for individuals who do not want to use their phones or another device, there is a simple and very inexpensive solution–large print. Simply take your exhibit text (which likely exists in a word processing file somewhere), increase the font size, print, and laminate. You can put them together with a simple loose-leaf ring.
For the cost of a little bit of time and a wall-mounted brochure holder or even a simple hook, you can increase access to your exhibit text. If you have multilingual versions available, you can do the same thing with those exhibit translations as well.
Speaking of other languages, the only cost here is the translation fees. If you do not have funds for translation services in your budget, reach out to your staff and volunteers. You might be surprised at who speaks what on staff. Have these available in the galleries or for checkout at your front desk, or again, put them on a webpage and link to them with a QR code. Options abound!
Screenshot from Molly Brown House Museum's video tour located in their "Access Lounge," which showcases the objects on upper floors.
Making the past accessible
Historic sites must comply with the ADA as much as possible while still preserving the historic integrity of the site. In many cases, such as ours at the Molly Brown House Museum, that means that not all visitors can physically get up to the upper floors of the home. How then, do we create an equitable experience?
This is a place where you need to think outside the box.
We were able to get a small grant in order to cover the cost of creating what we call the “Access Lounge”. This space is a comfortable space where visitors can wait to rejoin their tour while they explore tactile materials like those they would see upstairs, along with photos of the family and floorplans. Additionally, one of our volunteers with a video background put together an interactive video tour of the upper floors for visitors to view while they wait. Of course, any visitor is welcome to engage with these materials as well.
There is simply too much to cover in such a short space, but we hope that you find these suggestions helpful and useful. If you want even more, be sure to check out the chapter on exhibitions in The Art of Access.