Museum Access for All!

Posted on November 19, 2010 by

A blog post by outreach coordinator Rachael Binning.

This past week I participated in a webinar hosted by the American Association for Museums titled “Universal Design: Beyond the ADA.” The premise of the webinar was to share ideas that make all types of museums not only accessible, but welcoming to disabled people. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that museums and public institutions provide accessible design, such as by providing designated handicapped parking spaces, wheelchair ramps, and accessible bathroom stalls. Universal Design takes this idea a step further and encourages institutions to be welcoming and engaging to all visitors, whether abled or disabled.

This reserved parking sign in front of Museum Place in Salem, MA is a necessary start,
but there is much more that can be done to make museums welcoming to everyone.

Disabilities Defined

When doing research before the webinar I found it interesting to learn about the broad spectrum included under the term “disability.” The definition includes:

1. Physical: The definition of physical disability ranges from short term injuries, such as a broken foot, to chronic debilitating illnesses such as arthritis.

This exhibit at the Oakland Museum does a good job at providing
access to people who have wheelchairs or are with caregivers.

2. Sensory: This includes hearing and visual limitations. The AAM discussion guide for this webinar pointed out that there are 1.3 million people in the US who are legally blind and 22 million people have some kind of hearing impairment.

This is a photo from the Perkins School for the Blind History Museum.
The exhibit designer made sure that the exhibit had many tactile components.
This globe was handcrafted for the school in 1836 as a tactile tool to teach geography.
It was used by Helen Keller when she was a student and is still used today.

3. Cognitive or Intellectual: This is defined as “developmental or acquired limitations in certain functions related to thought process” (Universal Design: Beyond ADA, Oct. 27, 2010). This broad category includes learning disabilities, speech/language impairments, and Alzheimer’s and memory problems.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland hosted a Docent Training led by the Alzheimer’s earlier this month, so this is one area that they are clearly addressing.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has a program called “Meet me at MoMA”
designed specifically for early and moderate-state Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

The 7 Principles of Universal Design:

Here is a quick overview of how museums and cultural institutions can go from being disability ready to disability friendly.

Principle 1: Equitable Use – What this essentially means is that the design of a museum or exhibit should be appealing to all users. There shouldn’t be any segregation based on access.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use – There should not be only one way to access an exhibit.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use – This principle should always be used, even when not thinking about Universal Design. Keep things simple and clear.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information – When information is essential there should be several ways to access it. One obvious way is by reading an exhibit label, but what are other ways that this information can be presented?

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error – It’s always possible that things could go wrong when viewing walking through a museum of exhibit. Make sure there are ways to recover from this.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort – A museum exhibit should not be overly strenuous to navigate.

Principle 7: Size and Space For Approach and Use – This seems obvious to me. Make sure that the exhibit allows all types of people to be able to fully experience it. What is the point of an exhibit if people can’t access it?

The JMM and Universal Design

A lot of talk at the AAM webinar focused around small museums and their ability to keep up with these high standards. I agree that it’s a tough position to be in because it’s hard for institutions with limited resources to provide strong and compelling exhibits that are also up to these high design standards.

I recently walked around the museums exhibits here and took note of what was working well and what can be improved.

Sound stations in “A Blessing to One Another.”

“A Blessing To One Another” is a difficult example to use in regards to exhibit access and design because it is a traveling exhibition and therefore is less flexible in set up in design. One negative to this exhibit in regards to disabilities (which is probably generally seen as a positive by the general public) is the overwhelming amount of sound throughout the exhibit. From the ringing church bells to the videos and sound stations, there is a lot going on. For a fully abled person these sounds are relatively easy to differentiate, but these noises could quickly become overwhelming for someone who relies heavily on noise or for someone who is autistic. On a positive note, the exhibit uses controlled sound stations (see image above) in an attempt to control some of the noise.

A bronze cast of Pope John Paul II’s hand.

The feature of the bronze cast of the Pope John Paul II’s hand is a wonderful way to provide a tactile element to the exhibit.

The entryway of the exhibit “Voices of Lombard Street.”

When I walked through “Voices of Lombard Street” I again noticed both positives and negative aspects in relation to disability design. As the picture above shows, there are areas that provide ample space for people to move around, but there are also confined areas, such as through the doorway. While walking through this exhibit I began thinking about how this particular exhibit could be changed to be more accessible, without losing the unique flavor and feel that the current exhibit architecture provides. Does anyone have any ideas?

The Jewish Museum of Maryland has a long way to go before it achieves all of the principles of Universal Design, but I am not losing hope! Actions, such as our docent training and participation in the recent AAM webinar, prove that we are not ignorant of the issue. Let’s hope that in 10 years we will continue to have thought provoking and engaging exhibits that are also accessible to all.

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