07 September 2015

Access In Museums: A Research Project in 6 Parts (Part 2)


Museums have been around for centuries, charting their path around the Age of Enlightenment, an historical epoch that garnered interests in empiricism, nationalism, and colonialism in Western Europe. This time period made way for a growth of research, experimentation, and exploration, and in turn the creation of systematic categorization for the influx of newfound knowledge – the beginning of the museum space. With this growth in knowledge came early collecting practices that found their homes in the earliest museum prototype, the 17th and 18th century wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinet.[1] Stemming from the early wunderkammer came one of the world’s first museums, established in 1693 at Oxford University.[2] Politically speaking, with the fall of monarchies and the rise of new democratic republics across Europe, resulted in the founding of institutions like the Louvre and the National Gallery out of private princely collections.[3] As these political movements of the 18th and 19th centuries unfolded, a newly undefined public emerged, curious to explore artifacts and peoples from faraway lands, understanding itself in the context of a larger human history, and attaining an empirical visual understanding of the world as displayed in museum spaces.[4] Around the same time as the founding of national and academic museums, artist-run galleries and salons began to emerge in Europe, as public spaces for the display and discourse of art and culture.[5] What makes the museum institution a distinctive entity within Western society is how it has come to represent a certain kind of truth, as the preserver of history and disseminator of knowledge.[6]

What this succinct museological history doesn’t discuss is the people behind the museum - that is the tiny group of individuals collecting, displaying, and distributing knowledge. The fraction of the population creating these museum spaces was of a certain class, they were educated, almost entirely male, wealthy, and white. The public they were catering toward somewhat mirrored themselves, it was a predominantly male public, of a well-to-do class. Being an active participant in society was only garnered for a select few. Where does disability fit into the museum space? For centuries, disability didn’t enter the public sphere or the museum as a visitor, spectator, or employee, but rather as a specimen. Medical museums, and spaces devoted to the display of anomalies of the human form were often the only representation disability found within this institution. Other forms of popular entertainment like the freak shows of the not-too-distant past also flourished along-side museums, both of which served to dehumanize or “enfreak” people with disabilities, and informed our notions of disability through stereotyping.[7]


We’ve come a long way from this darker past, particularly with the shift from the medical to the social model in the field of disability. The Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s stirred the country and helped give Disability Rights activists the momentum necessary to fight for equal access and civil rights protection under the law.[8] Alongside these social and political shifts in the last few decades, museological practice has begun to shift, redefining the scope of how the public is defined in order to form a more inclusive and just museum space. In addition to inclusive processes of exhibition creation, museums are beginning to concern themselves with the portrayal of diverse communities, in the content displayed, the programming created, and the staffing of the institution.[9] Many museum practitioners have made it their explicit mission to update their work to include “in collections, exhibitions, and displays – the histories, experiences and voices of communities that have tended to be marginalized from mainstream museum narratives” including people with disabilities.[10] While disability is finding representation in the works on display and the artifacts within the collection, it still needs to be initiated into museum infrastructure, because, simply put, disability is part of the human experience. As one of the largest minorities, people with disabilities should find representation in all museum space. Therefore, with regard to exhibition practice, the collection, and the public programming in the museum, disability must have a seat at the table. No longer will it be an afterthought, or a quick fix when an accommodation is needed, but a fully integrated part of the museum mission.

Barriers to access should be considered in both physical and virtual space. Across my research, it is clear that two major obstacles prevent museums from taking action. Financially speaking, there is a cost to implementing shifts in the building architecture, the website, the training of staff, the hiring of focus groups, and the creation of positions and committees explicitly devoted to disability. Many institutions, particularly small non-profits will state financial conditions as one of the main reasons for not addressing issues of access. Alternately, the other major barrier is completely free – the barrier of not knowing.[11] Learning about your audiences, and in particular about visitors with disabilities is the first basic step to becoming aware of the barriers created out of unknowing. Anticipating an obstacle and completing the preliminary work to prevent it from being a barrier is key to creating an inclusive museum. This can be done by educating oneself, educating staff through training (i.e. making sure the employees selling audio guides know how to activate the hearing loop on the devices they are administering), and reaching out to members in the disabled community for feedback, focus groups, beginning to build lasting relationships with these constituents for ongoing dialogue.[12] A museum can also take the avenue of hiring a consultant to analyze visitor movements, evaluate the architecture, and determine if the museum’s website is accessible, particularly for people with vision impairment. None of these concepts are entirely new, and putting them into practice is not a huge financial setback. The results of shifting one’s approach to museum work in every department can lead to creating a much more inclusive and welcoming space for all visitors.

[1] Neil Harris. “Museums: The Hidden Agenda,” in Cultural Excursions. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 133.
[2] King, Lyndel and Janet Marstine. “The University Museum and Gallery: A Site for Institutional Critique and a Focus of the Curriculum.” New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, (pg. 276).
[3] Carol Duncan. “From the Princely Gallery to the Public Art Museum: The Louvre Museum and the National Gallery, London.” In Representing the Nation: A Reader: Histories, Heritage and Museums. (pgs. 304-309).
[4] Neil Harris. “Museums: The Hidden Agenda,” in Cultural Excursions, (pg. 133).
[5] Lind, Maria. “Restaging the Institution.” (Re)Staging the Art Museum. (pg. 19).
[6] Hansen, Tone. “Introduction: What Is to Be (Re)Staged?.” (Re)Staging the Art Museum. (pg. 10)
[7] Sandell, Richard and Jocelyn Dodd. “Activist Practice.” Re-Presenting Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum. 2010 (pg. 6). Quote from David Heavy.
[8] Sandell, Richard and Jocelyn Dodd. “Activist Practice.” 2010 (pg. 4).
[9] Sandell, Richard and Jocelyn Dodd. “Activist Practice.” 2010 (pg. 3).
[10] Sandell, Richard and Jocelyn Dodd. “Activist Practice.” 2010 (pg. 3).
[11] Linsey, Eleanor and Jonathon P. Bowen, Kirsten Hearn, and Maria Zedda. “Museums and Technology: Being Inclusive Helps Accessibility for All.” Curator: The Museum Journal. Volume 56, No. 3. July 2013. PDF (pg. 353).
[12] Linsey, Eleanor and Jonathon P. Bowen, Kirsten Hearn, and Maria Zedda. “Museums and Technology: Being Inclusive Helps Accessibility for All.” Curator: The Museum Journal. Volume 56, No. 3. July 2013. PDF (pg. 359).

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