Accessibility and Inclusiveness Approaches for Museums to Grow more Generous and Empathic
This article is the introduction of a series that will present accessibility and inclusiveness approaches for museums to grow more generous and empathic, while serving their usual missions.
“Accessibility” and “inclusiveness” lay a common ground on which every product, service or experience is now designed, whatever the economic sector. To name a few, the first sensory-inclusive retail store of the NBA opened early this year on 5th avenue in New-York for children with autism, LEGO™ commercialized braille bricks to help visually impaired children learn braille, while Holohear, an augmented reality app designed by NYU students, was addressing the needs of translation for signed language.
During the last five years, in regard to their mission to unlocking knowledge for everybody, museums have seriously tackled these issues to provide impaired or underserved audiences, new opportunities for engagement with museum collections, either in-gallery, online or even offsite. But until now it was mainly undertaken by large cultural institutions as the task appeared too daunting for smaller museum teams usually lacking funds, time or even digital literacy. Thanks to the positive impact of ‘Tech for Good’, things are getting much easier due to the spreading of best practices (that can be applied to analogue solutions as well) and ready-to-use, cheaper technologies that benefit the needs of all visitors, in a universal inclusive way.
In this first article, we will define what is behind the word “accessibility” and “inclusiveness”, introduce a few examples of museums initiatives and raise the importance to face those issues.
Defining “accessibility” and “inclusiveness”
These keywords gained popularity in the last decade — inside and outside of the museum world — and are usually used side by side as they don’t encompass the same scopes. According to the AAM ‘Facing Change’ manifesto (2017), ‘Accessibility’ is giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience’. It’s about physical, intellectual, cultural and social issues at the same time. But to go beyond compliance, it needs to be associated with ‘Inclusiveness’ (or social inclusion) that refers to accessibility including the representation of impaired or underserved population in our societies. It ensures that ‘diverse individuals are valued as respected members and fully participate in all aspect of a community’.
Defined in the early years of internet, among others by Vic Finkelstein (1980,1981) Mike Oliver (1990,1996) or Abberley (1999), a new social approach of disability versus a medical approach helps to look at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people. When barriers are removed, disabled people can be independent and equal in society, with choice and control over their own lives. Even though this distinction between impairment (bodily difference) and disability (social creation) is now challenged (Tom Shakespeare and Nicolas Watson 2002), it remains that it expands the scope of reflection and paves the way to more universal inclusive approaches, which radically change our perceptions of disable people and benefit a larger part of the population.
Some inclusive initiatives pursuing a strategy of social change in museums
Starting around the 2015’s, a diverse range of inclusive initiatives happened in museums around the world, largely supported by manifestos such as ‘Museum Change Lives’ from the UK Museum Association in 2016 or ‘Facing Change’ from the DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, Inclusion) group of the Alliance of American Museums in 2017.
In 2015, the Louvre opened its “Petite Galerie” which was aimed more particularly at audiences with autism or mental disability (impaired communication, difficulties with language, concentration; sensory specificities; need to take one’s time…). It finally benefited families intimidated by the idea of pushing the doors of such a prestigious institution or aged people exhausted by the idea of walking the galleries of such an XXL institution.
In 2016, following the footsteps of the Canadian Museum of Human rights, the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) for the re-opening of its new building designed a touch-wall experience equitable for eyes-free audiences. Carefully thought to unite audio-description with the power of story, the eyes-free experience, relying on audio and text to speech synthesizer, was presented to be “one of the solutions among others” to engage with collections. It was (and still is) adopted by low vision visitors such as aged people, as well as person with learning difficulties, their attention being guided on the important part of the images while listing to the explanations. The experience “flip to a highly visual experience to an aural and tactile one, playing with zooms.”
The same year, the MOMA started to implement a smart speaker solution built in partnership with Amazon Echo to address various accessibility issues. Since then, as presented at the last MuseWeb in Boston, the Cooper Hewitt Museum successfully explored using Alexa with the help of Sina Bahram, the well-known visually impaired consultant. It now offers opportunities as an in-gallery voice-content tool, or as an informative voice-service to connect the non-sighted, unable to type, or simply remote audiences to the museum.
Non-digital initiatives such as acceptance of guide-dog in museums — Andy Warhol Museum — or tactile 3D reproductions are also the results of a human-centered design process addressing the needs of visually impaired people. It can lead to unexpected reverse approaches that benefit all kinds of audiences as in the exhibition ‘L’Art et la Matière’. Co-produced by five French museums, it allows not only to touch sculptures, but visitors are highly recommended to wear a blindfold to discover new emotions by focusing on the sense of touch.
In 2016 as well, the joint initiative by Foam (Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam) and Wat Telt gave birth to Musea in Gebaren ‘museums in sign language’, which goal is to make art and culture accessible to people who are deaf or hard hearing. This initiative not only contributes to a more accessible cultural offer but, by employing a deaf guide, diversifies the museum team, raises awareness about accessibility and finally gives a global positive image to the institutions which joined the program. There are now 16 of them employing 22 deaf museums’ guides.
Based on the fact that everybody has an absolute entitlement to benefit from cultural institutions, some museums decided to address accessibility on-site as well as off-site for people with reduced mobility. It all started in 2015, with the de Young Museum in San Francisco, followed by the van Abbe Museum in Nederland, the Centre des Musées Nationaux (Oiron castle, Kérylos Villa) and the Louvre Lens in France, which offered their patrons a robot device. On-site it allows people to visit part of the buildings that are not accessible to them. Off-site, it serves the needs of patrons not able to visit the museum in person, such as prisoners, hospitalized patients as well as students in rural schools, the robot device being operable remotely.
More efforts remaining to implement accessible and inclusive process
The previous examples, initiated five years ago but still in action in 2019, could tend to prove that universal inclusive experiences are now the norm in museums. A recent scandal involving the Tate Modern with Ciara O’Connor, a visitor in wheelchair, about a non-accessible installation by Olafur Eliasson, proves it is not, even in large institutions. The Tate was not sued for its lack of inclusivity, but it was not the case of numerous galleries in New-York earlier this year, accused of allegedly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because their websites are not accessible to visually impaired people.
As the law greatly supports the rights of the disable persons throughout the world, museums, whatever their size, should take into account legitimate requests that are getting more and more acute, all the more that other sectors respond to them, as seen in the introduction. Rather than considering this situation as a burden, museums should look out for solutions implemented outside the cultural sector or by startups involved in Tech-for-good movement.
Besides, we’ve seen through the above examples that designing for a specific audience nearly always responds to needs at a larger scale, which greatly serve the general interest of museums’ missions.
And if you still don’t buy it, we encourage you to read a recent article of the Alliance of American Museum (AAM), . According to the World Health Organization, between 2000 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years of age will double from about 11% to 22%, increasing from 605 million to 2 billion over the same period. People affected by motricity, vision, hearing impairments, even mental diseases, will seriously increase in the years to come. At the same time more and more studies demonstrate that art helps to improve the mind. Why not start today to become more responsive by creating life-changing solutions in order to improve tomorrow the wellbeing of a larger part of the population in a profound way?
In the next article, we will focus on some best practices to implement universal human-centered design and resume benefits for cultural institutions. In our final article we will detail a digital solution that cleverly and very simply serves diverse forms of participation where any type of audiences can contribute, co-create, or interact with artifacts and cultural institutions.