Growing collections: widening access to museums

Growing collections: widening access to museums

In the past, visits to museums were often spoiled by having to enter by hidden staff entrances and exhibits that were out of bounds. Mik Scarlet finds out how museums are becoming more inclusive.

The Imperial War Museum has just completed the first stage of a massive redevelopment which was opened to the public to coincide with the centenary of the start of World War 1. I was part of the access team on the project and great attention was paid to ensuring the building was fully accessible. The same goes for the new First World War exhibit. I spoke to my boss, the access consultant for the regeneration, Cassie Herschel-Shorland, who specialises in access in museums and galleries, about what is involved in such an undertaking.

“An inclusive approach needs to be embedded in an organisations policy and processes to really come through in practice when delivering projects such as a museum redevelopment or even just a new display or programme of events. It can then shape the brief with clear aims, objectives and criteria for access planning, with people at the heart of the project. It is important to involve deaf and disabled people in decision-making, preferably as a part of the professional planning and design team rather than just occasional consultation.”

Alongside the museum building, the exhibits need to be made accessible. “As with architecture, the process is best undertaken with inclusive design objectives as a part of the exhibition with a choice of ways to access and engage with the objects and stories. This might include large print and easy to read text, tactile maps and 3D models and British Sign Language and subtitles.”

The Natural History Museum’s Images of Nature and Treasures in the Cadogan Gallery, The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, the Museum of London and the Victoria and Albert are all examples of good practice. But what about outside London?

Cassie worked on The Pennoyer Centre in Norfolk and she is really proud of that project as it “is one for which I was display/interpretation designer as well as access consultant and a great deal was achieved for a tiny historic venue”.

The museums in Derby are also great examples of this drive towards accessibility. I spoke to Derby Museum’s Visitor Services Manager Janine Derbyshire (yes that really is her name) about her recommendations.

“The Museum and Art gallery is all on one level, easy to get round. Height is something we have considered for hanging of the art, and we have large print, hearing loops for talks and we are about to roll out BSL talks about the paintings which will be available on iPads. The museum cafe has tables specially designed for wheelchair users and the whole site has access built in. The Silk Mill, another of Derby’s big visitor attractions, is just as accessible. Alongside the improvements to the physical access there is a rolling program of staff training.”

So go on, visit your local museum or even take a trip to one of the big cities for a day of culture and expanding your mind. Don’t be put off by memories of past disasters as those days are fast disappearing. But if you do find an issue, point it out and get involved in making our museums better for future generations.

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