Thinking Beyond Walls: A Thought on Accessibility

Today at the National American History Museum we had a discussion about accessibility. I am currently in “Accessibility and Museums” course so this topic was incredibly interesting.Β I think the key to today’s presentation is that accessibility is more that just physical barriers. While the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) looks at architectural barriers in public spaces, it is important to remember that disabilities can be more than just physical.

Disabilities encompass a variety of areas such as low vision/blindness, hearing loss/deafness, developmental disabilities, and those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. While removing physical barriers (such as cords and large rope barriers) is important, are our museums offering enough to those who suffer from developmental disabilities? I would say no.

While we are moving in the direction of considering all visitors to our museums, we must continue to create programming and spaces for those who have been largely ignored in the past. For example, I have heard of a number of new programs directed toward children with autism. During these programs, lights are dimmed, excessive stimulations are removed, sounds lowered, and space is made available for just families and other quiet areas. These types of programs are wonderful and offer many unique opportunities for both the visitors involved in the program and the museum itself.

I felt that I gained some new tools on how to create more accessible programming for my museum that I cannot wait to use upon my return home!

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At National Art Gallery- note the open spaces that allow for easy movement

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How does that make you feel?

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Today at the National Zoo we couldn’t help ourselves but be drawn to all the cute animals, both big and small. Yet, as you look around, each habitat and enclosure is different. The walls that have what we would consider exhibition style labels all tell their own unique story. While a zoo is not a museum, we both strive for creating a feeling or a state of mind for our visitors. While the feeling may be directed by the topic of the museum or exhibition, the state of mind you place your visitors in is important.

For example, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the exhibition revolving around the history of the slave trade is purposefully made dark and narrow. You feel uncomfortable and confined. Your emotions are meant to sync with the history you are learning about.

As Tim Wendel explained to us earlier this week, place your reader [in this case audience] in a scene. That scene is the state of mind we want our visitors to either understand upon their entrance or gain following their visit. We strive to tell stories about the items in our museum, whether they are object-based or story-based. By creating a desirable state of mind your audience can gain an even greater understanding and experience of your exhibition and your museum.

Why Should You Care? Creating Meaningful Museum Programming

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Today our trip took us to the National Air and Space Museum. One cannot help but to look up in awe at the range of items that hang from the ceiling of the museum. It seems as if the items are stuck in time as they hang over your head. Our meeting with Ann Caspari, an Early Childhood Education Specialist, made an interesting point to us. Why should you care? The museum is filled with items that would set anyone’s mind a-buzz, but what about the smaller less notable items. Why should you still care?

I find myself as a museum educator grappling with this question often. Here I am in my present job telling you all about the 1800s life in Illinois. From their clothes, to their farming techniques, even what a one room school house was like, yet, why am I telling you this? A museum’s purpose is to tell stories about the topic it is on, be it the space program, the culture of a specific group, how glass is made and artistically styled- anything. The point is is that we, the museum and its educators (with the help of other departments), must create programming that make people interested in learning more about our topics.

Our programming must consider many factors though such as age groups, interests, language barriers, Β accessibility needs, etc. We want to provide enough information without overload or it being under explained. While there is no simple answer into how one makes an engaging museum program I think a great place to start is where Ann left us- “Why should you care?” If you can focus your program to answer that question, the rest will fall into place.