Making Museums Welcoming, Inclusive, Accessible

Have you ever overheard a museum professional make a statement like, “while I know it’s important to make sure wheelchair users can get around, the wide aisles really interrupt the flow of the space.” However well-intentioned, statements like these miss the power and importance of making museums welcoming, inclusive, and accessible.

At the most recent Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group Meeting (CMEG) meeting, “Making Museums Welcoming, Inclusive, Accessible,” presenters emphasized that accessible, inclusive, and welcoming museum practices improve the museum experience for all visitors.

Susan Chun, Chief Content Officer at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), related that the MCA’s initiative to make its website accessible to vision impaired individuals made the museum more approachable for all visitors. When redesigning the MCA’swebsite, Chun quickly realized that, in order to be accessible to vision impaired people, she had to describe every image on the MCA’s website with words. “If you’re a museum, you’re often telling your story with images, and if you don’t describe, you’re shutting the door on the vision impaired,” Chun emphasized. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of describing 19,000images, Chun decided to crowdsource the descriptions, creating Project Coyote. Project Coyote has benefited visitors far beyond the vision impaired. The simple clear descriptions of artwork have made the museum’s collection less intimidating to audiences who are not familiar with contemporary art. Project Coyote also spun into a public program, the Project Coyote Scavenger Hunt, where visitors search for specific pieces of art using only the Project Coyote descriptions.

The Chicago Children’s Museum’s (CCM) accessibility initiative, Play for All gives visitors the opportunity to personalize their experience. Peter Williams, the Vice President of Exhibits and Building Operations at CCM, emphasized that CCM aims to exceed access laws by implementing universal design principles in all its exhibits.  Universal design “is about offering choices,” Williams related. For the WaterWays exhibit, the CCM offers two kinds of waterproof gear, a smock, and a raincoat. In the Art Studio, there are different size options for the tables, chairs, and sinks. Additionally, the floor, walls, and tables can all be transformed into surfaces for drawing. According to Joshua Derbas, Arts and Culture Program Manager & Lead Educator at CCM, the different options inspire both children and caregivers to think outside the box.

One of the strongest examples of CCM’s devotion to diversity and inclusion was its exhibit Once Upon a Castle. In partnership with exhibit development firm Luci Creative and fabrication studio Ravenswood, CCM created Once Upon a Castle to free children from gendered expectations. “We wanted to expand the fairytale story. We wanted crowns for all!” stated Katie Slivovsky, Exhibit Development Director and LGBTQ Access & Inclusion Chair at CCM. The exhibit featured tunics modeled after a combination of men’s and women’s medieval clothing. Staff used gender-neutral language, calling visitors “your majesty” and “your highness” instead of “prince” or “princess.” The space allowed children to express their unbounded creativity. “It was an environment where there were no assumptions,” Slivosky emphasized.

Once Upon a Castle at the Chicago Children’s Museum

When cultural organizations fail to consider diverse perspectives, they often alienate large groups of participants. Saleem Hue Penny, VP Community & Educational Partnerships at CCM, helped found the Museums and Race initiative after encountering a disturbing display at the 2017 American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference. A fabrication studio showcased a statue of an enslaved black man being sold by a white auctioneer in the AAM expo gallery. Controversy erupted at the conference and on social media under the hashtag #AAM2017SlaveAuction. Dina Bailey, Director of International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, stepped in to facilitate a conversation between the CEO of the fabrication studio and AAM conference attendees. Had the CEO of the fabrication studio thought about the perspective of African Americans when assembling samples for the expo, he could have avoided antagonizing potential customers and business partners. Furthermore, had AAM stepped in and asked the studio to remove the statues before opening the conference, it would have made the conference a more inclusive space for African American museum professionals. Ironically, the 2017AAM conference theme was “Gateways for Understanding – Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusions in Museums.”

Tweet from #AAM2017SlaveAuction

AAM, CCM, and the MCA all have significant resources to contribute to accessibility initiatives, but what if you work small museum and you want to make your institution more inclusive? Great inclusion initiatives do not have to be cost prohibitive, related Dave Becker, the Senior Manager ofLearing Experiences at Chicago Zoological Society. The Hamill Family Play Zoo has become a testing ground where the Society prototypes solutions before rolling them out in the rest of the Zoo.  After conducting audience research on the needs of children with disabilities and their caregivers, Hamill retrofitted an existing space to create a sensory friendly family room. The room is a secluded space with weighted items and noise canceling headphones. Lauren Reeder, the Inclusion Specialist at the Society, related that one mother wanted to bring her younger son to the zoo, but was nervous to come because her older son was autistic and she feared he’d have an episode. The sensory friendly family room gave her the confidence to bring both her children to the zoo. She was able to take her autistic son for a break in the sensory friendly family room when he became agitated. Hamill also transformed an information booth into an accessibility resource center.  The booth has engaged all kinds of visitors who are curious to learn about the Zoo’s initiative to make conservation more inclusive, Zoo for All.

The following quote from the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design best summarizes the CMEG meeting:

to name an audience who will not benefit by these designs is impossible. Accessibility begins as a mandate to serve people who have been discriminated against for centuries; it prevails as a tool that serves diverse audiences for a lifetime.

Want to make your museum more welcoming, inclusive, and accessible? Here are some great resources:

Inclusive Design

Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group

“The Chicago Museum Exhibitors Group (CMEG) promotes the free exchange of information and ideas among people in the Chicago area involved in the development, design, and production of museum exhibits through discussion of exhibit related issues and personal interactions. CMEG members work with a strong mix of large and small, lakeshore and inland, mainstream and off-the-beaten-path museums.”

Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Designs

“Exhibition designers, curators, registrars, conservators, collections managers, designers, editors, developers, educators, and other exhibition team members each offer particular insights into the exhibition medium. All of you are in a unique position to synthesize accessibility solutions into your development processes. The Smithsonian challenges its exhibition teams to invent such solutions and to share those findings with colleagues through this document.”

Museums and Race

Museums & Race: Transformation and Justice

  “Museums & Race: Transformation and Justice is a movement to challenge and re-imagine institutional policies and systems that perpetuate oppressions in museums.”

Museum Hue

“Museum Hue is an arts platform for people of color( African, Latin, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Native American and Pacific Island descent). We craft a welcoming, creative environment that encourages exploration, investigation, collaboration, imagination, and creation in museums throughout major cities, countrysides, and everywhere in between.”

Museums and LGBTQA+

Chicago Alliance of Museums with Pride (CAMP) 

CAMP is “an alliance of friendly museum staff focused on actively engaging the LGBTQ community.”

AAM LGBTQ Alliance

“The Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Alliance (LGBTQAlliance) of the American Alliance of Museums provides a forum for communication and dialogue and is committed to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and inquiry with particular respect to sexual orientation and gender identity within museums.”

 How Museums Can Expand Narratives With LGBT Interpretation 

Reflections on AAM 2017

Teachable moments: Lessons to take to heart by Dina Bailey  

7 Action Steps Post AAM Slave Auction by Seema Rao 

Museums and Race Report Card 

More information about the projects mentioned in this blog post

Project Coyote at the MCA 

Hamill Family Play Zoo sensory room and accessibility resource center

Zoo for All initiative

Once Upon a Castle

Play for All


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