On the tightening of accessibility horizons in museums

I was at the V&A yesterday to go to the Cast Rooms (part of the original 19th century purpose of the museum is education – they had rooms full of cast copies of great sculptures). While there I had a look at the accessible interpretation in these galleries.

In particular, this meant interpretation for people with visual impairments: tactile displays, large print books and Braille. Rather like web accessibility, accessible in museums has quite a tight meaning.

Tactile display of a sculpture
Soft seating with large print book stored at the end
3 tactile objects with Braille descriptions

All of which was adequate.

However, there was a matching display to the final 3 tactile objects which had something quite depressing.

Here’s a video.

Though the display cabinet had 4 tactile objects on top (with Braille and a large print book available), the drawer were full of beautiful objects that were sealed away. Having been permitted to touch and access a chosen number of artefacts, you are then shown a range of objects that you may not

At the accessible moment of broadening of knowledge, the horizon is tightened again.

For a visitor with disabilities, the display design shows that they have been allowed access to something (definitely not everything) and that permission was delimited and controlled by others.

Accessibility can, too often, show how tightly defined the world they are permitted to be in and the choices they are allowed to make are for people with physical and cognitive impairments.

Accessibility as the final destination

Do Not Touch symbol on display

The Cast Rooms are full of Don’t Touch signs. This is understandable given the fragility of the artefacts (even tho they are fakes, they are antique fakes with good providence).

The rooms and the accessible interpretation show how museums have a problematic attitude to accessibility. By treating access as an education and curation problem, museums choose to make a few artefacts accessible. In the cats rooms, there’s maybe 10 accessible artefacts for visually impaired people.

That’s what got chosen, that’s what you get, that’s all you get.

This is the odd direction of museum accessibility. Instead of being an experience of broadening out, it is one of tightening in.

There are offers of accessible objects but the choice is not made by you, but by others.

Once you have experienced those artefacts, then…what? There aren’t anymore artefacts that are accessible, that’s your lot. The accessible design shows the hard limits of organisation-controlled access.

The horizons of experience and learning do not broaden. The museum has shown you the limits of permitted accessibility.

Returning visitors

This is a harsh critique of museum accessibility but it is still valid.

If a museum only offers a limited number of accessible displays then ask ‘What’s next?’. How does the museum enable an experience of more?

How does it enable future visits? Many large museums are remarkably small if you count only the accessible parts (this is also true of public transit systems when inaccessible stations are removed from a city map – New York is terrible for this).

This is about designing more than accessible displays – it’s about designing museums that enable and support people with disabilities beyond the displays. How is the experience of a visit made into an invitation to do more, to learn more? How are assets created that broaden knowledge?

How do we stop museum accessibility being the final destination? The stop.

How do we stop accessibility being the end of a checklist and be the start of a growing relationship?

What’s next?