Museum Accessibility by Design

M. Chiara Ciaccheri
9 min readJun 15, 2022

What does it mean to talk about museum accessibility today? How can accessibility promote change in cultural organizations and in society at large? What kind of change can we hope to achieve? And what concrete actions can we undertake to make this change happen? Museum Accessibility by Design: A Systemic Approach to Organizational Change explores the complex subject of museum accessibility, a discipline whose purpose is to break down barriers by facilitating access and possibly autonomy for as many people as possible in museums.

For a number of years, many cultural institutions have viewed access as an issue of critical importance, yet the discussions remain problematic. The topic is increasingly present at conferences, and specialized courses are expanding, while more and more institutions are investing resources in this area. Nonetheless, the discipline still struggles to establish itself and suffers from the fallout of prejudices that are sometimes rooted in these very organizations. To this day, museum accessibility is a term mainly used in reference to an assortment of services and facilities that ensure access for people with disabilities. Even when institutions adopt good practices — often in full compliance with local legal requirements — the discipline continues to be hampered by internal resistance that prevents it from becoming an essential subject matter, even though it is one of the most effective means through which museums establish meaningful relationships with visitors. This phenomenon, evident in museums worldwide, also stems from a stereotypical perception that unfortunately restricts its dissemination. One of the most widespread stereotypes, for example, is the idea that accessibility only benefits a small minority: a concept that also indirectly leads to the thought that people with disabilities lack autonomy and demonstrate more needs than others. This idea characterizes just one of the many clichés that facilitate a distorted understanding of accessibility and give rise to approaches that go beyond museum contexts.

Although these ambiguities are evident, we are seeing recent and profound changes unfolding in the field of accessibility, giving rise to new questions and awareness around different models, their application, and their potential impact on museums and many other contexts. While the term accessibility was formerly used almost exclusively to refer to a series of circumscribed tools or services (from a tactile reproduction of an artwork to ways of involving caregivers in a workshop for visitors with Alzheimer’s), we now know that museums must first acquire a macroscopic understanding of the discipline in order to foster real, people-oriented change. In fact, museum accessibility is needed on many levels, and, above all, it requires action at the organizational level. Rather than being made up of small, incremental educational or architectural achievements, accessibility deserves to be seen as an ongoing and long-term process to be integrated across the board to offer extensive and visible benefits to every visitor’s experience. For this reason, we must rethink our methods and adopt fresh theories and training solutions that allow a new culture of accessibility to assert itself. The effort required is less than one might expect, and its outcomes offer great rewards.

Museums have traditionally been seen as places for learning about “high culture”: spaces reserved for a select few. Today we must insist that these institutions become spaces characterized by democracy and openness. This transformation is still inevitably marked by persistent contradictions: Museum contexts require anyone to walk, observe, and engage with spaces and strategies that are often far from an accessible mindset. On the one hand, most museums remain inaccessible; on the other hand, accessibility is usually constrained by limited space and time. In all cases, usability is rarely considered as a shared need, equality is only partly realized, and access risks are relegated to a philanthropic dimension rather than museums grasping their true value and utility.

This book results from fifteen years of experience in the field of museum design and teaching: a relatively short time in the grand scheme of things, but long enough to have witnessed hundreds of cases, strategies, and best practices firsthand, both in my daily work in Italy, my home country, and in the United States, where I lived on and off for two years, engaging in research and professional development in this area. On a personal level, my family’s experience with these issues deeply informed my understanding of disability and access. In addition to my extensive experience working with people with intellectual disabilities and in the field of participatory design, another key component of my background is a master’s degree in learning and visitor studies in museums from the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester in the UK, an institution with an established commitment to disability representation research. Perhaps the most significant experience was a visiting fellowship in 2014 that took me to several major US cities where I visited over a hundred museums and interviewed an equal number of colleagues from institutions with groundbreaking approaches to accessibility. While the resulting pieces I published are due for an update, that research constitutes a solid foundation for understanding the phenomena that are evident across the country to this day.

There is no doubt that Italy and the United States differ in terms of experience, regulations, and the diffusion of accessibility, but the divergences observed across these geographical contexts have proved enormously valuable. With this in mind, I included case studies from other countries to impart a broader vision and greater complexity to this book; all the while, the geographical scope has deliberately focused on case studies from museums from the so-called West. I made this decision conscientiously to fall back on my own experience of and familiarity with certain sociocultural perspectives, perceptions of disability, and meanings attributed to accessibility.

According to Umberto Eco, a cultured person is not one who has read all the books in the world, but one who knows how to move between bookshelves, someone capable of mastering knowledge without needing to possess it all. Similarly, this volume aims to help readers (students, professionals, or simply those interested) orient themselves in a structured and, at times, seemingly contradictory terrain, suggesting the adoption of a systemic approach that sees the museum as an interconnected organism capable of responding to different human needs. This is why this book encourages greater cooperation between those concerned with visitors’ experience and those working on accessibility as a means to improve museum access for all, but especially for people with disabilities. In these terms, accessibility has the potential to break free of its conventional confines, with a focus toward the process and, above all, the vision of the museum as an inclusive whole.

In particular, this text aims to offer a critical and probing perspective on museum accessibility, an approach gleaned from personal observations, targeted research, and direct exchanges with recipients: visitors, non-visitors, activists, and colleagues, with and without disabilities. By reframing accessibility as an enduring process that is rooted in the institutional, museums can reach the broadest possible spectrum of people and cultivate opportunities for dialogue and co-design. This process is, of course, never easy; it requires a step-by-step approach that is considerate of museums’ often-limited resources and realistic about ways in which museum staff, leaders, and decision-makers may face such changes with a lack of interest or resistance.

Therefore, Museum Accessibility by Design explores accessibility in stages and prompts discussion through questions. It integrates a more traditional view of the subject with often-neglected points that prove crucial for understanding why accessibility is a fundamental discipline, and why its development has been impeded. Divided into two parts, the first half of the book begins with a theoretical introduction, which then branches into suggestions for staff training with plenty of practical guidance and structured activities. Here are the book’s key characteristics:

  1. The text broadens the concept of access and offers suggestions for its development within museums. It considers a variety of constraints while delving into critical learning and strategies designed to break down common prejudices. It looks at accessibility from a user-design perspective, in which the museum experience revolves around visitors and any needs, desires, and motivations they may have, whether their needs are permanent, temporary, or situational. Accessibility is valuable not only because it facilitates everyone’s experience but also because it nudges people’s behavior in predictable and constructive ways. For this reason, the volume also places significant emphasis on usability, attention renewal, and other key cognitive issues that are usually excluded from the conversation around accessibility: topics that, in this field, are equally essential, despite being more prevalent in design studies and environmental psychology.
  2. Accessibility is not for the sole benefit of people with disabilities. While fully espousing the social model whereby context contributes substantially to the definition of disability, the book takes a more analytical, interdisciplinary, and multifaceted look both at people and at barriers. Disability finds many obstacles in today’s world: The disadvantages encountered by this group are certainly evident and need to be dismantled through specific actions. At the same time, however, any classification represents a theoretical and cultural assumption that tends to look at people through a limited lens and risks oversimplifying valuable complexities: for example, in terms of age, interests, motivation. Disability is a way of being in the world, and accessibility, in the conventional sense of the word, cannot promote inclusion alone. On this basis, this book asks whether it is necessary to adopt a new, more spontaneous approach to disability while addressing accessibility more rigorously. For this reason, the book mentions disability frequently, but it refers to audiences in the broadest sense of the term.
  3. This volume promotes a systemic perspective that allows readers to see museum accessibility as a structured process addressed to answer multiple and overlapped needs rather than an incremental adoption of singular guidelines for a few. Even a small action implemented by a museum needs to be part of a strategic framework that establishes shared policies. This process needs to ground itself in context analysis, clearly defined goals, and plans for their implementation. Accessibility cannot be left solely to educators or experts in the field: Entire institutions, with the help of accessibility project managers, should harbor the common objectives that demarcate boundaries and expand mutual responsibilities.
  4. This book proposes an operational and not merely theoretical approach to museum accessibility. It suggests concrete activities like structured workshops with step-by-step staff training and provides specific examples and good practices from different parts of the world.

In short, this volume sets out to affirm accessibility as a shared, indispensable, and systemwide endeavor. This belief urges cultural institutions to see themselves from the outside in: Are museums perceived as exclusionary institutions? If so, to what extent?

Well before the adoption of best practices, there is the need to generate a proactive attitude that insists on people’s similarities. It is only through the espousal of new prospects that we can recognize the fundamental importance of accessibility. Doing so can help dismantle stigmas about disability that sometimes can paradoxically be fueled in the name of access. Museums have the power to promote a new awareness and set an example for society as a whole.

Making museums more accessible is about encouraging exchange between different people and, in the case of disability, boosting visibility. In many countries, disability is still considered a source of shame, and it solicits pitying glances and compassion. Part of a museum’s responsibility is to normalize this condition as much as possible and make room for it to exist among the many elements that define diversity. Making these institutions more accessible entails empowering the entire staff through careful planning, starting with research and discussion. Such change is already underway, and it is up to us to keep the flame kindled. We just might be the right person, in the right place, at the right time. When we each grasp our social responsibility, whatever and wherever that may be, we are actively partaking in a better future that accessibility can help to forge.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Contents

Foreword

Acknowledgments

Preface

PART I: Museum Accessibility as a Systemic Discipline

1. Museum Accessibility: A Historical and Social Achievement

2. Accessibility as a Visitor-Oriented Process

3. All Visitors Need Access

4. Current Challenges: Online Accessibility and the Pandemic

5. Obstacled by Design: Limits for Accessibility Development

6. Accessibility as a Strategic and Systemic Process

PART II: Cultivating Organizational Change

7. Establishing Your Process

8. Mapping Barriers and Self-Assessing Accessibility

9. Co-design. Finding Your Allies

10. Finding Solutions: from Prototyping to Organizational Change

11. From Evaluation to Strategic Planning

12. What’s next?

About the Author

Bibliography

Maria Chiara Ciaccheri, Museum Accessibility by Design. A Systemic Approach to Organizational Change (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield and American Alliance of Museums, 2022)

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M. Chiara Ciaccheri

I am a freelance museum professional, practice-led researcher and lecturer, working on accessibility and interpretation. My website is mariachiaraciaccheri.com