Why we have to talk about museums and accessibility again, and again…

Matthew Cock
MCNx London
Published in
8 min readFeb 15, 2018


In the time I’ve been working in and with museums, digital forms, and visual formats in particular have evolved: from small thumbnails, to zoomable high resolution images, video, animation, 3d models, augmented and virtual reality.

Interaction too has developed from passive reading, to posting and commenting, social sharing, avatars in virtual environments, and is now leaving the screen completely with IoT and conversational interfaces.

As each new tool seduces us and offers new possibilities, we have to keep talking about accessibility and inclusion: is everyone able to experience this, and benefit, is everyone included: in the oft-quoted phrase: is everyone being asked to dance? It is easy to mistake what we see for what something is, and it is easy to assume that everyone will feel welcome, feel included.

My organisation, VocalEyes, is dedicated to increasing opportunities for blind and partially sighted people to experience and enjoy the arts, at museums, galleries, heritage sites and theatres. While they are a diverse group of people, of all ages, backgrounds, types and levels of visual impairment, preferences and interests, I’ll mainly be referring to their experiences in my examples here, but others are relevant from d/Deaf people, people who have physical impairments, and neurodiverse people.

Museum digital teams should be familiar with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The WCAG have been around since 1999, and is currently in its second version. The WCAG 2.0 are structured around 4 principles. I’m going to run through each of these, with examples from the web, but also suggest how you can apply the same principles to the museum as a physical site, and how inter-related the two spaces are.

The first principle: content should be perceivable

On the web, this covers a range of techniques, from providing acceptable size and contrast of text against background, not using images to display text, providing captions for video, transcripts for audio, and in broad terms, ensuring that information is either transferrable from one form into another, enabled by the website, or has been pre-prepared by the owners.

The same principle can be applied at the museum itself — Is your label text available in Large Print or Braille, are there transcripts of audio guides, or BSL videos? Do you have audio-descriptive guides for blind and partially sighted people who may need support to perceive the objects themselves?

And if you’re exploring new technology, are we making that accessible? Gorgeous 3d models, seductive HD/4K video or immersive VR — all of these are used to show us objects — show us context. But is it perceivable, does it alone help us understand. Museums make meaning by telling stories.

Tate’s Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier includes audio narration with accounts discussing the objects, the artist and his environment. An FAQ section on Tate’s website reassures people that the VR can be used by wheelchair users, and a transcript of the audio is made available for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. However, while the narration includes elements of descriptive language, there is no description of the virtual studio: something that could have been simply added, as an audio file and enhancement to the transcript. Here’s an enhanced transcript with audio-description that VocalEyes produced for an animated video developed by the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries for the National Trust’s Felbrigg Hall. Tate are exemplary in providing audio-descriptive tours for blind and partially sighted people, and they will almost certainly be running such tours for this exhibition: I hope these take in the VR experience too.

I haven’t yet been to the Modigliani show: all my knowledge is based on my visit to Tate’s website. But that’s part of my point: making decisions about visiting a museum based on the website is typical: I don’t think museums realise really how important their website can be in encouraging or discouraging visitors, and particularly disabled visitors. According to a Euan’s Guide survey in 2015, 95% of respondents stated that they had tried to find disabled access information about a venue before visiting it, and 54% stated that they avoided going to new places if they could not find relevant access information.

As well as making content perceivable, you must tell people that you have done so. Our State of Museum Access 2016 report audited the websites of all 1700 accredited museums in the UK to record what access information they provided: 27% of museums had no access information on their website at all.

The second principle: content should be operable

On the web, users must be able to operate and interact with the site in ways that work for them. This means ensuring alternatives are enabled, and work equally well — for example, coding properly to allow navigation using the keyboard for people who can’t use a mouse, or for whom a pointer is unhelpful because they can not see the screen.

More generally, this is about ensuring user control, and ensuring that people are not set up to fail because of restrictions applied: for example, entering the wrong type of information in a form, or taking too long to complete an action.

At the museum, the equivalent here is not expecting all visitors to behave the same way during their visit, and providing the space, time and adaptations for those visitors, without them, their family or companions feeling judged or a spectacle for ‘regular’ visitors. For example, many museums are now providing autism-friendly or relaxed early openings where audiovisuals are turned down, or off completely, and there is no expectation for visitors to talk in hushed tones; where it’s OK for your child to make repeated noises, lie on the floor of the gallery or spin around.

Another example: the Mary Rose Museum’s “Lights Up” mornings, which were developed as they recognised that some visitors with a visual impairment or with other medical and physical conditions can find the usual lighting levels (designed to create a stunning atmosphere and display, as well as helping protect light-sensitive objects) to be a challenge in fully appreciating the museum.

The third principle: content should be understandable

The language on the museum website and in the museum itself should be simple, concise and direct. The website functionality and navigation should be obvious, consistent and predictable. At the museum itself, signage should also be clear and helpful.

Again, the museum website and the museum itself are interconnected. If the language on your website is not welcoming, inclusive and informative –you will be excluding potential new and diverse visitors to the museum.

If language is understandable, then it is accessible. But it may not be inclusive. To be inclusive, the language has to address people directly, make them feel that they are being welcomed, and that the museum is encouraging them to visit.

Marketing teams spend weeks getting their copy just right to entice people to galleries and exhibitions. But the access information on museum websites can be strikingly different.

Here are two examples of the text a disabled person, or their family, carer or friend might find on a museum website:

‘The Museum recognises that different users have different needs and is committed to providing access to all visitors. The museum works to identify and remove barriers that might prevent fair and equal access to the museum’s collections, as far as is practicable and within budgetary, legal and planning constraints.’

While it starts off OK: the text does not appear to be addressed to the disabled visitor reading it. It’s constructed as a statement about them. The language is increasingly corporate and the ending leaves the reader to suspect that in fact the museum is covering their back.

‘This access statement does not contain personal opinions as to our suitability for those with access needs, but aims to accurately describe the facilities and services that we offer all our visitors.’

Again, in the second example, the text is not addressed to the reader: it is self-referential, and while the overall intent is good — i.e. to provide honest and informative description about facilities and services — the impersonal form of the wording is dehumanising.

The labelling of the information as a ‘statement’ further frames it as part of a policy exercise that the museum is legally required to do, rather than something they choose and wish to do.

Bury ‘access statements’, very deep. Take the information within them, and write it in plain and honest language addressed directly to visitors about the barriers they may find, and what the museum has done to remove them.

The prize for the most inclusive and lovely opening to museum access information that I’ve found so far goes to the Roald Dahl Museum:-

‘At the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre we welcome all visitors and aim to do everything we can to make sure every visitor has a buzzwangling time.’

Once you’ve welcomed people and made it clear you want them to visit, to follow all of the first three principles of accessibility (that content be perceivable, operable and understandable): then you have to give people the means to comprehend the museum itself, describe every detail of how to get there, from public transport, nearby parking, distances, landmarks, steps and handrails, slopes, street furniture, sound and light levels, and ground surfaces. And — because there will always be something you haven’t thought of — offer people with access needs multiple ways of contacting you so that they can ask questions and arrange personal support for their visit.

The fourth principle: that content must be robust

The full definition of this principle is that “content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies.” This includes responsive design and cross-browser compatibility.

My example within the museum here is recorded audio description. We’re often asked what the best device for making recorded audio description available for blind and partially sighted people. Our answer is ‘as many as possible’. Many blind people use smartphones and apps, made accessible by voice-over and gesture control features in the operating system. But many people don’t, and it’s not reasonable to ask them to learn in five minutes at your front desk. So, provide a device with a physical keypad, a raised dot on the central number 5 button, and train staff to demonstrate them. And finally, make the audio available on your website — within your access page — so people can download onto their own specialist mp3 player.

To sum up, people will not come if they don’t feel that they belong or are included as a website visitor: an inaccessible website or one with little access information will reduce someone’s confidence that the venue itself has addressed barriers to access. They will exclude themselves.

The web can be an incredible way for people with disabilities to access information and many other things. Conversational interfaces, chatbots, and AI are the latest tools that have incredible potential, for even more frictionless interaction with other people, information and museums.

But we often mistake what we see for what something is, and how it is perceived by others. Over two million people in the UK live with a visual impairment. That’s around one person in 30. Of these, around 360,000 people are registered with their local authority as blind or partially sighted. Only a small proportion of blind people have no useful sight at all, and there’s a huge range of experiences of sight loss, cultural interests and preferences.

But unless museums provide large print labels or guides, audio-descriptive tours and trained staff to support people’s visit, then they are closed to them. And these museums all need websites that are not only perceivable, operable, understandable and robust themselves, but also help people who have a visual impairment — and other disabled people — perceive, operate and understand the museum itself.

VocalEyes will be publishing the State of Museum Access 2018 later this year.