Core functions: good practice for museum toilets

Creating safe, accessible and functional spaces for all visitors
Access Disability Inclusion
Caroline Parry
Share
The toilet – it is the one place you can guarantee next to everyone will visit when spending a day at a museum. But it is often the most overlooked facility in an institution and rarely receives the investment it deserves.

Toilets do not make the visitor experience, but the right facilities, such as Changing Places toilets, allow some people to visit in the first place, while substandard and inadequate facilities can ruin a visit.

Getting capital funding to invest in toilet facilities – whether that’s installing a Changing Places facility or working towards becoming greener – is not easy.

Frances Sampayo, the deputy director at Chelsea Physic Garden in London, says funders do not see such projects as sexy or exciting.

But good toilet design can create a safe space for everyone that enters a museum, whether they are families, people with visible or non-visible disabilities or religious requirements, whether they are queer, trans and non-binary or elderly.
 
“Your toilets and how you design them say a lot about who you are and who you expect to visit,” says Sarah Rennie, the director of Rennie Consulting, which advises commercial organisations on disabilities and access.
 
Every member of staff should ensure their toilets are enhancing the visitor experience, not detracting from it.

“Toilets are a window into a museum’s soul,” adds Ben Melham, the director of Mortice Consulting, which works with heritage and cultural institutions on estates and facilities management issues.
 
The basics
 
At the very minimum, all visitors will expect toilets to be free, accessible, clean, well maintained and regularly checked, well-stocked with toilet paper, hand soap, water, ideally warm, with towels for drying or a working hand dryer.
 
Accessible toilets, which often also have the only baby changing facilities, should not be used as store cupboards, and, if locked, signage should tell people where to find the key.
 
Regularly using the visitor toilets will help museum staff to understand any issues, says Chelsea’s Sampayo: “You have to put yourself in the visitor’s shoes.”
 
Get ahead of problems
 
Proper maintenance is key to staying ahead of issues that can put toilets out of action. Sampayo recommends carrying out routine maintenance checks at least once a month.
 
If you do not have cleaners working in the toilets throughout the day, ask staff to carry out daily cleaning checks, Sampayo suggests.
 
Have the right equipment on hand to deal with everyday issues, such as blockages, is vital. The basics are a mop and bucket, pads to soak up leaks, and paper towels for when the hand dryer breaks down.
 
Getting the numbers right
 
Project architects will be able to advise on the correct number of toilets required per visit for a new-build or redevelopment.
 
Raymond Martin, the managing director of the British Toilet Association (BTA), says the list below shows the level of provision needed for existing facilities:
 
  • Two toilets for up to 40 female visitors a day, three toilets for up to 70 female visitors.
  • One toilet for every 250 male visitors a day, plus one for every additional 500 males.
  • One urinal for every 50 daily male visitors up to 100, then one urinal for every additional 100 men.
  • If there are no urinals, male toilet provision should be half the female provision.
  • Two in every 10 toilets should be accessible.
  • If there is only one toilet in a building, then it should be enlarged, wheelchair-accessible and unisex.
  • In separate sex toilet blocks, at least one cubicle should be ambulant mobility accessible for disabled people who don’t need a wheelchair.
  • Where there are four or more cubicles in separate sex blocks, one larger cubicle (120cm wide) should be provided in each block for people that require more space (this is in addition to a separate enlarged wheelchair-accessible unisex toilet).
 
There is no legal requirement to provide baby change facilities, but the BTA advises that there should be at least one unisex baby change facility per every 10,000 people. Typically, changing tables are installed at between 73cm and 75cm in height.
 
There is also no legal obligation to provide Changing Places toilets, which are essential for people with severe physical and mental disabilities. A government consultation, carried out in July, has mooted making them mandatory in new builds.
 
The regulations would also include major renovations, and it would apply to museums with 300,000 or more visitors per year.
 
Knowledge is power
 
Signposting and wayfinding should begin before people even arrive, says Ben Melham, who is also the founder of Twitter handle #MuseumToilets.

Provide the following detailed information, including pictures of the facilities if possible, on your website:
 
  • The exact location of all toilets – gendered, unisex, accessible.
  • Highlight if you have a Changing Places toilet, which allows visitors to know those specific facilities are available, such as a hoist.
  • If you do not have a Changing Places toilet, where is the nearest one located?
  • What facilities are in the toilets? For example, is there a baby change? Is the toilet left or right-hand transfer?
  • How are toilets accessed? Is the accessible toilet kept locked? Where is the key held?
  • A Radar is the recognised national standard for access to both accessible and Changing places toilets. A key protects the equipment inside, as well as ensuring facilities are available when needed. If visitors need to request a Radar key, where can they collect it from?
 
Becki Morris, the director of the Disability Collaborative Network for Museums, says wayfinding should be continually reviewed to ensure you are taking a holistic and multi-voiced approach.
 
Location, location, location
 
In historical buildings where it is not possible to relocate toilets, clear and prominent signage for the entire journey to the toilet is vital.
 
Clear signage is important for visitors, but also for people who might have nipped into the museum to use the toilet, something that is increasing as the number of public conveniences has declined. Offer visitors a map that prominently displays the location of the toilets to support the signage.
 
In a new build or if you are relocating toilets as part of a refurbishment, Melham suggests toilets should be:

  • Located centrally, ideally at the core of a building near lifts, escalators and the entrance and exit.
  • In the same place on every floor.
  • Spaced evenly throughout the venue/visitor journey.
 
What’s in a sign?
 
Clear signage on who can use which toilets is also helpful to a diverse range of people, including some with non-visible disabilities, says Jo Raw, the assistant director at Museums Northumberland.
 
Jen Slater, the co-author of Around the Toilet, a research project about what makes a safe and accessible toilet space published in 2018, says that the right signage can make people feel they have been thought of and considered.

“Good signage really can help people feel they are included.”
 
Areas to consider include:

  • Are gender-neutral toilets signed?
  • Could you have signs to show which facilities are inside?
  • Can you install Not All Disabilities Are Visible signs on accessible toilets?
  • Can you add exit signs inside the toilets to help visitors with visual impairments and dementia?
 
Ensuring accessible means accessible
 
Current UK building regulations require an accessible toilet to be a minimum of 2.2m in length and 1.5m wide. The door should be around 1m wide, and it should open outwards.

Accessible toilets can be on any floor of a building, providing lifts are wide enough for wheelchairs and the access to the toilet itself is level.
 
According to UK building regulations, the accessible toilet should also have:

  • A raised height toilet, commonly between 45cm and 50cm.
  • A paddle flush to make it easier to use.
  • Sink with lever taps.
  • Five supporting grab rails, which should be in a contrasting colour to the walls to help the visually impaired.
  • An emergency cord to raise the alarm. Euan’s Guide, an online resource for people with disabilities, offers a free of charge Red Cord Card that politely asks people not to tie it up.
 
These are the minimum requirements for an accessible toilet, which with additional equipment, such as sanitary bins, often only give wheelchair users a minimal turning circle.
 
Becki Morris carries out regular health checks on museum toilets. She recommends that accessible toilets should also feature:
 
  • A shelf for people with a colostomy bag or a stoma bag.
  • Door hooks for clothing and bags.
  • Appropriate lighting.
 
Accessible toilets require users to be ambulant, and they are not suitable for people with severe physical or mental disability.

In those instances, a Changing Places toilet is essential. Changing Places facilities comprise more equipment, including a hoist and adult-sized changing table, and are housed in larger rooms.
 
Safe spaces
 
Self-contained gender-neutral toilets provide safe spaces for anyone requiring privacy while out in public.

These facilities are often also the accessible toilets, but many visitors, such as parents/carers who require pram space and a toilet while changing a baby’s nappy, may feel guilty about using them.
 
The Around the Toilet report highlights that it is not against the law for any person to use any toilet, meaning the policing of toilets tends to be ruled by social convention.

For example, the report found trans and non-binary people often feel unable to use gendered toilets for fear of being confronted.
 
  • Museum staff should be clear on your policy regarding who can use which toilets.
  • Do staff understand what a Can’t Wait Card is? Should this be highlighted in toilets for visitors too?
  • Provide sanitary disposal in all toilets, not just the female spaces if you have gendered toilets.
  • Provide toilet brushes, for people with bowel conditions.
  • Provide baby change facilities in gender-neutral spaces, so men are also able to change baby’s nappies.
  • Provide spaces for families to use, which have space for a pram and a toilet for parents/carers to use.
 
Everything evolves
 
The needs of visitors will develop, and facilities will have to evolve alongside that. Becki Morris says all museums, galleries and heritage sites can contact the Disability Collaboration Network to find out what support and funding is available to make all facilities more inclusive.
 
Caroline Parry is a freelance journalist

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Discover

Advertisement