Findings from a consultation by Accentuate, a specialist disability programme within the organisation Screen South, offer new insights into disabled people’s engagement with museums as both workers and audiences.
The report, Curating for Change: Disabled People Leading in Museums, explores the current landscape of museum engagement for D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people following a consultation involving surveys, phone conversations and workshops with 170 disability-focused groups and individuals.
In the wake of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, the report recognises the beneficial changes that have been made in terms of digital engagement, but warns of the potential to “step backwards” if momentum is not sustained and organisations are not held accountable.
A key finding was that almost all the D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent consultation participants thought that the Covid pandemic had presented a positive opportunity in terms of flexible remote working, interview practices and digital engagement for audiences.
Respondents expressed feeling liberated knowing that their flexible working requests might be taken more seriously and seen as viable for at least part of the working week, when previously such requests had been denied.
The consultation also reports good news for D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people’s professional development, with many embracing a more digital and accessible learning environment.
Lower costs of remote training, an easing of the monetary and physical burden of travel, and the move away from international conferences have all been to the benefit of disabled museum workers, who are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and impacted by poor access provision when travelling.
As audiences, however, D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent individuals and groups noted a lack of representation within museum collections, exhibitions and events. Disability history, stories and collections are “rarely shared” in museums, and are often interpreted by non-disabled staff when included.
When asked which areas of history interested the disabled survey respondents, three of the five most popular responses related specifically to disability, indicative of an audience that would welcome better representation. Participants also expressed a desire to work more closely with museums to co-produce content and outputs.
As well as working with disabled museum workers and audiences, Accentuate worked with 16 partner museums, including the Imperial War Museum, Museum of Liverpool and Black Country Living Museum. All partner museums reported that they hoped to become part of a network of organisations supportive of D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent staff and audiences.
The museums also indicated that they wish to increase their understanding of how to recruit D/deaf and/or disabled staff (94.1%); develop more supportive and inclusive working environments and practices (94.1%); and gain new skills regarding how to create fully accessible exhibitions and experiences (88.2%).
The consultation identified some of the museums’ barriers to engagement disabled people: 58.8% of museums reported “a lack of specialist contacts” and “a lack of understanding and/or skills to provide support”.
Addressing existing problems in museum recruitment, the report documents the difficulties faced by D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people when looking for work.
The most cited reasons for disabled people not progressing when pursuing a career in museums included inaccessible recruitment practices, a lack of flexibility on working patterns, and unnecessary requirements such as qualifications and physical ability. Respondents also noted issues with application and interview formats, and inappropriate questioning during recruitment.
The report follows consultation work over the last year in preparation for Accentuate’s Curating for Change programme. The programme will, subject to funding, deliver eight paid fellowships and eight paid traineeships at partner museums for disabled people hoping to pursue a career in curating. Four placements have already been developed, with initial funding for the consultation provided by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
“Our Accentuate team has undertaken significant research with our partners and communities across England which reflects their direct experience in the heritage sector,” said Jo Nolan, managing director of Screen South.
“This report’s call for realistic and impactful access for all is resounding. Given the lessons that can be drawn from the last year, we are at a crossroads where I hope the report’s findings will contribute to a welcome change in raising the voice and profile of people with disabilities across the sector.”
The report makes 16 recommendations for museum recruitment, including advertising entry level roles beyond usual museum sector websites, not asking for qualifications unless absolutely necessary and offering flexibility.
Similarly it makes five recommendations for working with D/deaf, disabled and neurodivergent people as audiences – such as reaching out to local disabled people’s groups, valuing disabled people as experts, and considering how disability heritage narratives can be included in new exhibitions or events.