Over the past 15 years, museums have moved from just seeking to meet the legal requirements for physical access towards much broader thinking.
Inclusive access is now commonly seen as addressing the needs of those with visible and invisible disabilities, and a range of neurodiversities. This positive step towards including a broader range of the public comes with its own challenges.
Put simply, you can’t please everyone all of the time.
Bolton Museum is striving to overcome the challenges of conflicting access needs. We don’t have all the answers but are working with our communities to improve.
Inclusive practice is at the heart of our offer and is designed into any new developments. Rather than trying to make every area accessible to every person, we focus on having a wide range of spaces through the building. There should ideally be at least one space in Bolton Museum that suits each visitor.
For example, the art gallery is a calm place with no additional stimulation, and may be “boring” to someone who needs a lot of input or sound instead of labels.
It is easy to navigate with a wheelchair but there are wide-open areas that may cause uncertainty for someone with sight loss traversing them. It might also feel uncomfortable for someone anxious in large spaces.
By contrast, the first section of the Egypt galleries is small and busy, with rapidly changing sound from a TV screen. This may not suit someone who struggles to read labels while there is noise in the background, or who needs a lot of personal space. But it’s easy to traverse for someone with sight loss, and is stimulating for someone who responds well to sound.
In redeveloping these two galleries, we worked closely with the sight-loss charity Henshaws, as awareness of sight loss was not strong in our in-house teams.
In addition to the museum’s physical design, quiet relaxed weekend times are advertised when electronic sounds are turned off and sensory touch, feel and smell activities are available.
Audio-described and touch tours of all galleries are available on request, and we let local groups know of this offer.
Staff have been trained in awareness and have, on occasion, offered and delivered a touch tour – with no notice – to someone they thought would likely benefit from one, to enhance the visitor experience.
Inclusive practice is always a work in progress. Larger organisations with multiple galleries should, in my opinion, be working towards creating a range of spaces that meet as broad a range of needs as possible.
The value of access solutions such as online museums, filmed tours and audio description should not be underestimated.
The Lyme Museum, created and curated by Angela Stienne, has been uplifting for many with invisible chronic conditions who may have been unable to travel to an in-person space.
Smaller museums with one or two spaces may have to decide to focus their physical inclusivity work on a narrower group of people.
Inclusivity can still be increased in smaller areas by having allocated times in your calendar and varying exhibition programmes, and conditions in spaces when content, layout, seating provision, lighting and sound can be adjusted.
Being open and honest in online access pages that some may not have their needs met is important.
Working with your local communities is crucial. Ask nearby support charities and groups what they want, and consult them when planning events and exhibitions.
Actively invite groups to events that are accessible to them. Proactive communication builds trust when people feel wanted in the space.
But expect to face anger, as those of us who have been excluded don’t expect to be included – it takes time to build trust. Accept that there will be challenges, and meet criticism with an enquiring mind, not defensiveness. There is not a single solution to being welcoming and accessible.
Above all, be open and honest – online, in person and in advertising – about who is and who is not able to access your spaces and events. One size definitely doesn’t fit all.
Pierrette Squires is team leader museum access, Bolton Library & Museum Service, Bolton Council