Making Museums More Accessible

How can we help blind people see art? Is there a way for people with impaired hearing to hear the power of artistic expression? How can we enable a person with a mental disability get the most out of art? In short, how can we improve access to museums and exhibitions for everyone? These and many more issues were the subject of a very intense Conference Day on 26 October, devoted to learning about and discussing the lines of work and the experiences of art museums to become more accessible. The venue: Gaudi’s building, La Pedrera. The speakers and audience: museum professionals and representatives of various disabled people’s associations.

The findings will be presented at the Museums Workshops: Culture and Best Practices. Accessibility and Inclusion to be held in the Museu Marítim de Barcelona from 4 to 6 November. The following is only a summary of some of the presentations.

A lot of us were looking forward to hearing the speaker from the MoMA, and no one was disappointed. Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community and Access Programs in the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Education, gave a clear and complete exposition of the many initiatives they are involved in, such as

– school accessibility programmes (‘Art Looking, Art Making’)

– ‘Interpreting MoMA’ for the deaf: transcripts of the audio guides

– ‘Touch Tours’: tactile visits, material in Braille and audio guides with descriptions for the blind

– a very interesting ‘Teleconference Courses’ project for people who are confined to the house, in which an educator conducts an interactive art course over the phone

– awareness programmes for medical students

MoMA Alzheimer’s Project: visits for Alzheimer’s sufferers and their carers


Francesca Rosenberg, Director, Community and Access Programs , MoMA. Foto: Robin Holland

And of course we mustn’t forget specific training for museum educators, because a lot of people with disabilities say that society’s negative attitudes towards them are the biggest obstacle they have to face. In the words of Francesca Rosenberg, ‘People with disabilities are part of your general public‘ – a truth as basic as it is frequently overlooked.

Among the keys to success she singled out are: good planning, researching disabilities, having an advisory committee of people with and without disabilities, wide-reaching publicity, taking an in-depth look at the physical space and the acoustics, opening times, being flexible and adapting what’s on offer, and assessment.

The Musée du Louvre, too, has for many years been developing inclusive initiatives in four main areas: the building, the museography, the website and communication. The museum has a regularly monitored Accessibility Plan, and in addition to facilitating physical access to its spaces, notoriously complex due to the monumental size and structure of the building, and providing tactile devices, sign-language guided tours and dramatized visits with mime (International Visual Theatre) it also organizes Rencontres, get-togethers with professionals from the medico-social sector. Matthieu Decraene, Chargé de développement des publics pour l’accessibilité, summarized the four key points:

a policy of accessibility can only be put into practice with the participation of people with disabilities and their representatives

– an accessibility policy can improve access for all visitors and puts users’ needs squarely at the centre of the museum’s concerns

– it is built up slowly over time – a long process that calls for perseverance

– accessibility is a transverse project that has to involve the entire institution.


Tactile gallery in the Louvre. Photo: Cyril Labbé

I’m writing a long post – even though I’ve left out lots of interesting things! – but I really must mention local initiatives. The most outstanding is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya project ‘Museum, Common Space of Integration’, part of the Educ’Art programme. Teresa González, head of the Education Department, gave an excellent presentation of the accessibility programme, started 10 years ago. The basic principles are being accessible – responding to physical, cognitive, social and economic needs, giving people a personalized welcome, promoting independence and encouraging participation and the three-way cooperation between museum staff, the professionals working with disabled people and the disabled themselves. I’ll confine myself here to activities for visitors with cognitive disabilities. All visits are complemented by creative expression workshops designed to help people develop their cognitive and sensory skills and enhance their personal and social skills by building confidence and self-esteem. At the end of the workshop, each participant presents his or her work to the others. Until last Sunday a selection of these creative expression works was on show in the museum.

Workshops for disabled visitors. Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.

Teresa ended her talk by throwing out some open questions: how do we go from designing programmes for disabled people to designing programmes with them?

How can we carry over into our accessibility policies all that we have learned from working with disabled people?

How can we make accessibility the heart of the museum’s policy and ensure it is seen as a responsibility by everyone on the staff?

Other examples of good practice presented include the programme ‘The Tactile Gaze’, developed by the museums of the Diputació de Barcelona, the programme ‘Talking with Painting’ for people with cognitive disabilities, developed by the Associació Argadini for the Thyssen-Bornemisza and Reina Sofia museums, and the experiences of la Pedrera, the Museu Marítim and the Fundació Miró, whose Director, Dolors Ricart, pointed out that there is often resistance from museum staff, designers, art directors and others who set aesthetic criteria above functional values, when what is needed is ‘to make both the heritage and the way we explain it more universal’.

The most memorable part of the day was the round-table with representatives of different disabilities. There was agreement that a lot has been achieved in recent years and that tactile resources, adapted audio-guides and so on are now far more common. Meritxell Aymerich, a journalist who has been blind from birth, said very graphically that ‘when I went to a museum in the old days it was as if the display cases were empty or the canvases blank’. Dolors Òdena, from a psychiatric group, said that for her the MNAC workshops mark a before and an after: ‘you wonder what will come out: you feel emotions, you get to know the materials, you grow in culture and you get rid of the stigma and the fear of doing normal things.’

Among the demands: for museums’ access services to be better publicized in tourist offices, on the internet, etc…; for Braille to be present in museums; for a wider use not only of sign language but of other supports for deaf people who communicate orally; for all videos to be subtitled; for integrated action in the physical space, activities and workshops; for education departments to prepare appropriate materials; for agreements to be drawn up between museums and associations of disabled people, and for training of museum staff.

By now you must be asking ‘what about the Museu Picasso?’ Well, to be honest I must say that we have a lot of work to do in every aspect of accessibility, except for physical access to the spaces and the website. Despite the architectural complexity of a set of five buildings of medieval origin, every section of the museum is accessible, and wheelchairs are available for visitors who require them. The website is accessible too, and applies the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) standards adopted by the European Union. But in other aspects, we still have a long way to go. In the new phase we have recently started at the Museum, accessibility is and will be a priority.


Left: group accessing the museum. Right: the director welcoming a group of senior visitors

As it says in the Commitment made by the seven Articket museums, organizers of the conference, ‘to enable people with disabilities to enjoy the contents of the museum is a challenge and an obligation’ and we will work in this direction. In improving access for people with disabilities we will be improving access for everyone.

Conxa Rodà
Project Manager

What actions to promote accessibility do you think are most urgently needed?
Have you ever had a really bad (or a really good) experience to do with access to a museum?

  • Conxa
    October 29, 2009

    La companya Marta Iglesias, d’Activitats, que també hi va assistir, m’envia 6 punts de síntesi. Algun aspecte ja quedava recollit al text però trobo la llista tan ben pensada que la copio aquí:
    1.Innovació + imaginació suposarà l’accés al futur a nivell universal.
    2.Cal un esforç a conèixer les necessitats de cada grup abans de la visita.
    3.Fer recerca sobre accessibilitat i sobre els discapacitats.
    4.Incloure els cuidadors en alguns casos, per exemple, malalts d’Alzheimer, quan es creen els programes.
    5.Implicar els sectors vinculats, per exemple sanitari, en sessions de formació i avaluació de programes.
    6.Afavorir la percepció positiva de la seva realitat.
    Gràcies, Marta!

  • Quim Vicente
    October 29, 2009

    Totalment d’acor. Vaig trobar la sessió molt suggerent. Des dels museus tenim molta feina per fer, ia feina va més enllà de l’adaptació de les nostres museografies, cal incorporar als nostres plantejaments més profunds i primers la “universalitat” de les nostres propostes i accions.
    Gràcies pe l’excel•lent resum dels continguts tractats a la Pedrera.

    Quim Vicente

  • Conxa
    October 29, 2009

    i Manel Baena, de Premsa, hi afegeix 2 punts més (ja sabia jo que amb això d’intentar comprimir em deixava coses!):

    1.s’ha de treballar la individualitat i no pensar sempre en el discapacitat com a grup, tot intentant evitar la discriminació positiva: volen ser tractats com tothom i només que se’ls faciliti les eines per que pugui ser així
    2.els recursos utilitzats per assolir aquesta “igualtat” són imprescindibles, també, per a persones que no reben, a priori,la consideració de discapacitats: gent gran, nens petits condicionats per la seva alçada, accidentats temporals amb problemes de mobilitat, persones amb lleugers problemes de visió……) i aquest fet és decisiu per a la integració d’uns i d’altres.

  • Marina Emmanouil
    March 23, 2010

    I was inlvolved in an Accessibility Programme at the Benaki Museum (Athens, Greece) last year, and I hope my experience to be of interest to the members of this group.

    Please read the following text published in the Design History Newsletter, 122, Nov 2009.
    Beyond Sight. Accessibility, Usability and Interactivity at the Benaki Museum

    In light of the recent Pre-Columbian Art Exhibition (24 June-30 August) at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece, an Educational Programme was developed for the first time, making the distant and largely unknown Civilisations of the American Continent accessible to an audience of 21,000 individuals with visual impairments. This can be considered an innovative project in Greece since very little has been offered in the past to visually impaired people in the country.

    The Educational Programme comprised mainly of Guided Tours, which were based on a representative sample of Pre-Columbian Art through which the main facets of the Andean Civilisations (and particularly of Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru) were presented. In particular, the facets concerned: a. Religion, and generally their rituals and rites in these regions; b. Technology, and their know-how in technical matters; c. War; and lastly, d. Social and Political formation. These four major topics, which were discussed through selected artifacts, introduced the everyday life of the people who lived in these areas during the ‘Pre-Columbian’ era; the time before Christophorus Columbus ‘discovered’ the Continent in 1492 and major changes occurred in the progress of the New World thereinafter.

    The Exhibition artifacts (dating roughly between the 4thc BC and 17thc AD) exemplified the unique character of these communities, bringing into light both the strong survival instincts and the artistic expression of the local people. For example, cylindrical ceramic pots with impressive decoration of god-shaman figures; ritualistic vessels of an exceptional technical quality; ceramic cups with iconographic symbols of warriors and the four cardinal directions; and a stone-carved throne that demonstrates the local hierarchical social structure, were some of the objects discussed during the Tour.

    Accessibility and Usability

    Printed informational material, in the form of a two-volume Catalogue, was provided in Braille placing the objects within a historical context. This Catalogue was also available online, and along with the text of the Guided Tours, will remain so beyond the end date of the Exhibition. However, the Programme’s greatest asset was the touch-on activities, which were particularly enjoyed. The Tour attendants could touch the original objects or their copies, and perceive supplementary information on their shape and decorative details from tactile diagrammes. The latter included 2-d representations of the selected objects and geographic maps of the regions making use of the Information Design principles for Usability.

    From the designer’s perspective, the greatest challenge in designing these 2-d diagrammes generally, is the effective symbiosis between two elements: efficiency and clarity; efficiency with respect to the required level of information; and clarity in relation to the successful rendering of the information to be interpreted. To achieve these qualities, two main design principles were put in practice: firstly, visual hierarchy (i.e., defining which of the elements are primary, and which secondary), and secondly, simplification process (i.e., the process of erasing the unnecessary elements of the image, so that it can be clearer, and thus easier to feel in the raised format). The result should produce a pleasant and informative tactual experience for the widest range of tactual capabilities possible.


    However, beyond the informative potential of the Guided Tours, the Educational Programme was set out to achieve another important goal: to establish an interactive relationship between attendants/visitors and museum. This relationship was achieved by the active/direct engagement of visually impaired people with the Collection’s artifacts. In particular, after touching the original objects at the Benaki Museum, members of the Ceramic Pottery Workshop (of the Lighthouse for the Blind in Greece) re-produced them in the laboratory with amazing results. The created pottery was on public display at a defined space within the Exhibition gallery next to the originals. In effect, this allowed people with sight to engage with the works produced by people with little or no sight at all, making the interaction work in more than one direction; between the museum and visually impaired people, and between visually impaired and people with sight.

    More generally, when designing educational programmes for people with special needs, it is worth keeping in mind that implementation and co-presentation of Educational Programmes for people with disabilities within the Exhibition galleries could meet multiple challenges. Apart from treating people with disabilities in equal and fair terms, the co-citation contributes to the consciousness awareness and normalisation of the behaviour towards people with disabilities, fighting in this way social discrimination, and stopping forgetfulness concerning the presence and contribution of people with special needs in society.

    A paradigm to be followed…

    The Benaki Museum, a leading private organisation in Greek Culture, warmly embraced the proposal for this Programme putting in practice the politics it carries towards making Culture broadly accessible. Even though, the target audience seemed little familiar with these sort of events as seen from the relatively low turnout, those who attended the Tours expressed their excitement and strong support to the Programme. It is planned therefore to make the informational material of the Guided Tours (copies of the originals, tactile diagrammes, and the Catalogue in Braille) available to Schools for kids with special needs, creating in this way a portable exhibition/guided tour after the Exhibition’s end.

    In assessing the effectiveness and usefulness of the particular Programme, and in order to improve future projects, some targeted questions were included in the general Exhibition’s questionnaire. An academic review of the outcome of this public response is planned to be published soon, however, it is important that some data be cited so that the strong message given by the public can be passed on. Nearly thirty-eight per cent (37,8%) of those who filled in the questionnaire found the Educational Programme ‘Very Good’ (being the highest point of reference), and seventy-four per cent (73.8%) would like to see a similar Programme for the Museum’s Permanent Collection. The latter project is among the immediate plans of the Educational Department of the Museum given the allocation of a fund for this purpose. The implementation of that project would bring into wider public awareness the Museum’s rich and diverse Collection (at the Main building), which cover the main periods in Greek history; a fact that has made the Benaki Museum a popular cultural venue amongst domestic and foreign visitors.

    Closing this brief report, we should underline the presence of the media and their contribution to making the Programme known to the general and targeted public. The awareness of the benefits of such programmes could encourage other Museums in Greece to follow the paradigm set by the Benaki Museum, given of course a raised demand and support by visually impaired people and their institutions for like-minded projects. Perhaps in direct demand for a similar project would be for the recently opened, and long-awaited, New Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is all up to be seen and assessed in the future, yet, a promising step towards museum accessibility in Greece has been taken.

    Marina Emmanouil
    Programme co-ordinator and tactile diagramme designer

    Athens, September 2009

  • Museu Picasso
    March 24, 2010

    Thank you so much, Marina, for this worthy contribution. We haven\’t yet set a Programme for visually impaired audience. Experiences like yours are exemplary, we\’ll add it to our best practices research on accessibility, thank you for sharing it with our blog\’s readers.

  • Monica
    November 4, 2009

    Fabuloso resumen, sobre todo para los que no pudimos estar presentes durante todo el día (una lástima haberme perdido la presentación de Teresa González).

    Respondiendo a vuestra pregunta, no creo que pueda haber una acción más urgente que otra, por lo menos una vez los accesos físicos están salvados. Creo que, a partir de ahí, se debería diseñar una situación ideal, algo así como una lista de acciones a tomar para que el museo sea totalmente accesible y poder empezar a tachar cosas de la lista. Dependiendo de las posibilidades del museo en cada momento concreto se tacharán unas u otras, con mayor o menor rapidez, pero por lo menos se irán consiguiendo, poco a poco, todos los objetivos.

    Finalmente, gracias por vuestra mención a mi blog -es todo un honor!


  • belio
    November 16, 2009

    Mirar este proyecto!

  • lena
    May 2, 2011

    Me parece imprescindible pensar museos y en el arte accesible , tangible, a los ciudadanos “especiales” como hacer visible la belleza a unos ojos sin luz, es más fácil con la música a mi parecer, pero un desafío prioritario a llevar a cabo. Saludos.

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