Increasing awareness of the importance of accessibility is leading to more inclusive spaces and services- including those that facilitate creativity and culture. Yet accessibility remains a broad topic that many people have a limited or differing understanding of. In this three-part series, we’ve spoken to people with access needs, those who work to support access, and cultural institutions in the city to explore accessibility in museums and galleries. By looking at available accommodations, how those work in practice, challenges to provision, and – most importantly – how disabled people experience spaces and programming, we hope to offer an introduction to how better access benefits everyone.
Last time, we looked at the physical spaces that host Dundee’s cultural institutions. Next, we’re exploring how they engage visitors with their programme of exhibitions and events, and the measures they put in place to ensure everyone can enjoy them.
Before we start, a note: this series is written through the lens of the Social Model of Disability. Find out what we mean by that.
People visit cultural institutions for all kinds of reasons – to be inspired, to find something beautiful, to learn, to relax, to kill time. But if you have an impairment that impacts the way you experience what’s on display, it’s important that provisions are made to ensure that you’re still able to engage with the work.
There are plenty of measures that can be put into place to support people to engage with the work on display independently. Indeed, some are already implemented in the city’s institutions. Large print versions of exhibition guides and high contrast labels explaining what’s on display (i.e black writing on a white background) to make them easier to read for those with visual impairments are common resources in Dundee’s museums and galleries.
Adaptations can also be made to make how objects and artworks are displayed more accessible. Captioning video and audio clips, and sense-checking the height at which work is displayed to make sure it’s suitable for wheelchair users can make a huge difference to someone’s enjoyment and understanding of the work. We’re also beginning to see cultural institutions explore ways digital resources can be used to engage visitors with spaces as a result of necessary adaptations made during the pandemic. Things like playlists, audio tours, and online talks are starting to be made available online, to expand their reach to visitors who may not be able to join them in person and to create additional ways to experience and learn.
It’s important to note that when introducing any kind of access provision, institutions should work to best practice guides – curated resources of the best, most up-to-date ways of doing things, like NEoN Digital Arts’ Accessibility Strategy – to ensure consistency of approach. Whilst all of Dundee’s cultural institutions have considered accessibility in their exhibitions, there is always plenty that can be done.
Sorcha Pringle, disabled musician and access consultant at Springboard Creative Arts advises: “Think about how you can help people to access the artifacts on display whilst still considering conservation issues. Good use of replicas can be key as well as a focus on high-quality engaging descriptive tours.”
With changing exhibition programmes often featuring alongside permanent collections, designing the interior spaces of galleries to make sure they’re accessible isn’t a one-and-done situation.
When an exhibition is curated in-house,it gives the institution control over what’s included and where things are placed, making it easier to consider the audience and make the changes they need or request. If it’s a touring show, curators are also accountable to the people who initially curated the work, who may not have fully considered access needs. Venues like independent cinemas also deal with this external influence to a certain extent; they often look to be able to provide audio-described screenings of all their films, but it’s only possible when an audio-descriptive version of the film has been made by the distributor in the first place.
Within the curation of these travelling exhibitions, due to budget restrictions and tight turnaround times, if something needs to be adapted, it can often be easier or faster to remove the elements of an exhibition that are inaccessible, rather than creating new, more suitable replacements. However, curators always look to make the best with what they have.
Peter Nurick, V&A Dundee’s Communities Producer for Access and Inclusion explains that, with their Night Fever: Designing Club Culture exhibition, they made some major changes in-house to elements of the show:
“With the silent disco section, it was right in the centre of the exhibition with lots of mirrors and lights and sound, headphones hanging down from the ceiling… This was such a central element to the exhibition, we had to keep it. But in its previous guise, it wasn’t accessible to the broadest range of people possible, so we worked very hard to make changes. We removed the little plinth that it stood on, adjusted the headphone height, changed the lighting programme settings so we had a softer option so it wasn’t quite so intense if we had certain groups coming in.”
It’s also important to note that while making changes can result in an experience being more accessible for one person, it could create a further barrier for someone else. Changing the font, size, or colour of the text on something might make it clearer for someone with dyslexia, but worse for someone with migraines.
There is no one-size-fits-all fix, which is why involving those who are disabled at the planning stages can make a world of difference. In practice, how involved those with access requirements are in the conversation varies from place to place. Many organisations consult with accessibility specialists (who are often disabled themselves) and groups who work with those who are disabled to assess what needs to be implemented or changed – though it’s important to note that not all institutions consult, and if they do, they don’t always consult on multiple impairments.
Working with disabled consultants and advocates allows individuals’ experiences, needs and voices to be heard, rather than just being given the provisions people assume are required. But by going one step further and employing them to be the ones leading the work can create an even better experience for visitors.
As Sorcha Pringle explains: “Although blindness and visual impairment is a massive spectrum, and everyone has different needs and wants as with any group of people, I find there are many advantages to me as a blind person working with blind participants. It gives you the experience of what an activity will be like to adapt, in a way that a sighted person would not immediately realise.”
Beyond the physical considerations to the walls and display cabinets, there are other opportunities for museums and galleries to bring the displays to life through their programme of events. By taking the themes and techniques used to create the work and running workshops and tours around them, they turn their collections into something more tangible for different audiences.
When the team at McManus launched The Street exhibition (which brought Dundee’s high street of yesteryear to life through an immersive exhibition of shop fronts), they reached out to groups supporting local people with dementia to invite them to enjoy a space that might be connected to their memories of the city.
Paul Campbell, Engagement Officer with Leisure and Culture Dundee explained, “because it’s quite a nostalgic exhibition, with old shops from the city, we found what happened was some of them went “oh Willie Low’s, I remember Willie Low’s!” and they told us all about it.”
V&A Dundee has also developed exhibition-specific sensory backpacks, filled with objects that help the story behind exhibitions come to life. For Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, these packs included a miniature disco ball, lots of gold fabric, glow sticks, and neon bracelets. Sensory backpacks are a tool associated with helping to calm people with additional support needs and profound and multiple learning disabilities. But by working with PAMIS in engaging with an audience who might struggle to connect otherwise, the backpacks went beyond just providing a way to keep visitors calm – they gave them a way to explore the themes of the exhibition in a way that they could understand and enjoy.
Like other local institutions that programme throughout the year, DCA has facilitated a variety of events and programmes that focus on outreach, engaging as many people as possible in both their work on display, and contemporary art more widely. From hosting and supporting disabled artists in residence in 2011, to running printmaking workshops with HaVeN (Hearing Voices Network Dundee) and the National Deaf Children’s Society, to supporting adults who learn printmaking skills as part of their recovery, their Learning Team has been conscious of including groups that maybe wouldn’t use their space otherwise. The benefit of this kind of inclusion on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing is undeniable.
Participants from DCA’s programmes have said activities have “Improved my mood by learning and producing new work” and said “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this before. I think I’d do even better next time. I enjoyed learning something new”.
These additional tours, objects and outreach programmes don’t necessarily need to be considered additional to an organisation’s larger programme of events. For some, it makes more sense to only advertise them to particular groups, so the right people can access the services they specifically need – if you don’t understand British Sign Language (BSL), you may feel out of place on a BSL tour of an exhibition. Some groups may also feel more comfortable visiting if they know they’re going to be alongside people with similar needs. But many of the additional access programmes put in place have a more universal appeal to them, because they take the underlying themes or thoughts triggered by the work, or discuss the artwork by making it part of a story, making it far easier to engage with.
Maureen Phillips, Creative Inclusion Director at PAMIS and multi-disciplinary storyteller, explained what happened when a recent storytelling session she ran, intended for people with profound disabilities, became unexpectedly mixed: “We had a lot of mainstream kids come along to our recent sessions, because they love multisensory stuff as well and they’re often around the same intellectual age. It was actually really nice, because the children are exposed to the people with profound disabilities and the people with profound disabilities paid more attention to what the children are doing with the items than what I was doing. They got just as much out of it.”
Beyond the buildings that house Dundee’s cultural institutions, everyone should also be able to engage, enjoy and learn from the exhibitions, collections and performances they curate. Considering the different ways visitors can engage with work through consultation sessions and working with disabled people to inform this is vital to make sure the adaptations, resources, tours and events put in place actually work. By understanding that the way we all engage differs and challenging the stereotypes around what the ‘right’ way to interact is, Dundee’s museums and galleries can work towards a point where everyone feels welcome and can benefit from and enjoy their collections.
We’re aware that this series will only scratch the surface of people’s ability to access cultural spaces and cover just some of the ways that museums and galleries aspire to meet access needs. If there is a point or an experience you feel we’ve not included and you’d like to share, please get in touch – we’d love to hear from you!
Thank you to Sorcha Pringle, Peter Nurick, Paul Campbell and Maureen Phillips for lending their thoughts and voices to this piece, and also to Beatrix Livesey-Stephens and Sorcha again for their support in providing feedback on the series. In the final part of the series, we’ll be looking to the future, at the practical barriers and positives that come with improving accessibility in Dundee’s cultural institutions.
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