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Accessibility in Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums: Galleries / Museums

Introduction to Accessibility in Galleries & Museums

This page includes resources for cultural professionals working in public-facing arts organizations, such as museums and galleries, who aim to make their institutions accessible to disabled patrons. Below you will find recommendations for accommodations, free online resources, and case studies as well as a sampling of disabled artists to consider for inclusion in shows and collections. 

Disability is not evenly distributed. Black, queer, trans, indigenous and low income communities are primarily affected by disability and denial of access. By incorporating accessible initiatives into the heart of your arts organization and creating truly inclusive spaces, you can be part of the movement to dismantle ableism and how it intersections with capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. 

Accommodations

As discussed in the introduction to this LibGuide, there is a difference between accessibility and accommodation. Accessibility is grounded in foresight, for inclusion to be part of the blueprint and ethos from the beginning of an initiative whether it is a new exhibition, a social media post, or building plan, whereas accommodation is about applying changes to an already existing exhibition, website, building, etc due to a request or need. While both are essential now, the hope is to enact accessibility to the point that it is the norm and accommodation is no longer applicable or needed. Source material for these accommodation recommendations is linked inside the text and/or included in the sources box at the bottom of this page.


The Physical Space
  • Accessible Exhibition Design Guides
  • Building Infrastructure
    • Plentiful Seating Options 
    • Ramps [Not Stairs]
      • ADA ramps require a slope ratio of 1:12, and temporary ramps can be installed if a permanent alteration is not feasible.
    • Wide and Easy Entrances
      • ADA guidelines recommend a door width with a 36 inch clearance.
      • Doors should have automated opening options.
    • All-Gender Bathrooms
      • Have gender expansive bathrooms, instead of "female" or "male" ones, with baby changing rooms in all bathrooms. 
      • Offer free bathroom access to the public regardless of ticket purchase. 
  • Large Labels
    • Shape Art's An Accessible Marketing Guide provides helpful pointers when creating exhibition marketing content, like using large print that is 18 point and avoiding fancy fonts, large blocks of capitals and italics (using bold instead). 
    • Consider using a hyperlegible font, like Braille Institute's free Atkison Hyperlegible font for your printed and digital materials. 
  • Audio Description Recordings and Devices
    • The Audio Description Project and Audio Description as a Pedagogical Tool speak at length about audio description, with guidelines, samples, and instructional examples.
    • There are a variety of audio description devices for cultural institutions, like those made by Durateq or Sennheiser, or consider having audio recordings accessible online or via QR codes. Offer full-text transcripts of all audio recordings.
    • Include captions for video content. Activating Captions is an example of critically engaging with captioning as an artistic form.
    • Park McArthur's PARA-SITES project at MoMA is an example of an audio description built into the core of an art experience. 
  • Multilingual Access
    • Language Justice as envisioned by Antena outlines a potential multilingual future on our collective horizon. What are the official languages of your location? What are the most commonly spoken tongues in your community? What is the indigenous language of the land? Have your content and exhibitions support as many of these languages as possible. 
    • Hire Sign Language interpreters for tours, openings, and other events. 
  • Touch Access 
    • Art Beyond Sight's Touch Tours and Other Tactile Experiences offers guidelines and inspiration for incorporating tactile tours into your institution's programming. 
    • Create wall labels, guides, and brochures in Braille if possible. Braille is a code of six dots in two columns of three dots that can be read by the fingers, and you can buy kits (like this one) and produce Braille in-house or work with an agency that produces content in text to Braille translation. 
  • Staff and Docent Training
    • Art Beyond Sight's Staff and Docent Training stresses the importance of staff training with sample agendas, checklists, and a complete Docent Training course. Interactions with front-of-house staff and guards can make or break a museum experience for disabled patrons, so training staff on disability awareness and accessibility accommodations is essential.
  • Additional Initiatives
The Virtual Space
  • An Accessible Website
  • Alt-Text for Images
    • Alt-Text as Poetry by Bojana Coklyat and Shannon Finnegan is a thoughtful dive into alt-text with a workbook that includes a series of writing exercises.
    • Coyote is a free, open source software developed by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to support a distributed workflow for describing images and publishing those descriptions to a public website. They also published helpful guidelines for alt-text. 
  • Live Transcription
    • Automatic captions should be available for virtual events. Zoom has a live transcription feature and so does Google Hangouts.
Additional Resources

Accessibility-Focused Organizations

These accessibility-focused organizations work with art institutions to expand their programming to diversely abled audiences. Many have a wide variety of online resources freely available and other offer hands-on training on an institutional level.


  • Shape Arts is a disability-led arts organization which works to improve access to culture for disabled people by providing opportunities for disabled artists, training cultural institutions, and through running participatory arts programs. They have a treasure trove of online resources covering everything from An Accessible Arts Marketing Guide to Creating Participatory Projects with Disabled People
  • Art Beyond Sight is dedicated to empowering and enriching the lives of children and adults through access to art and culture. They published an online handbook that takes arts professionals through the process of creating accessible programming for people with a wide variety of visual impairments.
  • The Accessible Icon Project is an ongoing work of design activism that started with a graphic icon, free for use in the public domain. The Accessible Icon Project’s free to use symbol is now legally accepted in several US States and has been adopted within cultural institutions including The Museum of Modern Art (Renel 2019).
  • Attitude is Everything is a disability-led charity with 20 years of experience supporting non-profit and commercial organizations to make what they do more accessible and inclusive for Deaf and disabled people. Their resources page includes the Access Guide to Online Music Events and Ticketing Without Barriers Coalition.
  • iMuse aims to enable everyone to increase their enjoyment of and interaction with museums, galleries and other cultural spaces through the use of mobile devices to access virtual space and interact with the real space. Since 2015, iMuse has been overseen by RG spaces and their focus is now on creating small web app games for museums and heritage sites as a low cost way of engaging visitors using IT.

Case Studies

The following case studies are a small sampling of accessibility initiatives that are taking place in arts spaces.


Beyond the Visual at The Mattress Factory

The Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museums in Pittsburgh which features site-specific installations created by artists-in-residence. The museum is considered an industry leader in developed multi-disciplinary and multi-sensory education that focuses on creative problem solving and critical thinking from a contemporary arts lens (Henrich et al., 2014). Takeaways from their initiatives include:

  • Conducting focus groups with disabled communities is much more effective than simply theorizing what their experience is like.
  • Their focus groups with blind and low vision patrons brought up the importance of describing a work of art without a philosophical or conceptual critique. This group also responded most favorably to pieces with a sound and touch element as well as installations with a strong narrative component. 
  • Make sure that the language and content for the accessibility portion of your website is prominently featured. Many disabled patrons check the websites of cultural spaces to decide if the space is amenable to their needs. If they cannot find this information, they will likely hesitate to visit in person. 

Relaxed Performance Project

The relaxed performance movement in the United Kingdom was formalized with the creation of the Relaxed Performance Project, led by disabled writer, performer and activist Jess Thom, and has now spread to theaters and performance venues internationally. Thom describes relaxed performances as those which "offer a warm welcome to people who might find it difficult to follow the usual conventions of theatre etiquette. This can include people with learning disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders or other neurological conditions such as Tourettes Syndrome, people who experience social anxiety, and people with young children or babies" (Renel, 2019). 

Approaches to relaxed performance include the following strategies as outlined in "Sonic Accessibility: Increasing Social Equity Through the Inclusive Design of Sound in Museums and Heritage Sites" by William Renel and these ideas can be incorporated into all types of arts events and spaces:

  • Welcoming movement and noise from the audience, giving everyone permission to be themselves and respond naturally to the space.
  • Pre-show information describing how to get to a venue, what to expect from the performance and building and what accessibility provisions are and aren’t available.
  • An open invitation for audience members to come in and out of the space whenever they like.
  • Considerations of lighting and sound levels and/or the provision of equipment such as ear defenders through which people can manage the sensory environment.
  • Ensuring staff have a clear understanding of how any complaints will be managed during the performance.
  • A designated quiet or chill out space that is clearly signposted, available to audience members throughout their visit.

Additional Reading

Disabled Artists

Accessibility in arts spaces is not just about buildings, tours, or websites: it is vital to consider accessibility from the lens of artist representation. Including disabled artists in exhibitions and collections is paramount. There are too many incredible artists to fit on a page so this is only a tiny sampling of work created by disabled artists active today. Please note that we are using "disabled artists" as a catch-all term that does not negate or replace personal word choices that these artists and all disabled people use as markers of identity. 


Christine Sun Kim / http://christinesunkim.com/

Carolyn Lazard http://www.carolynlazard.com/

Shannon Finneganhttps://shannonfinnegan.com/

Jen White Johnson / https://jenwhitejohnson.com/

Jeff Kasperhttps://jeffkasper.co/ 

Sources

 America, A. in, & America, A. in. (2019, December 17). Shannon Finnegan and Aimi Hamraie on Accessibility as a Shared Responsibility. ARTnews.Com. https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/interviews/shannon-finnegan-aimi-hamraie-access-art-architecture-1202671288/

Annette Haworth & Peter Williams. (2012). Using QR codes to aid accessibility in a museum. Journal of Assistive Technologies, 6(4), 285–291. https://doi.org/10.1108/17549451211285771 

Cole, J. B., & Lott, L. L. (2019). Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in museums (Manhattan Center Stacks 069.1 D618). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. https://login.ezproxy.pratt.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat06956a&AN=prt.b1241005&site=eds-live&scope=site

Fletcher, T. S., Blake, A. B., & Shelffo, K. E. (2018). Can Sensory Gallery Guides for Children with Sensory Processing Challenges Improve Their Museum Experience? Journal of Museum Education, 43(1), 66–77.

Handa, K., Dairoku, H., & Toriyama, Y. (2010). Investigation of Priority Needs in Terms of Museum Service Accessibility for Visually Impaired Visitors. British Journal of Visual Impairment, 28(3), 221–234.

Hayhoe, S., Garcia Carrizosa, H., Rix, J., Sheehy, K., & Seale, J. (2019). A survey of networked and Wi-Fi enabled practices to support disabled learners in museums. 197–202. https://doi.org/10.1109/WiMOB.2019.8923129

Henrich, G., Cleveland, F. Q., & Wolverton, E. (2014). Case Studies from Three Museums in Art Beyond Sight’s Multi-site Museum Accessibility Study. Museums & Social Issues, 9(2), 124–143. https://doi.org/10.1179/1559689314Z.00000000023

Houston, D., & Ong, P. (2013). Arts accessibility to major museums and cultural/ethnic institutions in Los Angeles: Can school tours overcome neighborhood disparities? Environment & Planning A, 45(3), 728–748. https://doi.org/10.1068/a45206

Ingram, C., & Sandell, R. (2019). Do museums and galleries do enough for disabled visitors? Ramps, broken lifts, unhelpful displays... To what extent do accessibility measures at cultural institutions reflect a “culture of compliance”, rather than a genuine effort to create fully inclusive experiences? Apollo, 26–27.

Levent, N., & Reich, C. (2013). Museum Accessibility: Combining Audience Research and Staff Training. Journal of Museum Education, 38(2), 218–226.

Meyer, S., Larrivee, L., Veneziano-Korzec, A., & Stacy, K. (2017). Improving Art Museum Accessibility for Adults With Acquired Hearing Loss. American Journal of Audiology, 26(1), 10–17. https://doi.org/10.1044/2016_AJA-15-0084

Proposal of a Tangible User Interface to Enhance Accessibility in Geological Exhibitions and the Experience of Museum Visitors. (2016). Procedia Computer Science, 100, 832–839. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.procs.2016.09.232

Renel, W. (2019). Sonic Accessibility: Increasing Social Equity Through the Inclusive Design of Sound in Museums and Heritage Sites. Curator, 62(3), 377–402. https://doi.org/10.1111/cura.12311  

Voon, C. (2019, April 19). This Open Source Software Could Make Museum Websites More Accessible. Artsy. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-open-source-software-museum-websites-accessible

Watlington, E., & Watlington, E. (2020, February 12). How Museums Are Making Artworks Accessible to Blind People Online. ARTnews.Com. https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/the-met-mca-chicago-blind-access-alt-text-park-mcarthur-shannon-finnegan-1202677577/