Meanings of ‘Accessibility’ in Museum Studies

What makes a museum accessible? To me accessibility refers to the architecture and content accessibility of exhibitions for disabled people. But halfway through a systematic literature review on museum, accessibility and disability, I’m finding accessibility has become a polysemous term in this context, referring both to (1) the accessibility of the whole collection to a larger public and worldwide experts, (2) accessibility to racial minorities and economically underprivileged groups and (3) accessibility to disabled visitors. This is worth exploring as it can both support the convergence between the concerns of different communities; or lead to a confusion between availability and accessibility.

The digitisation of collections is related to all three definitions of accessibility. It enables access at a distance, hands-on activities to expand pedagogical programs to new audiences, and access to tactile reproductions for disabled visitors.

Other articles explore how the representation of a given community and its history in exhibitions increase their accessibility. Accessibility in this case refers both to racial minorities and economically underprivileged groups and extends to disabled people. Accessibility of buildings similarly refers to both groups, as it refers to price, spatial and transportation issues.

Attempts at accessibility of the buildings and the content specific to disabled people focus on specific sub-categories, distinguishing between: sensory disabilities (visual and hearing impairments together or separated), cognitive and learning difficulties, motor disabilities, and multiple and profound impairments. How these categories came to be established in museum studies is an inquiry for another day.

What I do find very interesting is the convergence between pedagogical activities aimed at widening audiences to underserved communities (due to their socio-economic background) and for including disabled visitors. While Georgina Kleege highlights it sometimes mean museums treat disabled visitors as children who don’t have the background to understand art, it’s also an encouraging examples of ways of thinking about inclusive education as a profound change in what we teach and how.


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