Guest post: Planning a Universally Hospitable Museum

Friday, November 30, 2012

Even in this age of information glut, museums continue to be one of our society's treasures. They engage, inform, provoke, and not unlike partaking in a satisfying feast, we leave richer and fuller (but without the need to loosen our belt). A good museum experience, like a good dinner party, should make everyone feel welcome and included. This is not a trivial challenge, as any good host or hostess knows, people are very diverse. What brings comfort and delight to one person can be obstructive and odious to the next. It takes careful planning to avoid unintentionally excluding or disappointing. It is a valuable art and skill to anticipate everyone’s needs.

December 3rd is the International Day of Persons with Disabilities. This year’s theme is “removing barriers to create an inclusive and accessible society for all.”  The first six principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are: Respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy including the freedom to make one's own choices, and independence of persons; Non-discrimination; Full and effective participation and inclusion in society; Respect for difference and acceptance of persons with disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity; Equality of opportunity; and Accessibility. This is an etiquette that any good host would support. Canada has signed onto and ratified the Convention.

Over one billion people, or approximately 15 per cent of the world’s population, live with a disability and as Canada’s population ages that percentage dramatically rises here in Canada. All museums can anticipate welcoming “the world’s largest minority.” Unlike other minority groupings you might find yourself in, persons with disabilities are far more diverse than the majority. Anticipating needs is not as simple as offering a vegan, gluten-free dish on your menu. However, one often-rediscovered wisdom is that the steps you take to welcome and include visitors with disabilities make the experience better for everyone.

A hosting tool currently available to museums (that our great Aunt Hilda or other master hosts did not have at their disposal) is digital systems. These systems can provide a way to sense our needs as visitors, or to enable us to communicate needs in a dignified and discreet manner, to change our minds and refine our requests without feeling unreasonable.  They enable us as visitors to make our needs known once and thereby cause all the digitally mediated experiences to adjust automatically. For example, all buttons can become larger, all text can be read or appear in high contrast, all audio can be captioned or made louder.


Hand position for the wrist

Wrist support concept 1: Creating a more ergonomic hand position for the wrist 

Hand position for the wrist (2)

 Wrist support concep 2: Extended hand position, with possible soft padding


Digital content and exhibits can reconfigure and adapt in response to each visitor. Not only can the presentation change, but also the way we interact with the exhibit can reconfigure. It is now possible to completely eliminate that awkward need to explain and justify our unique requirements or preferences.

Hopefully this will make the mechanics of the experience fade into the background so we can focus on the substance. While improving the experience for all visitors, these systems can provide a powerful way to keep our commitment to the UN convention. Most importantly, we can make it possible for all of us to partake in the feast that is the museum experience. 

Jutta Treviranus is the Director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre (http://idrc.ocadu.ca) which is helping the museum plan an inclusive experience. Jutta is also a member of the museum's Inclusive Design Advisory Committee.


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