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Accessibility gone wrong: when museums fail to deliver

Accessibility is always a hot topic, especially in the cultural sector, where museums and other institutions have been required to provide for different types of audiences over the years. Today, I’m interviewing a museum professional to learn more about this fascinating field.

Accessibility gone wrong - Naomi Elizabeth American Archaeologist

Naomi Elizabeth is an American archaeologist currently pursuing a master’s degree. One day, she hopes to lead excavations of her own and work in partnership with museums. She’s been kind enough to answer a few questions for me, and this is the result:

 

Naomi, what makes you passionate about this field?

It was a dream of mine to be a curator of the Ancient Mediterranean. But, in the meantime, my passions lay in research, conservation, heritage preservation, and the Classical and Hellenistic period of the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy and Egypt!).

I am building content of my own and have an Instagram account until I have enough content for a website, that will hopefully include 5 minute documentaries of sites and history around the world.

 

That’s exciting! A website with short documentaries would definitely make you stand out, as I haven’t seen anything like that yet.

 

Could you tell me how or why did you decide to work in the museum sector?

I have always been in love with the past. When I am not getting my hands dirty digging for the past, I am wandering the halls of Ancient Egypt, or Cyprus, and other parts of the ancient world. I am fascinated by the way the past worked and interacted, and the way museums decide to exhibit such pieces. How the exhibitions of these types are able to bring the past to life for the modern-day viewer is astounding and beautiful.

While my personal passion lies in the Ancient Mediterranean, I am currently working towards creating a more accessible experience in museums, so that they are more inclusive of everyone in the community. I believe this is where museums lack the most and could use a huge boost in improvement.

 

That’s one thing we have in common, Naomi! As my interest in Art History started in high school, also with the Ancient world, while studying Latin and Greek.

 

Accessibility is also a topic of interest for me, and part of my job as a translator could be understood within the same framework: making museums more accessible, in my case, to Spanish-speakers.

 

Museums have done a lot, but there’s still a long way to go in certain aspects; I completely agree.

 

You’re American, do you find any differences between American museums and European museums?

The US is a new country. I would say that the most obvious difference is that most of the museums curate to newer contemporary art. Museums in the US do not focus that much on history and, when they do, it generally glorifies the past or doesn’t represent the darker side of the nation’s history. Therefore, it usually chooses to focus on artists in more recent time periods.

 

That’s interesting, I guess there must be a shortage of Ancient history in America, although that could be because most countries in the American continent have mostly forgot about native history, which I personally find fascinating.

 

Now, from your experience as a museum professional, what would you say is the biggest challenge for museums nowadays?

From my time working for four separate museums in the US, as well as having visited multiple others in Europe, I would say accessibility is the biggest challenge. Following that would be the glorification of “stolen items”, the repatriation or respect that should be given towards such artefacts is becoming a hot topic and should have always been treated with more care.

 

Definitely! Big museums have been in the eye of the hurricane lately when it comes to repatriation, which is a difficult topic to discuss. Somehow, I’ve failed to find accounts that integrate all different perspectives.

 

But, for now, let’s focus on your first choice: accessibility. Why is it important to you personally? And why do you think it’s relevant for museums?

I am Hard of Hearing. Completely deaf in my left ear and very little hearing in my right. I rely on bilateral hearing aids and have lived all my life in the hearing community rather than the Deaf community due to coming from a hearing family / town.

That being said, I have overcome quite a few obstacles and have noticed that there is not much in the way for Deaf people to thrive. While museums have placards and cards to give titles to the art, there is usually little to no information and quite a few complaints when the placards are lengthy.

When it comes to audioguides, they could have gone a step further and provided a transcript for such audioguides. Either in the form of an app, or on the website. These are such easy fixes and I encourage and implore museums to really provide an inclusive space for all to enjoy such beautiful art.

 

Interesting! The issue with the placards or labels being lengthy was also raised by a few colleagues at a conference I attended recently.

 

Maybe I’m biased, as I work translating these, but I think they are important. If someone does not want so much information, they can always skip them. But if they do and it’s not there, then we have a problem.

 

Accessibility has to do, first and foremost, with making information available so people can learn and understand. And, of course, making it available in several formats (and languages!) so that everyone has equal access to it.

 

From a visitor’s perspective, what is the best and/or worst experience you’ve had in a museum? 

My best experience was definitely Access all Senses at the British Museum. This was conducted by an outside party of the BM, and it is an event that happened for only a short while. There were 2-3 separate events where a section of the British Museum was coordinated to provide British Sign Language interpreters, audio description, and touch. It was a beautiful event, and a shame it is not something the museum itself provides. I hope to do something like this or to partner with museums in order to establish this kind of partnership so that the entire community can enjoy museums as they are meant to be.

 

Sounds amazing! It definitely should be a regular event, maybe even once a month would do.

 

I have seen they have hands-on stands in some galleries, where you’ll be able to handle certain objects and learn more about them, which is also cool.

Accessibility gone wrong - British Museum's Hands on stand

And, your worst experience, if you don’t mind telling?

My worst experience was at the Musée d’Orsay. I had never attended this museum before, but several people had told me it was their favourite. I speak English but no French, so perhaps there was a language barrier from the beginning.

To start, I was denied the student discount due to my age. Then, I asked if there was a disabled discount, as I know some museums offer it. I was told there wasn’t and that I needed to pay for my ticket. Which I did.

However, once inside, I checked online under their “ticket prices” section because I was sure they had a disabled discount. And sure enough there it was! Under “Free, without reservation” a list of bullet points including “Disabled visitors with one extra person”.

 

Wow. You must have felt deceived, to say the least. Did you do anything about it?

Yes, I showed the page to the lady at the counter. And, again, there must have been a language barrier because she told me to leave and step away from the counter. I explained to her I was deaf, and she refused to refund me. Even if I am able to speak, that should have never stopped her from refunding my ticket!

When the manager came, he only spoke French, so an intermediary stepped in to translate. They asked for proof of my disability. I was a bit shocked, as I had never been asked for proof before. In America, it is always “positive intent”. In fact, we are very, very careful to make sure no one with a disability ever feels discriminated against. But, here I was, standing in front of the entire packed line to enter the museum, being asked for proof.

So, I showed them my hearing aid, but I was told this was not enough proof. By this point, I was humiliated, and nearly in tears. I was being subjected to this in front of everyone in line. They asked for a doctor’s note, and I found an audiology note that showed my deafness. It even said on that note that I had had this hearing loss since I was 15 months old.

Again, they denied me my refund because I had to have a “valid registration” of my disability. To be honest, I had never heard of such a thing before. I am an American, and perhaps this was something they had in France… However, if the museum is an international place of business, then they cannot hold that standard to people who are not from France, can they?

Surely not! It is no way to treat a customer. I’ve been to the museum myself, and lines are pretty long, so I can see how you would have felt embarrassed in front of so many people.

 

It’s true now that I check the website, they do ask for proof. However, as you say, it is not the case that in every country you will be issued a ‘certificate,’ so it is nonsense that they request one.

 

I cannot even imagine how awful that felt…

Absolutely. By that point, I was in tears. I explained to them that I have worked in multiple museums before, and this was just bad customer service. They very, very, very reluctantly refunded me. And when I asked for the name of the manager, he yelled at me and said this was “finite” (finished). I was so embarrassed! I did not even want to listen to their audioguide in case they yelled at me again.

Funnily enough, I have since revisited their website and I see now that they have been awarded the Tourism and Disability certificate in 2005, “in recognition of the excellent facilities and specific arrangements for welcoming all visitors individual or in groups.”

I did not feel welcomed in the least. I was shamed in front of a crowd and humiliated. And I don’t believe they deserve this certificate as it is over a decade old and they had no other forms of arrangement for people who are deaf!

I am sorry that my country does not offer certificates for the disabled, but that should not have mattered in the end after having provided sufficient proof.

 

Definitely, it should have not mattered. Especially after you produced your hearing aid and a note from the doctor’s!

 

I’m so mad, because stepping into a museum in such a way utterly ruins the whole experience. And the Musée d’Orsay is an experience to be enjoyed. I’m so, so sorry they ruined it for you!

 

This is what happens when accessibility seems to be more an item in a checklist of things to do than a real concern for the audience. Museums can fail in many ways when it comes to accessibility, but I think at this point in time we should not be witnessing this type of treatment. This should belong to the past.

Let’s hope it soon does!

 

If you want to know more about Naomi Elizabeth, make sure you visit her Instagram and LinkedIn accounts!

You can also follow #ucreatewetranslate in Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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