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Is This the World’s Most Accessible Museum?

ADA Sign Depot

September 10, 2019

Those without disabilities might not notice the innovations, but a museum in London is winning plaudits for its design and content.

By Alex Marshall
Sept. 6, 2019

A vial of Henrietta Lacks’s cells, which were used as the basis for treatments for hemophilia, herpes, influenza and leukemia and other illnesses.Creditvia Wellcome Collection; Steven Pocock
LONDON — On a recent afternoon, Clare Barlow, a curator at the Wellcome Collection, a museum of science and medicine here, gave a tour of its new permanent exhibition, “Being Human.”

The exhibits included a fecal transplant kit used to treat gut infections, a sculpture that gave off the smell of breast milk, and a vial of cells that have been the basis of some of the 20th century’s biggest medical breakthroughs, taken in the 1950s from an African-American woman, Henrietta Lacks, without her consent.

Ms. Barlow didn’t start the tour with any of those. Instead, she pointed to the bottom of a display plinth.

“Can you see it’s painted black?” she said excitedly. “That’s partly because it looks beautiful, but also to contrast with the floor.” It was painted that way to help visually impaired people move around the space, Ms. Barlow said.

She then pointed to a bench in front of a video screen. “You see it’s off-center?” she said. That’s so wheelchair users can pull up alongside it and get a perfect view, she said. Normally, in museums, they have to sit to the side.

Ms. Barlow cited other design elements to benefit disabled people. Exits are always visible so people with anxiety know they can leave. There’s a range of audio and visual guides, including one in British Sign Language, and models of exhibits that people can touch.

“If you don’t need them, you might not notice them,” Ms. Barlow said. “But if you do, they’re there.”

“Being Human,” which opened on Thursday, is claimed by some disabled advocates and researchers as the most accessible museum space ever opened in Britain. “It’s a real game changer,” said Richard Sandell of the Research Center for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, in a telephone interview on Wednesday. (The center was a consultant for the exhibition.)

The exhibition’s accessible design was one thing, but its curatorial approach was most important, he said. Many disabled people hate museums of medicine because they viewed them as patients to be cured, he said. This show doesn’t, he added: It puts their stories first.

There is a case filled with prosthetics, for instance. Some medical museums display these as wonders of engineering, Mr. Sandell said, but “Being Human” focused on the people who used them.

The issue of disabled access in museums has been in the news in Britain recently, after Ciara O’Connor, a wheelchair user, went to see an exhibition at Tate Modern of work by Olafur Eliasson. The interactive, Instagrammable show has been drawing crowds.

There, Ms. O’Connor discovered she couldn’t go inside one exhibit, a mirrored tunnel, because it had two steps up to it, and there wasn’t a ramp. An attendant told a friend of Ms. O’Connor’s that it was the curator’s decision not to have one and suggested she go around the outside.

Ms. O’Connor let out her frustrations in a series of 37 exasperated Twitter posts that went viral.

She was “sick of it” she wrote in one post, that also included an expletive. “I want abled people to stop being defensive and pissy when we ask for the bare minimum,” she added in another. “Accessibility is not ugly, or cluttered or distracting. Accessibility belongs in art and everywhere.”

Tate later apologized to Ms. O’Connor. A spokeswoman for Mr. Eliasson said in an email that he was unavailable for comment as he was in Iceland documenting glaciers.

Earlier this year in Manchester, England, there was a furor around a public monument to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, a central event in British labor history in which mounted soldiers rode into a workers’ protest, killing 18 people.

The $1.2 million memorial, designed by the artist Jeremy Deller, is a series of 11 stacked disks that form steps that the artist intended the public to climb, so they could make speeches from the top. But many disabled people would not be able to mount the monument’s stairs.

“You cannot have a memorial to people who died for democracy, if disabled people do not have access,” Morag Rose, a disabled rights campaigner, told Manchester’s civic authorities, according to the BBC. A spokesman for the Manchester City Council said in an email that the memorial's architect had been asked to design a ramp or lift for the structure.

Tony Heaton, a sculptor and wheelchair user, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that problems occurred when museums did not properly consult disabled people. He had seen inaccessible design across Europe, he said, even in recently revamped museums like the Picasso Museum in Paris.

“If you’ve not got people who experience these issues in an organization, mistakes will be made,” he added.

The Wellcome Collection, which is funded by the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s richest charities, tried its best to engage disabled in designing “Being Human,” said Ms. Barlow, the curator. The museum consulted extensively with disabled people, but also people with autism and mental health conditions, while designing the show. They advised on issues including how display labels were written and the height that photos were hung on walls.

The exhibition’s main aim is to make people think about the “big philosophical questions” in science and medicine today, she said, from gene editing to climate change. These can be difficult topics, she added, so the museum did not want the space itself to be challenging.

Mr. Sandell said he hoped other museums would follow the Wellcome Collection’s example, especially in trying to show objects that spoke to disabled people’s lives. “If you look in most museums, you’d think disabled people didn’t exist, but they’re the world’s biggest minority,” he said. “I can guarantee every museum has material in their store rooms that can speak to the story of disabled people.”

At “Being Human” on Tuesday, Lady-Marie Dawson-Malcolm, a wheelchair user, looked around before the space opened to the public. She had been involved in testing some of the display cases to make sure they were at the right height and depth for wheelchairs, she said, and seemed pleased with the results.

“What we need is ease of access,” she said. “You don’t want to turn up, take one look at a display that’s too high and say, ‘It’s not for me.’”

But when asked about her favorite part of the exhibition, her answer had nothing to do with the show’s design. It was the fecal transplant kit, she said.

“Feces can be ingested to cure problems!,” she said. “That one I didn’t know.”

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