Public access is one of the main characteristics that we can find as a common denominator in museums. It is included in the current ICOM definition of a museum, for which it is irrefutable that museums must be ‘open to the public’. But when did access become so important for museums and why? In this document, I wanted to do a little research on the importance that public access has had in the museum’s history, what are the main problems faced by today’s museum with this issue, and how the understanding of this topic can be addressed.
Origins of collections and their public access
The human interest in collecting, organizing, and labeling objects date back thousands of years. The earliest collection, known at the moment, comes back to ancient Babylon (530 B.C.) when Princess Ennigaldi-Nanna collected and curated Mesopotamian artifacts from 2100 B.C. to 600 B.C. The collection had an educational purpose for a scribal school for elite women run by the Princess.
In the 16th century, other similar private collections appeared in Europe. Known as Kunstkammer or cabinets of curiosities, these spaces were erected by wealthy members of the nobility and the church.
It’s not until 1683, that these private collections were made accessible for the masses. This year, Elias Ashmole, an English antiquary, donated the contents of his cabinet of curiosities to Oxford University. Ashmole believed that ‘the knowledge of Nature is very necessary to human life and health’, and aimed to educate the masses through his donation.
During the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, other collectors followed Ashmole steps shifting their focus from private use to public access. Some European museums such as British Museum in London (1759), the Prado Museum in Madrid (1785), and the Louvre in Paris (1793) began to make their art collections accessible to the public.
Public access in the current museum notion
The conversion from private use to public access was crucial for the development of the current idea of a museum. As already mentioned, the ICOM museum definition, interprets public access as a basic function, literally museums should be ‘open to the public’. More recently, in January 2019, ICOM invited its members to review the whole museum definition. Some functions of museums were shifted to a value and, in consequence, now public access is defined as ‘inclusive and polyphonic spaces’.
Barriers against access
Accessibility is a term commonly used to refer to the design of products, devices, services, or environments to be usable by people with physical, sensorial, or cognitive disabilities (Wikipedia). But this idea could be considered a way of discrimination due to everyone could face accessibility barriers at some point. Kat Holmes, director of UX Design at Google, says ‘disability is commonly misunderstood as applying to only a marginal percentage of the human population. This is simply untrue.’ (Holmes, 2017, p. 29). Maybe it is more appropriate and inclusive to talk about the barriers that could cause problems to approach, enter, or use something.
Under this focus, ICOM made a study in 2017, called ‘Identifying accessibility barriers in heritage museums’. In the study, the authors identify barriers that are basically related to spatial, communicative, sociohistorical, and sensorial approaches. The barriers they show are quite revealing although, surprisingly, the economic barrier is not included. Some surveys showed that among several potential barriers, the economic status obtained by far the highest consideration (Kirchberg, 1996), which is why this barrier must be taken into account.
To fully understand the implications of all these barriers in access issues is important to see in-depth the issues derived from each.
- Spatial barriers: Museums traditionally are buildings that can be accessed physically. They are localized sites. This spatial essence has limitations such as distance, ease of approach, opening times, etc.
Not everyone has ease of mobility. There are people with physical impairment but there are, for example, also people living in rural areas that often face isolation. This is mostly because they have poor access to services such as public transport (Shucksmith, 2003).
Museums tried to reach audiences beyond their physical limits with publications, educational programs presented in schools, museum kits, etc. But the most radical transformation appears with the emergency of digital technology and the Internet.
This new digital space called the Internet is represented mostly by museum websites. This space can be accessed with no spatial or temporal limits. But it is important to think that access to the Internet is still very uneven around the world, from 80% in the called ‘developed’ countries to 15% in ‘least developed countries’ (United Nations, 2016).
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, museums around the world faced strict lockdowns and they were not able to open to the public physically. Museum websites and social media were the only way to guarantee accessibility and the strategy for a lot of museums shifted to the digital, taking precedence over these localized physical sites for the first time.
- Communicative barriers: Communication in museums is basically restricted to the senses of seeing and hearing. As a result, people with sight or hearing problems face difficulties in accessing the full content of museum galleries. In this particular case, this barrier could be also considered a sensorial barrier.
But people without sensorial limitations could face also communicative barriers. For example, language could be one of them. English is the most common choice as a second language in non-English speaking countries. In these museums, some foreigner non-English speakers could face problems to understand the contents.
Another communicative barrier is the type of language used in the museum. This is the constant fight between museum managers who prefer simple texts to maximize the level of understanding and accessibility, and curators, who insist on a more informed use of language to educate the public (Papadimitriou et al., 2017). In the same line, a special language is only allowed for children, but not for people with cognitive disabilities, neither for some other age groups like teenagers.
- Sensorial barriers: Modern museums have been portrayed as ‘museums of sight’ and few could deny that gaze is highly prioritized in their spaces (Classen and Howes, 2006). They are places where visual consumption and visual impairment are a major issue.
Some museums proposed solutions such as tactile exhibitions with specially designed audio tours, Braille captions, etc. but they seek to ‘translate’ for people with visual or hearing impairment what has been originally designed for people with full visual or hearing abilities. This perpetuates categorizations and distinctions based on sensorial differences. If we wish to be more inclusive, we should abandon the ‘cult of vision’ (Papadimitriou et al. 2017).
- Economical barriers: In a 1995 survey, 1,080 Germans were asked to assess the subjective significance of 23 motives and barriers to visiting museums. In this survey, people with the lowest income bracket regarded entrance fees as a barrier almost five times as much as people in the highest income bracket. These results are shocking because a large proportion of museums in Germany are free or moderately priced. As Kirchberg said, there is a disproportionately large percentage of visitors with higher income levels in museums, even when museums are free of charge. The general perception is that museum visits seem to be more expensive than they factually are (Kirchberg, 1996).
It is revealing that closely related to income are education and occupation as variables influencing this assessment. An explanation for the impact of these variables on the assessment of museum entrance fees as a barrier can be found in the sociological models of lifestyle: ‘a visit to a museum is more than an economic decision, it is an expression of a lifestyle’ (Kirchberg, 1996).
The key ingredient: empathy
Our notions of normal were heavily influenced by a 19th-century Belgian astronomer and mathematician, Adolphe Quetelet. He started measuring human beings and amassing that data into statistical models. When he published his Treatise on Man it was a revolutionary work. In its pages, he held that individual people should be measured against the perfect average. Diversity and variations in human beings were treated as degrees of error from perfection. But nature is diverse, in fact, diversity is in our DNA.
Kate Holmes said ‘the more I learn about inclusive design, the more I’m convinced that there are 7.4 billion different people on the planet’, in other words, there is no normal human or average normal human.
In the last decades, technologists grow more aware of the exclusion that their products or services might create, this renewed focus is what is called User Experience (UX). This is maybe because digital devices are easily customizable, but it is an increase of empathy anywise.
Empathy is the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation (Cambridge Dictionary).
In museums, this empathy can be translated into participation. This is the objective of initiatives like ‘Our Museum’, run by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation between 2012 and 2016. This project supported eight museums and galleries in the UK through a process of organizational change. The objectives were ambitious as they wanted to build sustainable partnerships with communities and involve them in decision-making.
As Kate Holmes said, ‘not everyone is an anthropologist. We aren’t all mathematicians. Not everyone is great at putting aside their cultural preconceptions. But we can all learn how to seek out excluded perspectives and let them supersede our own.’ (Holmes, 2017).
Accessibility is embedded in the essence ofmuseums since their apparition and, without public access, a museum is not a museum. This is the main reason why a museum should guarantee access to the maximum amount of public, independently of their social, physical, cognitive, and/or economical barriers. Museums should empathize with the other because the other is who gives meaning and purpose. But empathy without honesty can allow a project to become what is informally called a ‘unicorn’, an impossible never-ending project too much complex to understand. Honesty is needed in like measure. We need to be honest and be aware that it’s complex to be fully inclusive. As Bennet said: “museums will never be able to become fully inclusive, as there will always be groups who will find themselves un- or under-represented” (Bennet, 1998). Being aware of the limitations of inclusivity, we can know who is excluded from each decision. Inclusivity is a never-ending challenge and, even we know it has something utopian, our
gaze thoughts must rest on the horizon of saying: everyone is welcome.
 As you can see, we must always be aware.
- Papadimitriou, N. et al. (2017). Identifying Accessibility Barriers in Heritage Museums: Conceptual Challenges in a Period of Change. ICOM, [online]. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/muse.12134?saml_referrer [Accessed 3 Dec. 2020].
- Bienkowski, P. (2014). Communities and Museums as Active Partners: Emerging learning from the Our Museum initiative. Paul Hamlyn Foundation, [online]. Available at http://ourmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Our-Museum-emerging-learning.pdf [Accessed 1 Dec. 2020].
- Kirchberg, V. (1998). Entrance Fees as a Subjective Barrier to Visiting Museums. Journal of Cultural Economics, pp.1-5
- Holmes, K. (2018) Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. Cambridge (Massachusetts): The MIT Press, pp. 91-113
- Richman-Abdou, K. (2018). How Museums Evolved Over Time From Private Collections to Modern Institutions. My Modern Met, [online]. Available at: https://mymodernmet.com/history-of-museums/2/ [Accessed 3 Dec. 2020].
- Shucksmith, M. (2003). Social Exclusion in Rural Areas: A Review of Recent Research. University of Aberdeen, [online]. Available at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.200.4211&rep=rep1&type=pdf [Accessed 3 Dec. 2020].
- Wikipedia, (2020). [online]. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accessibility [Accessed 3 Dec. 2020].
- The Least Developed Countries Report 2016. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, [online]. Available at: https://unctad.org/system/files/official-document/ldc2016_en.pdf [Accessed 4 Dec. 2020].
- Howes, D. (2015). Introduction to Sensory Museology. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, [online]. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.2752/174589314X14023847039917 [Accessed 3 Dec. 2020].
- Cambridge Dictionary, (2020). [online]. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/empathy [Accessed 5 Dec. 2020].