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Museum Access: Inclusive Practices in Museums


Museum Governance, Leadership, Management

Educators, Docents, Volunteers, Visitor Services, Security

Exhibitions and Collections

Information Technology


Human Resources

Fundraising and Development

Marketing and Public Relations



An accessible museum is a museum that welcomes people with all types of disabilities in its galleries, exhibitions and programs.  The accommodations made for these audiences increase a museum’s appeal for all who visit and thus enhance the museum’s inclusiveness.

Creating an accessible museum requires an institution-wide commitment.  A museum must integrate accessibility into every aspect of its operations – governance, management, human resources, education, the registration or collections and curatorial departments, visitor services, information technology, and security. For example, without that broad commitment, a museum might have an accessible building, but no accessible exhibits — or vice versa.

Every department within the museum can contribute. In some museums, accessibility is a priority because the governing body and leadership have made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion. In others, individual departments or project teams take the lead and by example model accessible and inclusive practice.

Disability and accessibility are not simply legal issues. They relate to all aspects of a museum’s operations, alogo American Alliance of Museumsnd strengthen the institution for everyone, staff member and visitor alike. In its “Characteristics of Excellence for Museums,” the American Alliance of Museums (AAM)  includes accessibility in three of its core standards relating to a museum’s public trust and accountability. The AAM notes that a museum:

  • strives to be inclusive and offers opportunities for diverse participation;
  • demonstrates a commitment to providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources;
  • complies with local, state, and federal laws, codes, and regulations applicable to its facilities, operations, and administration.

An inclusive museum has an ongoing commitment to the communities it serves, to awareness training for staff, and to sensitivity in hiring.  Diversifying the museum’s staff is one of the best ways to welcome everyone — and a great place to start building an accessibility culture.

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Museum Governance, Leadership, Management

A museum’s governing body[1] bears the ultimate responsibility for the institution, ensuring that it operates according to the relevant laws and codes of ethics. The governing board hires the chief executive and together they set the tone for the museum, establishing policies and overseeing their implementation. The board ensures that the museum fulfills its mission, providing the public with physical and intellectual access to the museum and its resources. The Board also ensures that the institution complies with local, state, and federal laws, and codes and regulations that are applicable to its facilities, operations, and administration. Thus, the board of the museum must be aware of the implications of legislation regarding people with disabilities for its institution, and must encourage its institution to adopt inclusive practices, thereby ensuring that the museum is open and accessible to everyone.

The Director or CEO of the Museum ensures that the institution complies with the law and views accessibility and inclusiveness as assets for the entire organization, not just one or two departments.  Directors lead in ensuring that accessibility concerns are not limited to visitors. Museums and their resources should be easily available to all, including the museum staff and board, consultants, designers, volunteers, performers, teachers, technicians, and others. Accessibility leads to inclusion, so it is a way to build and engage larger audiences, and a way to make a museum welcoming to all, visitor and staff alike.

logo for Americans with Disabilities Act

Graphic representing the Americans with Disabilities Act

Each museum must navigate ADA regulations and arrive at solutions that best suit its facilities and resources. But there are a number of aspects of complying with the law that are applicable to all institutions that receive federal funding. Museums must:

  1.  Appoint a staff member as ADA/504 coordinator (accessibility coordinator).
  2.  Post public notice of events and activities that explains that the museum complies with the Rehabilitation Act and ADA.
  3. Establish internal grievance procedures for individuals with disabilities.
  4. Conduct a self-evaluation of all policies, practices, and programs to ensure that they are equally accessible to people with and without disabilities.
  5.  Develop an ADA plan, with a timeline, to identify what changes need to be made to ensure that all programs are accessible to all.

As these points imply, museums must provide for all visitors in an integrated setting and make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices, and procedures that deny equal access to individuals with disabilities. ADA regulations directly affect a museum’s facilities and its human resources policies and procedures, and also have implications for exhibitions and programs.

To work toward accessibility and inclusion, some museums form interdepartmental “Access/Accessibility Committees or Teams.” These groups meet regularly to review accessibility issues for visitors and for staff members. Discussions might include examining if the museum is welcoming to all visitors, testing the ease of using the phone answering system, ensuring that the museum’s website is accessible, and training staff to serve disabled patrons.

Besides internal groups, a museum can find out if its accessibility plans will truly address the needs of its local community by creating a focus group of people with disabilities. Such a focus group allows the museum to be inclusive in planning, taking the first-hand perspective of people with disabilities into account, as well as in implementing its programs.

All museums develop strategic plans for their operation. A museum’s strategic plan must work seamlessly with its ADA or access plan to integrate inclusive goals throughout the museum. Strategic planning teams should understand the benefits of inclusive practices for people with and without disabilities.

The Cultural Access Network of New Jersey has created a self-assessment planning survey to help organizations get started on an access plan. For an interesting discussion about the implementation of such a disability action plan see Museums: A Whole New World for Visually Impaired People,” by Barry Ginley.

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Educators, Docents, Volunteers, Visitor Services, and Security Guards

Blind museum visitors walk on a  tour.

A group of blind visitors walking through a museum.

All museum staff and volunteers who interact directly with the public are key in creating an environment that welcomes all visitors. All staff members and volunteers can serve as internal advocates and support the museum’s efforts to create an inclusive culture.You cannot underestimate their impact on visitors’ impressions of a museum and on the quality of visitor experiences. In “Take a Seat,” a light-hearted article from Museum (Sept/Oct 2008) Steve Tokar underscores the importance of making all visitors comfortable in museums. You can find the article on the American Alliance of Museums web site if you are an AAM member.

Catherine Kudlick discusses dramatically different visits to an art museum and a history museum for two visitors with visual impairments in “The Local History Museum: So Near and Yet, So Far” (The Public Historian, Spring 2005).



Because they develop programs for the public, educators are often the first people in a museum to understand and speak up for the needs of visitors with disabilities. Educators can ensure that all visitors appreciate and learn from the museum’s exhibitions and programs.

In some museums, educators work in teams with curators and exhibition designers to develop wall labels, interactive exhibition components, and activities and programs that enhance the exhibition experience. Everyone’s Welcome: the Americans with Disabilities Act and Museums, a publication of the American Alliance of Museums, explains how the ADA affects museum exhibitions.

“Effective communication” is a term used by the Department of Justice. It means that all visitors should have access to the content of an exhibition, public program, film, or performance through accommodations that make content accessible. Accommodations include adaptive devices such as tactile maps and drawings, audio-description, large print brochures, assistive listening devices, sign interpreters, captioning, and induction loops.

Public programs enhance exhibition content, helping visitors further explore the topic of an exhibition. Access to public programs must be available to all visitors, with special accommodations made for people who are deaf or hard of hearing and who are blind or have low vision. Educators can contribute to a museum’s accessibility if they understand the range of disabilities in a museum’s audiences, their impairments, and the accommodations they need to make programming accessible. Educators who use multimodal or multi-sensory teaching techniques can engage all audiences.

Besides designing accessible features for all visitors, educators can create access programs specifically tailored to the needs of people with disabilities. Customized programs are a focused way to reach that audience. Museums with examples of such programs include the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (NY), the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum (London), the Museum of Science (Boston), the Smithsonian Institution.

Docents, Volunteers and Visitor Services

Docents, Volunteers and Visitor Services are important points of access to a museum for people with disabilities.

Docent talks to Blind Museum Visitors

Docent talks with a group of blind museum visitors.

They can orient people to the building’s spaces and provide guidance in exhibitions. Whether they work in the galleries, at the information desk, or in the museum shop, they should be trained to feel comfortable talking with people with disabilities and to understand their special needs in the museum. They should be able to create materials for visitors in accessible formats, distribute them to the public, and communicate with visitors who have diverse communication needs.

Security guards

Of course they safeguard the museum’s facilities, collections, staff and visitors. But in some parts of the museum they are the primary contacts for visitors. Yet often they are contract employees, not regular museum staff. In both cases, it is essential that they are trained to interact effectively with all of a museum’s audiences and understand what programs the museum offers people with disabilities.

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Exhibitions and Collections

Registrars, collections managers, conservators, curators, and exhibition designers all have roles to play in an inclusive museum.  Museums hold their collections in the public trust and are“grounded in the tradition of public service.”[2] All museum staff must be aware of the implications for their job of inclusive practice, whether their contact with the public is direct or indirect.

Access to collections, exhibitions and programs

Equal access must be provided to everyone who wants to use a museum’s facility or to research its collections. That principle is reflected in the American Alliance of Museum’s Code of Ethics and Characteristics of Excellence for U.S. museums.When a museum embraces inclusive practice, its registrars and collections managers develop their policies with accessibility in mind, alerting the institution to any barriers that might prohibit people with disabilities from using a museum’s collections for research. Collections managers and registrars who provide access to the museum’s database online should know how the ADA affects websites and online information.  Their participation in a museum’s access committee can be critical to ensuring museum-wide accessibility.


They may be asked to assess whether an object or objects can be used in programs for people who have visualimpairments or other disabilities. Conservators, registrars, and collections managers must stay abreast of new developments in interactive technology (e.g. augmented touch and 3-D imaging) and how they might make collections more accessible for people with disabilities.

Young Man wearing white gloves Touches a Sculpture

Young man wearing white cotton gloves touches a white marble Roman torso sculpture.


Discussions within museums about accessibility often focus on issues of physical and programmatic access and exhibition design. But with a few exceptions, little attention has been given “ to disability-themed content within exhibitions and collections.”[3]


The Code of Ethics for Curators issued in 2009 by CurCom states that

Curators must commit themselves to developing the museum collection and interpretation of its objects with a respect for the needs of all potential patrons and in compliance with but not restricted to, the standards for accessibility set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Curators are responsible for ensuring that all verbal and written interpretation is accurate and accessible, physically and cognitively, whether prepared by themselves or their subordinates.” (The statement comes under Curatorial Responsibilities for Interpretation, Section IV. B. of CurCom, the American Alliance of Museums’ professional network for curatorial practice and collections research, care, and exhibition).

It is also becoming clear that curators must be a part of a museum’s efforts to create full accessibility to its resources and serve all audiences by doing the following:

  • developing exhibition narratives that include disability as a subject;
  •  collaborating with disabled people in shaping projects;
  •  assessing the institution’s collections to see how they might relate to issues related to people with disabilities;
  • addressing gaps in the museum’s collections through proactive collecting.

In the UK, the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester explored issues related to disability and inclusion in museum exhibitions and collections. Logo University of LeicesterBuried in the Footnotes: the Representation of Disabled People in Museum and Gallery Collections reports on the first phase of the study which surveyed UK museum and gallery collections for materials that relate to the lives of disabled people, both historical and contemporary; examined how this material is displayed, interpreted, and made accessible to the public; isolated factors affecting how information is collected, documented, and made available to the public; and determined the influences on curators’ attitudes towards this information and its dissemination.

In general, the study found that museums have many more items in their collections related to disabilities than expected, but “the display and representation of disability is comparatively uncharted territory for most museums in Britain.”[4]

A second phase of this project involved working with disabled activists, artists, and cultural practitioners who collaborated on creating nine museum projects across the UK in 2007 and 2008. This project was designed to 1) uncover material evidence in museum collections that could contribute to a broader public understanding of disability; 2) develop narratives that would engage audiences on the subject; 3) evaluate the impact of the displays; and 4) disseminate the findings.

The individual projects included:

Photos of faces with words written on them“Life Beyond the Label” at the Colchester Castle Museum that used objects, personal testimonies, film, and art to reveal the lives of disabled people in Colchester.

Behind the Shadow of Merrick,” a short film created by the Royal London Hospital Archives and Museum. The film uses objects, documents, and stories related to Joseph Merrick (more widely known as the ‘Elephant Man’) to examine issues and attitudes surrounding disability in the past and present.

Man listening to verbal description of a painting“Talking about Disability and Art” explored and interrogated images of disability in eight paintings from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Each painting showed a representation of disability, and new interpretations included how the painting relates to disabled people’s experiences, personal stories inspired by the paintings, audio descriptions, and additional background information from a curator.

The project report, Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries highlights each of the nine museum projects and assesses their impact, finding that visitor response was overwhelmingly positive, especially to the personal narratives and life stories of disabled people. It concludes that “If the museum is seem as a valued and trustworthy institution by the public…then the inclusion of ‘authentic’ voices and stories only heightened the museum’s potential to function as a forum where potentially challenging and sometimes controversial issues can be discussed.”[5]

Several U.S. exhibitions demonstrate the potential that looking to communities of artists with disabilities can unleash for contemporary art museums.

“Sight Unseen” focusing upon photographs by artists who have visual impairments;

“Wiser than God” and “Younger than Jesus” juxtaposing the work of younger and older artists;

“When I’m Sixty-Four” highlighting the art of people over fifty.

Exhibition Designers

Exhibition designers, whether members of a museum’s staff or outside contractors, have a key role to play in making exhibitions accessible to every visitor who comes to a museum. The designer’s understanding of the legal requirements for accessibility can help the museum staff incorporate these principles and lead to making the institution a more welcoming, inclusive place.

Exhibitions should follow the state and federal guidelines for accessibility and accommodate groups that include people who use a wheelchair or have other mobility restrictions. The placement of display cases and exhibit labels should take into account a comfortable viewing zone for all visitors. Seating should be provided for visitors who wish to rest or to sit and take a longer look at works of art. Exhibit labels should use easily legible type size and font and be printed in contrasting colors.

Lighting enhances the accessibility of an exhibition. In a case where an object requires low light, alternate means of access should be provided (e.g., photographs or copies). In general, all exhibit elements should be useable by all visitors and exhibit content presented in multiple formats. For example, using tactile objects and elements that use other senses like hearing and smell can enhance experiences for all.

The Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design details how exhibition content, label text and design, and audiovisuals and interactives can be made accessible. It also specifies the circulation route, exhibition furniture, color and color contrast, lighting, public programming spaces, children’s spaces and emergency egress.

The Standards Manual for Signs and Labels (by Anna-Marie Kellen, 1995) is useful for signs and labels that address the needs of wheelchair users and visitors who have low vision.

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Information Technology Teams/Departments

Information technology teams/departments can make electronic information available in accessible formats. As websiteshands on keyboard and mouse and social media become increasingly important to museums, these teams can contribute to institution-wide planning initiatives if they understand how people with disabilities use technology.

A museum’s website provides an important means of access to the institution, and for some people it’s an alternate way of visiting. However, there are design barriers that can limit the experience a museum offers online. For example, blind website visitors cannot see graphic illustrations of a painting or a piece of sculpture. But alternative text in web page code can describe the images. Users with mobility impairments that have difficulty using a mouse can access website functions with keyboard commands. Deaf visitors can access the information in videos if they are captioned. People with cognitive disabilities, color blindness, and low vision may need software and adaptive strategies that can be built into the website design. Ideally, accessibility should be taken into account before a site is designed.

Websites can provide an alternative way of accessing exhibitions and collections, and they can prepare people with disabilities for their visit to a museum by explaining the resources available. It is critical to design sites that are as accessible as a museum’s physical facilities.“Why Web Accessibility Matters for Cultural Institutions” by Sharron Rush explains legal requirements as well as typical problems and gives practical guidelines and examples of website redesign.

Museum Workshop using IPad to examine painting

A woman in a museum workshop using a tablet to examine a painting.

With planning and design, mobile apps for hand-held devices like smart phones and tablets can work for all museum audiences.  They can enhance the experience in the museum and continue the experience after their visit. As more museums develop mobile apps, IT departments must stay abreast of technology developments in this field.

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Operations/Facilities Teams

Opepush to open door buttonrations and facilities keep the museum operating effectively and efficiently. They can implement plans to make a museum’s buildings ADA compliant,  and they can make provisions for inclusive safety and evacuation procedures. They can also institute emergency training procedures for security and other operational staff. In smaller institutions, an access committee might take on these roles.

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Human Resources Departments/Teams

Human resources personnel ensure that individuals with disabilities who work for the museum have accomodations equal to all other employees. HR policies can establish an inclusive culture for a museum. HR might also be charged with creating an institution-wide access committee and creating staff training opportunities about people with disabilities

Job descriptions and job advertisements must take the ADA into account. HR departments can find help in crafting job descriptions that comply with ADA regulations on the Job Accommodation Network, Accommodation and Compliance Series: Job Descriptions, by Beth Loy, Ph.D., and at Career Onestop, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Career Center.

Recent belt-tightening at many museums means museums often rely upon consultants for basic functions. In those cases, human resources and operations staff are responsible for ensuring that outside curators, exhibition and graphic designers, conservators, fabricators, architects, and others comply with ADA regulations.

ADA compliance is critical to facilities built or renovated with public access in mind and it must be consciously addressed with architects and contractors involved in any construction project. The selection process for any major contractors should reflect these these concerns.

Beyond compliance with legal requirements, museums can create an inclusive culture by holding regularly scheduled institution-wide training sessions. These can ensure that everyone on a museum’s staff is comfortable interacting with people with disabilities. Examples of such programs include Art Beyond Sight’s Disability and Inclusion Training for Museums and Cultural Institutions.” Art Beyond Sight’s Disability Training Handbook is also useful in this regard.

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Fundraising and Development

A museum’s accessibility can become an asset for its Development Office. Having a regularly updated ADA plan is a requirement of some federal and state funding agencies.  Beyond that, an inclusive institution is in a stronger position to appeal to funders because of its greater capacity to build and maintain diverse audiences. A museum can use accessibility as an asset in grant applications for general operating support, collections management, educational programs, exhibitions, and for membership development.

A museum might also position itself to respond to issues of concern to state and federal legislators and/or special initiatives. The American Alliance of Museum’s report Museums on Call: How Museums are Addressing Health Issues demonstrates how programs relating to Alzheimer’s, autism, and vision loss can position a museum differently in the eyes of policy makers.

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Marketing and Public Relations Teams

Often museums work very hard to become inclusive and then neglect to tell anyone about it! An important part of making a museum accessible is promoting the accessible programs and exhibitions. The goal is to make sure that news about these resources reaches people with disabilities.

Staff involved with marketing and public relations should work with educators to reach out to diverse constituencies, understand their needs, and communicate how the museum meets those needs through its special programs and exhibitions. Together they can create collaborations and partnerships that will build museum audiences.

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[1] When a museum is part of a larger institution (e.g., a university, corporation or governmental entity), the governance structure can vary and the museum may not have a governing board.
[2] American Alliance of Museums, Code of Ethics for Museums Accessed January 27, 2014.
[3] Majewski, J. and Lonnie Bunch. (1998) “The Expanding Definition of Diversity: Accessibility and Disability Culture Issues in Museum Exhibitions,” Curator, Volume 41, Number 3: 153-161″
[4] Buried in the Footnotes: the Representation of Disabled People in Museum and Gallery Collections, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. 2004. P. 15.” Curator, Volume 41, Number 3: 153-161
[5] Rethinking Disability Representation in Museums and Galleries, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester. 2009, p. 163.
Buried in the Footnotes: the Representation of Disabled People in Museum and Gallery Collections, Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, Department of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. 2004. P. 15.” Curator, Volume 41, Number 3: 153-161

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