Developing an Advisory Board: Practical Considerations

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Practical Considerations: Step 3

Checklist: Outlining Program Possibilities

Practical Considerations

To achieve its mission, a museum may establish boards with specific areas of expertise, including diversity, education, development, or acquisitions. These boards can vary in size, level of involvement, and degree of formality according to the needs and character of your museum.

What is an Advisory Board?

When museums start to work on their accessibility program, some begin by calling individual advisors on an informal basis to discuss the program and train the staff. However, for the long-term success of your accessibility program it is important to develop a formal advisory board that meets regularly. This group provides valuable information on the needs and desires of the community, and can perhaps suggest tried-and-true solutions to early planning problems. The advisory board can also provide access to funding resources for specialized programs.

Mariann Smith, Albright-Knox Art Gallery (1:01)

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Mariann Smith, Curator of Education, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo,NY on The Role of the Advisory Board and Consultants in creating Accessibility

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Advisory Board Options (from least to most specialized):

This module will focus on the third group, but the information is applicable to all three advisory board options.

Advisory board members should be a diverse group of people, familiar with an equally diverse blind and visually impaired community. The ideal advisory board includes persons with different experiences of blindness and vision impairment, and a broad range of professional and educational backgrounds including: blind and visually impaired museum professionals and enthusiasts, teachers of visually impaired students, ophthalmologists, parents and friends of people with visual impairments.

Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, NFB (2:22)

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Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, former director, National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, offers Advice on creating an Advisory Board

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Practical Considerations Step One: Outlining Program Possibilities

Before meeting with your advisory board, you should review and be able to present the types of programs and resources your institution has to offer. Advisory board members bring community expertise to the table. While they may be somewhat familiar with your institution, they need a complete picture of all your educational resources. Once they have this information, they may be able to shed new light on how your materials and programs can be adapted for a blind or visually impaired audience.

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Taking Stock of Your Available Materials and Resources

Museums serve a variety of audiences and these visitors have a variety of needs. The tools defined in our Accessibility Tools training can be combined in different ways to tailor programs that fit both the audience's need and the museum's resources. The programs can vary in audience profile, duration, range of activities, and goals. For example, many museums place their audiences into age categories: families, K-12 schools, colleges or universities, and adults.   Museum educators can then vary accordingly the types of information and activities, length of program, and degree of interactivity. Other factors include type of collection, museum size, facilities, and relationship with the community. To help with your assessment, we have outlined below the basic audience and programming variables for you to consider, with suggestions on their role in an accessibility program. You may also find our checklist useful in assessing your resources in a systematic way.

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Type of Collection and Exhibitions

Whether your museum has an encyclopedic range of historical periods, styles, and materials, or you have a more specialized collection, museum educators and docents can draw on past experience. They know how to communicate to their audience the most salient parts of the collection, and how to make museum visits and other resources meaningful for their visitors with disabilities.

One strategy is to start developing accessible activities and educational materials for your permanent collection. While there may be changes or rotations of objects, the exhibition usually maintains specific themes. This strategy has the advantage of creating materials that have a life beyond a single program. With careful selection and planning, you can adapt themes, or objects that can be reused, for different programs.

Most museums also have special exhibitions. Again, it is possible to adapt materials created for the permanent collection, or to choose objects from a traveling exhibition that can expand the understanding of objects in your museum's collection. Traveling exhibitions are also an opportunity to create an outreach program or a remote access program via a Web site or other materials. Exhibition materials that lend themselves well to this purpose include digital, tactile, auditory, or multi-sensory objects.
Some museums host traveling exhibitions of work by artists with disabilities, including visual impairments. These exhibitions often attract a new museum audience: people with disabilities and their families.  

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Audience Age, Educational and Cultural Background

Museum visitors come with different perspectives depending on age, education, gender, cultural and socio-economic background, and physical abilities. Families, K-12 schools, college or university students, and adults require programs of varying length, pace and content. These groups bring different life experiences and interests to the museum experience. For example, preschoolers, teenagers and seniors have very different perspectives on historical or current events, or will approach the same idea--memories, for example--differently. Persons of different cultural or ethnic background can also bring unique perspectives to the same work of art.

Museum educators who work extensively with children adapt their programs to the needs and age of the students. A tour for preschoolers might introduce the idea of museums in general, offer an interactive discussion of basic concepts, and may involve art and crafts. A program for a junior high school or high school student group might be longer, and involve a pre-visit session in the classroom and other curriculum integration activities. Adult programs can include both academic lectures and more interactive, hands-on programming.

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Audience Interest or Goals of the Program

Based on the audience age and background, you can identify a range of goals and interests for each group. For example, identify whether your audience needs a general introduction to art and art appreciation through your collection, or whether they are knowledgeable about art in general and are interested in more advanced art history specific to your collection. Evaluate how open your audience might be to hands-on and interactive experiences, such as art making, writing, and discussion, or whether they would prefer a self-contained lecture series. Determine whether the goal of your program is to encourage individual interpretation or response, or to communicate specific data/information about the art, or both. The balance between offering new information and interpretation and stimulating personal response to art will vary with each audience, and should be evaluated throughout the planning process. REMEMBER: There is as great a diversity of interest and needs within the blindness and visual impairment community as there is within your sighted audience.

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Length of Program

Programs can be single session or multi-session. This decision is affected by audience needs, interests, and ability to commit to a program series, and by museum resources, such as meeting spaces, funding, and staff time. Diverse audiences require flexibility in pacing and content amount.

Single Session Visits
This is your basic tour or lecture. It offers flexibility and independence to your audience. Tours can be self-guided, using accessible materials in the galleries, such as large-print text or braille materials. Some museums have successfully incorporated lending packets of tactile and multisensory materials as well. With proper community outreach, these self-guided tours allow a large number of museum visitors to be served without advance planning or special arrangements. Many visitors who wish to have equal and independent access to the museum experience prefer this. Options for more structured tour programs include both specialized tactile- or verbal-description tours, and training all lecturers and docents to incorporate accessible features, such as verbal description, upon request.

Multi-session Programs
The program can also be structured as a series of weekly or monthly programs, or as a school-year curriculum integration program. Multi-visit programs can be flexible, responding to changing needs and feedback from the community, allowing for more complexity and depth in programming. By creating this dynamic, your museum staff can develop a trust and relationship with the community, and impart a true sense of ownership of the program and inclusion in the cultural environment of your museum. Throughout this handbook, we will refer to the importance of ownership; it is the key to creating a program that can outlast funding cycles and staff changes.

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Museum Size and Educational Facilities

Another important consideration is the physical character of your institution. Does your museum have large or small galleries, general-purpose rooms, art-making studios, or a sculpture garden? This will obviously affect your ability to plan certain types of programs, although creative solutions to space limitations can frequently be found. Also consider whether your floor plan is relatively straightforward or whether it requires a specialized (tactile) map and/or audio guide to navigate the space. Other accessibility characteristics include ramps, access to elevators, and spacing of aisles, halls and doorways. Addressing architectural accessibility issues, like those reviewed in our Universal Design fact sheet, can be part of your long-term accessibility goals.

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Staffing and Visitor Communication

Museum programs use various types and combinations of staff and volunteers, ranging from a single museum educator assisted by a docent, to a group of docents coordinated by the education department, to a full staff of trained museum educators working with many volunteers. Sometimes audiences with disabilities, because they are perceived as a relatively small group, become the domain of an education department intern [see Disability Awareness: Why Create Access to the Arts for a different view].

Often the staff member who is responsible for adult or school programs has added responsibility for visitors with disabilities. Frequent staff changes in the education department, accessibility coordinator, and interns are endemic to museums. Therefore, it is often a core group of well-trained and dedicated docents who ensure that visitors with disabilities are accommodated.

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Educational Resources and Tools

Assess the current accessibility of your institution. You may discover that you already have services or programs that are accessible for people with visual disabilities: adequate light levels, high-contrast text panels, high-contrast and braille navigation tools indicating restrooms and elevators or wheelchair lifts, large-print brochures, sound installations, an audio program, magnifying glasses/magnifiers in the galleries, touchable objects for the general public or students, a three-dimensional model of the museum, or studio art programs. Evaluate whether there are readily available or easily adaptable materials already in use by education staff members, such as touchable works of art, tactile access tools, or art-making facilities.

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Community Involvement and Resources

The community is an invaluable resource which can enrich educational programming. Try to seek out and involve:

If your institution already has a strong partnership with the local school(s), it may be possible to extend your program to the students with disabilities in these schools and to residential schools for students with disabilities in your community.

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Your Institution's History with This Audience

Were there any past requests for touch tours? If so, is there a record of who within your institution was involved and in what capacity? What did the museum provide? Is there documentation of the visitors' feedback or of the museum staff's reactions? Knowing as much as possible about past programs will help you as you work to open doors to a new audience and gain support within your museum. This history helps you identify what has already been accomplished at the museum, and the openness of staff to continuing this process.

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Before meeting with your advisory board, establish a budget for accessibility. This will provide a rough guide for your board's planning process. Are you working with grant funds specifically given for blind and visually impaired visitors? Is your funding part of a larger outreach grant? Or is your pilot program designed as a summer internship project? This type of estimate will help your advisory board focus its discussion of project possibilities and encourage board members to think creatively about funding.

While some aspects of beginning a touch-tour program may be costly, there are also many simple, low-budget solutions that you will learn about through your initial research. Establishing a budget, no matter the amount, will help you judge what can be accomplished initially. Additional grants may be available at a later date to implement a more extensive program. The Foundation Center and state arts councils have more information on funding sources.

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Don't Reinvent the Wheel. How Has It Been Done Before?

Research other museum's programs and services for this audience. Contact the coordinators of those programs about their successes and challenges, and, if possible, observe other programs in action. Find out:

In this Handbook, you will find an abundance of contacts and resources. Three modules review specific types of programs, and include examples: Art Program at School or Center for the Blind, Art Therapy Program for Children and Adults with Visual Impairments, Art Program for Seniors and Veterans. Our book, Art Beyond Sight. A Resource Guide to Art, Creativity and Visual Impairment, also contains extensive descriptions of a range of programming examples. See our resources section for more information.

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