Are museums taking their responsibilities to deliver accessibility to their collections seriously? We spoke to Vicky Hope Walker, CEO of the National Paralympic Heritage Centre at Stoke Mandeville Stadium, who was tasked with creating one of the most accessible museums ever built, about where she began.
Q: The Paralympic museum is probably one of the most accessible museums ever created – where do you begin with a project that must take everyone into account?
At the very beginning I decided to take professional advice from accessibility consultants in how to approach the project and the best way forward. The consultants provided a framework through which to operate and also remained as advisors across the five-year duration of the project to check at every stage how things were working. Then collaborating with a group of professional disabled people who work in arts, design, heritage and sport as well as a cross section of disabilities and age ranges we looked at the development of the designs for the pilot exhibition and ultimately for the Paralympic Heritage Centre – taking advice at every stage from the focus group. As a percentage of the overall budget of the £1.9 million project, the cost of such expertise was circa £30,000 – a drop in the project ocean and well worth it.
Q: What are the key concerns from a CEO/Museum Director’s point of view?
It was actually pretty scary embarking on the project because I knew that accessibility in a museum dedicated to Paralympians simply had to be right – we couldn’t afford to get it wrong so we had to clearly show that we were trying very hard to get it as near to perfect as possible. Obviously, it can never be perfect because all human beings are unique, and all people with disabilities are unique individuals with individual requirements and impairment variation. However, working with people with a reasonable range of needs does make an enormous difference. Even those people who aren’t registered disabled but, for example have a hearing impairment, will find that the museum becomes so much more accessible to them, this might encompass many elderly people within our community. Another example is that making exhibits wheelchair height also means children will find it more engaging as they can also reach more easily. You have to try and get it as right as you can and please a cross section of ability.
Q: How did Mather & Co use their creativity to take disability access to the next level?
It was a journey and a combination of factors. The team came to the meetings with the consultants at the outset and took their feedback and began producing designs and finding solutions to the problems within it. It’s an ongoing journey as we’re continuously trying to work our way around certain practical aspects – for example, the children love touching the braille cards which means they get worn away – something we hadn’t considered at the outset, so we have to keep striving to continually make things better. Mather & Co came along and listened and went away and looked at the materials and resources whilst checking back with the consultants to see if they had connections and contacts that could help with certain aspects of the design. There was excellent communication from both sides and a willingness to find solutions when we didn’t get it right.
Q: What new and innovative ways were created to deliver interpretation to visitors?
I don’t think that there was anything completely revolutionary – but in a museum that had to deliver accessibility to so many different audiences we did try to deliver best practice in all areas and bring them together in one place. We did colour code the exhibition space for visually impaired people – which also appealed to children too – using different colours and textures to help people navigate their way around. Visitors have remarked on how great this is having the tactile element to the visitor experience. We also considered special educational needs for people with autism through special lighting and the idea of having virtual tours so that they can prepare for their visit before arriving.
Q: What do you think are the current barriers to visitor attractions taking disability access beyond the minimum requirements?
Ultimately the minimum requirements need to be raised because they’re very low – there needs to be some policy changes. People will always deliver what’s required, but when that isn’t a very high bar, it’s not difficult to achieve. In projects that have big budgets to spend, it really doesn’t cost that much as a proportion of the project and therefore pretty inexcusable not to try and open up access to much more diverse audiences.
I see diversity as an ongoing thing rather than a one-off project task – we’re forever looking for other ways to appeal to wider audiences and reach more people.