As the Horniman Museum‘s World Gallery opens this week I will be particularly proud to have played a part in the new displays. From February 2014 to April 2018 I volunteered on the Horniman Museums’ Access Advisory Group (AAG), as part of the role we chose objects to be displayed in the gallery and wrote interpretation as part of a co-curation project called ‘Perspectives’. This week I am going to publish 3 blogs to celebrate the opening of the gallery. The first blog will be 10 top tips to museums setting up your own advisory panel. The second will be 10 tips for those considering joining an advisory panel and finally a blog on what I learnt working on the World Gallery display and an insight into a big gallery redevelopment.
Top Tips for setting up an Access Advisory Panel –
1 – Diverse groups are key – My time at the Horniman AAG worked so well because I was part of a diverse group. I gave views on what it was like as a parent to two autistic children to visit the museum, others in the group brought lived experience of learning difficulties, visually impairment, hearing impairment, mental health issues and autism. It is not about a tick box exercise but I make this point because it is listening to lots of views and different opinions that makes for a museum that supports all visitors, not just one particular group. Whilst having a group just made up of autistic visitors can be useful, it is about supporting visitors as a whole. What I have learnt on the panel is that what might be great for my family as visitors, such as quiet galleries and limited audio, might not suit someone with visual impairment who wants to listen to audio, and experience a more immersive visit. Having a range of views makes for a more inclusive and accessible museum even if the panel don’t always agree on every point.
2 – What do you want to achieve? – It is important to be really clear on what you want to achieve when setting up an access panel. Is it part of a gallery redesign or big capital project? Do you want the panel to inform access decisions across the whole museum or co-curate a display? Whilst working with the Horniman our first session looked at helping shape their disability awareness training for staff and work on their equalities and diversity policy. We went on to co-curate a case for display in the new gallery, working on interpretation and layout. We also helped inform access across the gallery by being brought in early to talk to exhibition designers. It was important for us to understand what we were working on and how we could work with the museum to bring about informed change.
3 – How long will the panel exist? – I think it is really important to think about how long you want the panel to run for. Is it a time limited endeavour because the museum is working towards a goal, easier perhaps when working on exhibitions or a new gallery. Or is the panel a long term addition to your museum plans. Do you want to recruit every 2 or 3 years and bring in fresh voices? By setting a limit on commitment for the panel it may give both parties the museum and volunteers a chance to reflect and move on if need be.
4 – Nitty gritty – By this I mean take time to consider the practical considerations of having an access panel.
- How many members do you want? – bear in mind with diverse groups with different needs, will everybody get a chance to contribute? Some members may not be able to attend every meeting so what would constitute a workable number?
- Be honest and realistic how many meetings a year are you going to have? We had 4 meetings a year at the Horniman, but because of working on the World Gallery we had additional meetings to visit the store for object selection.
- When will you hold the meetings? For the Horniman in summer the meetings are held in the afternoon and in winter in the morning for ease of travel so no one is travelling in the dark. Is it possible to arrange meetings to miss rush hour?
- How long will the meetings be? Long enough to get work done but not too long that the commitment is too onerous.
- Where will the meetings be held? In the same room every time? Is it accessible? How will panel members travel to the museum? Is there disabled parking, do panel members need to be met at the station and accompanied to the museum? Your responsibilities don’t just start at the beginning of the meeting.
- Do you need BSL interpreters?
- How will you send out the information in an accessible format? For some of our group they needed a session with their support worker before the meeting so he could go over the concepts and help them prepare comments to read out and join the conversation.
- Of course most important will you be providing lunch? Never underestimate the importance of good food and biscuits to keep your panel happy.
5- Expenses or payment – This could of course slot into the category above but I think this is important enough to have a category of its own. It is great to have volunteers involved but that doesn’t mean they are unskilled because they volunteer, it doesn’t mean that their time is not valuable. At the very least you should pay travel expenses for the panel and offer incentives whether that is free access to a paid for gallery or museum or opportunities to go to a friends opening. Ideally I think access panel should be remunerated for the service they provide. They are making the museum more accessible which will increase the visitor foot fall and increase revenue in your cafe/shop/exhibition.
6 – Who will lead the panel? – Choosing a chair to run the panel is a crucial part of the process. At the Horniman Museum we were expertly led by Barry Ginley the Disability and Access Officer at the V&A Museum. His skill in keeping us to time and making sure everyone had a chance to contribute was central to the success of the group. Also having an external chair means he is not a representative of the Horniman allowing us to work with a degree of separation and space to air our views freely.
7 – It is not always about what the museum wants – Yes, the museum wants to get something from the process, you may have key aims in mind like a co-curated display. But it is a two-way street, are there aims the panel would like to achieve. Compromise is important, it is not always a yes/no situation. Not everything the Horniman Panel suggested could be taken forward and there are often good reasons for that but there is always a way forward. The panel have joined for their own reasons, perhaps to understand how the museum works behind the scenes or gaining new skills, how can you support the panel with training and tours to enrich their experience.
8 – Welcome but don’t overwhelm – It is very easy when you work and regularly go to meetings and contribute that you forget what an alien scenario it is for many people. With a diverse group some may not have worked in that way before or worked at all. It can be an intimidating space and take time for individuals to have the confidence to join in and speak up. The welcome is key, but be sensitive to the group. Don’t overwhelm the meeting with lots of museum staff or exhibition designers. Take time to introduce roles that museum staff have, not everyone knows what a curator does, it is easy to press on and not take time to see the group feel able and comfortable in the meetings to contribute.
9 – Clear rules are crucial – This sounds very bossy and strict but meetings need structure if they are going to make a difference, it is no good deciding on an action point, if no-one writes it up and no-one follows through at the next meeting to see the changes have been made. A clear agenda, minutes and actions from meetings allow the museum and panel to track progress. How communication will work in and outside of the group needs to be discussed. Also how will decisions be made if members are not present is also important. Everyone on the panel needs a chance to decide.
10 – Socialise and celebrate – Make sure there are opportunities for the group to bond outside the meeting, this might be a curator led tour of the gallery or an external visit. Our trip to the Horniman store gave our panel a chance to gel getting hands on with objects. Don’t forget to celebrate! Really enjoy and celebrate the successes and work that is done, thank the panel for their input and honesty. If your panel feel valued and listened to they will be more likely to keep helping your museum to become accessible.
You can find out more about our work on the World Gallery here with a fab video of us at work! https://horniman.ac.uk/visit/upcoming-exhibitions/always-part-of-the-story#image-0
For more information on setting up an Access Panel there is a piece on the Museum Association Website – (logon needed) https://www.museumsassociation.org/museum-practice/guides/13102015-setting-up-a-disability-advisory-group
These views are my views, I am not speaking on behalf of the Horniman or access panel members.
A huge thanks to everyone at the Horniman Museum for the support, encouragement and inspiration. It has been a wonderful learning experience for me that I have enjoyed so much.
Thanks to Barry Ginley who chaired the panel with such expertise it made every session enjoyable and we never ran late!
Thank you to all the members of the panel who have become friends over the last 4 years, I have learnt so much from seeing other perspectives and listening to your honest, powerful and passionate opinions about what disability is and means in today’s society. Your commitment to making museums accessible for all is inspirational.