In a time when the most powerful man in the world has made inflammatory racist comments and joked about disability, it has never been more important for attractions to reach out to those who are marginalised.
I’m not convinced that embracing otherness is something which comes naturally to humans. It goes against the rules of survival of the fittest. Children sometimes stare and ask awkward questions about people who are different and often have trouble playing with children who aren’t the same as them.
Entrepreneur Gordon Hartman noticed children were wary of playing with his daughter, who has cognitive disabilities, while they were on holiday. His response was to create Morgan’s Wonderland, a fully inclusive theme park in San Antonio, Texas, where disabled people can enjoy every experience and where anyone with a special need receives free entry. Last June, the park unveiled another world first – an ultra accessible splashpark, with five tropically themed splash pads, waterproof wheelchairs and a river boat adventure ride.
Not everyone, or every operator, can go this far, but having an awareness of the barriers and seeking to remove them is a great start. US-based organisation Art Beyond Sight helps operators to make their experience more inclusive for people with vision, mental or cognitive disabilities, through reviewing space, policies, programmes and promotional materials, as well as training staff on how to deliver experiences through the implementation of tactile access and verbal descriptions.
The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) in Seattle, Washington, worked with Art Beyond Sight to train some of its staff to lead tours for people with low or no vision, which now run once a month and are free to take part.
“Art Beyond Sight invites our low to no-vision visitors to participate in free group tours where they visit the galleries, learn about artworks, ask questions, and share ideas,” says Kayla Skinner, deputy director for education and public programmes.
“Attendees tell us they join the tours both to learn more about works of art and also to be in community with other art lovers. SAM is so grateful to the docents and staff who support this programme, which helps make the museum more accessible to our community. We are lucky to have visitors who have attended Art Beyond Sight tours for years and bring so much knowledge and amazing perspective to SAM. I learn something new about SAM’s collection every time I attend a tour.”
Able-bodied people can unknowingly patronise or give false pity to people with disabilities, and the Dialogue Social Enterprise was created to subvert this relationship: putting disabled people in charge and taking away senses from the able-bodied. A number of different experiences have been developed, which attractions can offer as a social franchise, all of which empower the guides.
In Dialogue in the Dark exhibitions, blind guides lead people through a dark exhibit, which replicates the experience of everyday activities, such as visiting a café or walking in a park. The blind person teaches visitors how to use their other senses and cope with the unknown. Dinner in the Dark involves blind waiters serving dinner in a dark restaurant.
Dialogue in Silence gives visitors an insight into deafness. Wearing noise-cancelling headsets, visitors are taught, by deaf people, to read non-verbal communication, posture, hand movements and facial expressions. The most recent variation from the organisation is Dialogue with Time, which explores ageing.
Singapore Science Centre in Singapore launched a permanent Dialogue with Time exhibition in November 2017, in partnership with the Ministry of Health. By 2030, one in every four Singaporeans will be aged 65 years and above – about double that of today – so the centre believes it is important to develop understanding of ageing and overcome stereotypes.
Visitors experience weakened hearing, vision and mobility; see the effects of UV and smoking on physical appearance and get an impression of how they will look in years to come, as well as having the chance to discuss ageing with the guides, who are all aged between 65 and 85 years.
Empathy and understanding
“Dialogue with Time brings to the fore some of the challenges related to ageing and seeks to foster a greater understanding, empathy and preparedness for something we must all eventually face,” says Professor Lim Tit Meng, chief executive of Singapore Science Centre.
“We hope this exhibition will help to positively re-frame and present the opportunities of ageing, as well as encourage more factual, objective and interactive conversations led by the senior guides who are role models themselves.”
Age is also the focus of a business running in the UK, Oomph, which is seeking to collaborate with operators to offer day trips to care home residents. Starting out as an initiative to get care home residents exercising, Oomph recently diversified to offer days out. One successful outing was to the Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery in Hampshire.
“When you talk to people living in care homes, and witness their quality of life, you can see their frustration,” says founder Ben Allen. “After you take away the time they are sleeping, being fed and cared for, they still have 11 hours a day when they need to be given a reason to live. A real life is a varied life, not lived exclusively indoors.”
Homelessness and the refugee crisis has led to millions of people being marginalised and the attractions industry has the ability to reach out and make them feel part of society by inviting them to engage with programmes. NOESIS Science Centre in Thessaloniki, Greece, has invited children living in the refugee camps of Thessaloniki to visit through its Welcome Refugees initiative. Children are given the opportunity to watch a planetarium film, have a guided tour in their native language and, as they learn Greek, take part in activities offered with their local peers.
“Including children in our activities and programming is a creative and effective way to make them feel welcome, show human solidarity and some hope for a better tomorrow,” says NOESIS general manager Thanassis Kontonikolaou. “Through their activities, learning programmes and collections, science centres can contribute to the social need of meeting and getting to know the unknown ‘other’.”
Since Welcome Refugees launched in 2016, 1,100 refugees have visited and the programme received a special mention for courageous leadership at the 2017 Mariano Gago Ecsite Awards. Elisavet Konstantinou, communication and public relations executive for NOESIS, says: “The children are very excited to take part in this programme and have a precious smile on their faces as they leave our science centre. That is all we need to continue our effort, knowing at the same time that we are doing the right thing.”
Giving back power
By teaming up with The Wallich, a charity which works with homeless people, National Museum Wales smashed down barriers last year, not just inviting people who feel alienated from culture into the space, but putting them in charge.
The new curators provided a fresh insight with their selection of paintings, sculptures, films, prints and drawings from the collection that the museum and the Derek Williams Trust acquired over the past 10 years. They were involved in all aspects of the Who Decides? exhibition, including design, installation, public events, marketing and programmes for schools.
Nick Thornton, head of fine and contemporary art at National Museum Wales, says it was a wonderful experience.
“The co-curators from The Wallich had a unique perspective on the collections, which has produced an ambitious exhibition which makes contemporary art accessible to all our visitors,” he says. “It’s been a fascinating journey for all of us and underlines the huge benefits which can be had from creating opportunities for all parts of our community to contribute to the work of cultural organisations.”
Curator Michael Pugh says initiatives like this encourage wider participation in culture: “I wouldn’t have come into the museum before, but now I’m here and I’ve loved it all. I’m not afraid to come here by myself. I’m not daunted anymore.”
Illness can also lead to a feeling of disconnection from society, but technology means it doesn’t have to be a problem. The de Young Museum in San Francisco, California, offers a programme which allows those unable to visit the museum in person because of a disability or illness to enjoy the collections through its Beam Tour, created by Suitable Technologies. The device’s sensitive lenses allow offsite visitors to see the art in high resolution, while its microphone, screen and speakers enable interaction with guides or friends in the museum. Comments or questions from the offsite visitor can be relayed and responded to immediately.
According to the museum website, this programme is the first of its kind and broadens access for a previously underserved segment of the population.
De Young is part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which offer programmes to people with disabilities, including tours for people with dementia and Access Days where people with special needs can visit for free or at a reduced cost when the museum is closed to the public.
Beyond four walls
Outreach programmes, taking exhibits beyond the facility, are another way of broadening the audience and including those who can’t or feel unable to attend. Orlando Science Center in Orlando, Florida, is engaged in a programme to reach out to children receiving treatment at three of the state’s hospitals. NASA has committed $1.2m over five years for the centre to develop and implement the programme, which will take stimulating science and maths activities into hospitals on mobile exhibit carts, aimed at 10 to 18-year-olds.
Volunteers from BASE Camp Children’s Cancer Foundation will be trained by science centre educators to facilitate these programmes, due to launch in the autumn. They will incorporate data and artifacts from NASA missions, University of Central Florida Planetary Science Group collections and Kennedy Space Center resources.
“Children with critical illness can struggle with formal education due to the fact that their hospitalisation keeps them from engaging in active study and attending classes” said science centre president and CEO, JoAnn Newman. “These engaging mobile exhibits will not only shorten the learning gap during their hospitalisation, they will help motivate these children to pursue STEM learning and careers.”
According to Tate, which has completed a four-year programme, Circuit, looking for ways to connect 15 to 25-year-olds with arts and culture and make gallery spaces relevant to them, young people frequently feel alienated from the arts.
Many of the report’s recommendations seem applicable to all attractions and could be applied to all sections of the population who feel left out: seek out partnerships with organisations which share your priorities and values; find ways for young people to work within your organisation as a producer and use short term projects to create long term strategies for change.