Updated: May 27, 2021
As municipalities cautiously look to reopen long-shuttered cultural institutions, a question looms: what will constitute the “new normal” for museums in a world with COVID-19?
In the past, museums have sought to attract large crowds to boost revenue. This practice, which often made visits less pleasant for museum goers, may be extinguished soon.
In his article in The Art Newspaper, Bendor Grosvenor shares his view of this period of reduced museums crowds as an opportunity to focus on improving the visiting experience for minority communities, such as people with disabilities. He proposes that significant time and effort be given to consider how decreased museum capacity might impact this population.
The Inaccessibility of Museums for People with Disabilities
Multiple problems in current museums make people with disabilities feel discriminated against, leading them to avoid visiting altogether. The predominant issue is not the museum architecture or physical infrastructure, but the “ableist” culture, which is rooted in the assumption that able-bodied individuals are superior and that people with disabilities need to be ‘fixed.’
Rather than experiencing a world-class visit, those who are not physically able to enjoy well-known museums in person have to settle for “low-quality reproductions online and text lifted from Wikipedia,” as Grosvenor bluntly comments. Museums websites frequently neglect to provide the basic information essential for many people with disabilities to plan their visits. This would include whether a museum is wheelchair accessible and if there are closed captioned videos or ASL interpreters. This communicative lack can result in people with disabilities skipping a visit entirely, to avoid inaccessibility issues and the feeling of being unwelcome. Ironically, they are deprived of an experience intended for “everyone.”
These factors need to be addressed as museums transition into re-opening. This juncture offers a perfect opportunity for self-critique and institutional change.
COVID-19 has obligated museums to rethink their approaches and more fully recognize the needs of people with disabilities. This increased awareness reveals a long-awaited willingness to make world-class museum visits accessible to all.