From Princess Ennigaldi-Nanna’s curated artifacts in her palace home to the wunderkammer tradition of Renaissance, museums historically began as private collections. While museums today state a mission of public education, they still sometimes fall short on accessibility. For many people, barriers such as expensive admission, lack of information, or physical ability stand in the way of visiting these institutions. I absolutely love museums, and for everyone to be able to experience them and love them as I do, we must create more programs to expand accessibility.
Cool Culture was established to help give the 50% of kids in New York City who come from low-income families access to the wide range of museums from an early age. They provide 50,000 families a year with free admission to ninety cultural institutions. Through the program, Title 1 schools in the city can give preschool and kindergarten students a Family Pass and have a staff member go through workshops to learn how best to implement the program. Families in Chicago, Illinois and Miami-Dade County in Florida, can also check out museum passes from the public library, giving free access to lots of museums in multiple disciplines. While Cool Culture is a nonprofit and the libraries are public institutions, both are helping families visit more museums and enrich their children’s education.
Notably, the Canada Council for the Arts recently began subsidizing cultural institutions to provide free admission to Syrian refugees, and special activities seek to get children involved. This not only expands access, it is an excellent program in that it targets a group who lacks information and helps them connect to their new community during a time of immense change and difficult assimilation.
Museums themselves can also take action to make visits attainable. For example, the Boston Museum of Science gives free admission to EBT and WIC cardholders, as well as nonprofit organizations. Other museums may do discounted days once a month. Museums that do not charge admission can consider creating partnerships to pay for field trip transportation from schools in underserved communities, or uild mobile science labs.
For some people, the museum environment itself can be a barrier. Children with autism may find it over-stimulating, but special sensory-friendly programs where the building is open early, quieter, and dimmer can provide an inclusive and comfortable experience. Additionally, all institutions should ensure that wheelchairs can easily access all reaches of the facility, create Braille guides, and seek out other accommodations to develop. Perhaps more museums could even invest in the technology of telepresence robots, a new development which can allow people remote access to museum collections. This is a resource that Henry Evans, creator of Robots for Humanity, says “will be the next great democratization of culture.”
I love museums, and I want everyone to be able to benefit from the magic that is having science, history, and art become interesting and personal and alive before your own eyes. To do so, museums need to constantly evaluate what barriers stand in the way of potential guests experiencing that magic, and create solutions to provide access.
(This post is based on an essay I wrote for an application, with some changes, as well as sources and links added.)