Thursday, June 28, 2012

Accessibility Is Possible

Literally thousands of pages on Accessibility exist that relate to museums and although these pages are very important and should be read, it can be intimidating and very time consuming to wade through it all at once. Small museums and museums in general are always short on money and time.

If you had sixty seconds to explain to your board why you should address Accessibility, you might make the following arguments:

  1. Making the museum or site accessible to individuals with disabilities increases your potential visitor pool and creates a better experience for everyone.
  2. Most museums and historic sites are looking for more visitors and to be, or remain, a vital part of the community. Welcoming a diverse audience that includes people with disabilities will enhance your community standing and increase the value of your mission.
  3. It is the law - Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. 
One way to get started is to ask for input and for help.

How do you know what your site needs to do to become more accessible? It can be difficult to look at your own site with “fresh eyes,” in a critical and unbiased way.  Bringing in someone new, someone who is not familiar with the site can provide that critical perspective. Museums often bring in outsiders for strategic planning, for consultation on utilities, on grounds and many other things. Assessing Accessibility is much the same thing. Additionally, outsiders will often notice things and bring up both challenges and solutions that museum staff will overlook because of their great familiarity with the site. 

In examining challenges and possible solutions for Accessibility, you’ll need to consider a wide variety of areas. Museums vary widely in size, architecture, time period, location and in pretty much every way possible. All museum structures and sites are unique and present their own challenges.  Think about how Accessibility fits into your institutions mission to make the best decisions.

Another way to get started is to consider some or all of the following questions:
  • Can visitors see the front door or main entrance from where they are parked?
  • Are there signs telling visitors where to park, and where to find the entrance?
  • Is the door to the main entrance heavy or hard to open?
  • Is there an accessible entrance separate from the main entrance? Is there a sign?
  • Do visitors often come to the wrong door?
  • Do visitors often leave family members or friends in the car or on the first floor?
  • Are visitors sitting and leaning on artifacts?
  • Are visitors too tired to buy anything in the gift shop after the tour?
  • Do visitors need to put on their glasses to read the labels?
  • Do visitors keep their coats on the entire tour?
  • Are there places to sit or rest during the tour?
  • How long is the standard tour of the site?
  • Are visitors expected to stand for the whole tour?

You don't always have to make major or expensive changes to make your site just a little bit more Accessible to all.

Kat Burkhart has a masters in anthropology and is a graduate of the Seminar for Historical Administration and the Institute for Cultural Entrepreneurship for Museum Leaders. She is the executive director/curator of the Carnegie Museum of Montgomery County in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and has worked in several small museums, including the Riverview at Hobson Grove (director) and the Astor House Museum and Clear Creek History Park (assistant curator). She was also president of the Association of Indiana Museums (2008–2010). 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Making the Case for Visitor Studies and Evaluation

Once you’ve decided that visitor studies and evaluation are important enough to add a new ball to the fire (or is it seven or twelve) that you are juggling as the leader of a small museum, you probably have to convince others (paid or unpaid staff and board members) that collecting information about who your visitors are and what they think about what you do is important.  Here are some arguments you may want to make:
·      For the money-minded board member – potential funders want to know about our visitors.  Federal granting agencies for many years have required basic demographic information about whom museums serve as part of the grant application process.  State and local funding sources are beginning to ask for that information more and more. Private foundations also want to be sure that their money is making a difference and will ask you how you will evaluate the success of your efforts. If we want to ask the county tourism bureau for funding, real numbers about who is visiting from outside of the county will help us demonstrate how we impact tourism.
·      For the efficiency-expert – by investing a little time and money now, we’ll have more information that will help us allocate time and money better. Why? Because we will know more about whom we are serving and who we are not and where we should be focusing current dollars and time.
·      For the museum-content-lover (history, art, geology, etc.) – our mission is, ultimately, to get people to care about and learn from our subject. As we compete for attention with work, school, sports, pop culture, television, and the latest internet craze, we need to know how and where we can connect with our visitors and potential visitors and what will engage them with our topic.  This information will help us better articulate and pursue our mission and our reason for being.
·      For the civic-minded, community booster – asking our visitors what they think and value is a way of showing we care about our visitors. It can also help us identify potential visitors that may not be aware of our programs and services.
·      For the person who says we never DO anything – visitor studies and evaluation provides evidence we need to shake us loose from the status quo.  How will those people who say, “we’ve always done it this way” argue when the information is coming from the horse’s mouth – from our visitors?
·      For the director, finding out who your visitors are and what they think about your museum can help the director determine which balls are most important to juggle. That in turn can help all staff and volunteers keep their eyes on the key activities. During the process, board members and staff/volunteers will also be forced to define and articulate what they want visitors to know, feel and do as a result of a visit to their museum.

By making these arguments, you can work to convince your board and all the people, paid and unpaid, who work in the museum that your organization should spend some time finding out about your visitors. 

Conny Graft is a consultant in interpretive planning and evaluation for museums, parks, and other nonprofit organizations. Conny retired from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in 2010 where she worked for 27 years as Director of Interpretive Planning, Director of Interpretive Education and Manager of Research and Evaluation. Before coming to Colonial Williamsburg, Conny worked for the Division of Historic Preservation in Fairfax, Virginia and was in charge of planning programs for four historic sites.

Stacy Klingler currently serves local history organizations as the Assistant Director of Local History Services at the Indiana Historical Society. She began her career in museums as the assistant director of two small museums, before becoming director of the Putnam County Museum in Greencastle, Ind. She chairs the AASLH's Small Museums Committee (2008-2012) and attended the Seminar for Historical Administration in 2006. While she lives in the history field, her passion is encouraging a love of learning in any environment.