Removing barriers: The work of the 21st century museum

Over the past 20 years, the discussion about the purpose and mission of museums has focused on visitors over and above collections.

As Stephen Weil (1999/2002) so eloquently wrote in From Being About Something to Being For Somebody, museums now have a public-service orientation.  Collections are now no longer “the museum’s raison d’etre but merely one of its resources” (p. 29).

As the sector adjusts to this shift, many are exploring how to best serve the public.  For many museums, this means removing barriers.

What are barriers?
Edward Steinfeld and Jordana Maisel (2012), experts in the area of universal design, note that much of life is about removing barriers.  We exist and interact within environments (p. 1).  Through our interactions with our environments and with others, we encounter barriers that are both experiential and intellectual (p. 3).

When unnecessary barriers are removed, people are better able to develop personally and participate socially (p. 14).


Barriers can take many forms:

  • Physical barriers can prevent people with disabilities from accessing areas, preventing them from fully participating.
  • Inclusive barriers can prevent people of a certain sex, sexual orientation, race, nationality, or cultural background from participating.
  • Economic barriers may prevent people of limited means from full access.

Barriers in the museum
It’s important to remember that barriers can exist within museums, the public, and the culture and society.

For example, physical barriers might exist in museums that are complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act but not going above and beyond what the law requires.

It’s been noted by many (including Levin, 2006) that white culture dominates many museums.  This is a type of inclusive barrier that might prevent people from other cultures from participating with the museum.

People who work low-wage jobs face an economic barrier that may prevent them from visiting a museum.

Removing barriers in the museum
Museums have a tremendous opportunity to provide better public service if barriers are removed.  Museums can have the greatest impact by removing barriers within their walls.

The first step is recognizing that barriers exist and then looking for them.  Often, museums have blind spots that prevent barriers from being seen.  Visitor experience evaluations and partnering with visitors (people with disabilities, minority ethnic groups, etc.) are two ways that museums can gather information about where barriers exist and learn how to remove them.

Thankfully, barriers seem to be gaining more attention in museum discussions.  Emily Dawson is in the midst of publishing an informative series of essays about inclusion over at The Incluseum.  Suse Cairns and the Museum Computer Network planning committee have announced that Invisible Architectures will be the theme of the 2015 conference.  Exploring how architectures and systems within the museum impact visitors and their experience, which MCN 2015 will explore, is another way of investigating the issue of barriers.

The three types of barriers I’ve mentioned here are only a few of many that could potentially exist in a museum.  Others might include barriers related to learning styles or the public’s motivation for visiting the museum.

What other types of barriers do you see at your museum?  How are you removing these barriers?

Levin, A. (2006). Why local museums matter. In A. Levin (Ed.), Defining history: Local museums and the construction of history in America’s changing communities (pp. 9-25). Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Steinfeld, E. & Maisel, J. (2012). Universal design: Creating inclusive environments. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Weil, S. (1999/2002). From being about something to being for somebody: The ongoing transformation of the American museum. In S. Weil (Ed.), Making museums matter (pp. 28-52). Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.

Photo credit:  Electropod


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