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Marcus Weisen on waking up to cultural rights! / 10 September 2010

DAO kindly invited me to contribute a blog to add to the lively exchange about equal access to museums, galleries and heritage for visually impaired people begun by Will Phillips

There could hardly be a better start than William’s many reflections on remaining barriers. Here is a museum professional who can see both sides of the coin and rightly suggests that more could be done. When large print and Braille information are routinely missing, when intellectual access to the collections is wanting, when just dropping in turns into the umpteenth disappointment and when budgets are not inclusive of disabled people we have a problem.

I like to think of this societal problem in terms of cultural freedoms. Cultural freedoms, choice and opportunity in museums can remain severely restricted for people with a sensory impairment and people with a learning difficulty. I tend to think of culture onsite and online as an infinite world of opportunity I can navigate endlessly. That is if the sea is not too rough and the road to the collections and the museum experience not too bumpy.

Disabled people, like everyone, have ‘the right to take part in the cultural life of the community’, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says (article 27. 1948). It took until 2008 before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled People formally recognised the cultural rights of disabled people to take part in cultural life ‘on an equal basis’ (article 30. The UK signed up in 2009).

Surprisingly, few disabled people and disability organisations are pressing for the implementation of these rights. In the UK. DDA fatigue has caught on. Knowledge of the DDA has become foggy. Who still remembers the ‘anticipatory duty’ which came into force in 1996. This requires that service providers know what requirements of disabled people might have. Dozens of new museums and major extensions were built over the past ten years for hundreds of millions. The exhibition budgets went into the tens of millions. 

Yet, many don’t provide British Sign Language, audio description, handling collections and intellectual access for people with a learning difficulty as part of the new displays. Knowledge about these access features was around though. So did all those museums meet the ‘anticipatory duty’ and make provision ‘within reason’? Only a court can tell, the law says. I am entitled to wonder though and analyse the cumulative result as a huge wasted opportunity for the cultural rights of disabled people. Alongside existing best practice examples, old patterns of cultural exclusion are still at work. The situation is no different across the Ocean. 

The UN Convention requests that governments take every ‘appropriate measure’ to ensure ‘access on an equal basis’. In 1992, the little known Council of Europe Recommendation ‘R(92)6’ called on governments and local cultural organisations to develop ‘comprehensive access policies and plans to bring significant and lasting improvements for all people with disabilities’. 

No government worldwide is anywhere near meeting this goal. There has been no public discussion as to what ‘access on an equal basis’ may mean. Sure, 100% access to collections will never exist. There are simply not enough resources and there will always be restrictions to touching. But, actually, what could ‘significant and lasting improvements’ mean?

We need to start a discussion on this. Far more than what is available now, that’s for sure. Everyone would agree it cannot happen overnight. What’s missing is a long term strategic vision and longer term objectives. That’s really the job of governments and, also, of museums. And it does take people articulating these rights in both a visionary and pragmatic fashion.

Marcus Weisen is free-lance consultant and Content Director for ‘In Touch in with Art’ at Victoria & Albert Museum from 13-14 October 2010.

Keywords: access issues,museums and galleries