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Why accessibility as an afterthought must now become a thing of the past

In her latest article for MuseumNext, Catherine Devine discusses the importance of accessibility in museums and why there’s still much to do in order to reach people who would not or can not typically cross the threshold of an institution.

Many people around the world will be glad to see the back of 2020. After all, there has been extreme hardship for huge swathes of society in recent months. Needless to say those who’ve lost friends and loved ones will feel the distress most acutely, but we’ve also seen thousands of businesses go to the wall and millions of workers find themselves without a livelihood through no fault of their own.

For the museum sector, too, it has been a challenging period. Forced to close their doors, many institutions have not only felt the loss of revenue keenly affect them (even those that do not charge admission fees) but been forced to find new ways to stay in touch and stay relevant to their audience.

While it’s hard to find too many silver linings in the last few months, it is heartening to see how many museums and galleries have looked to innovate in the face of adversity and hardship. And under these particularly unusual circumstances, that progress has accelerated a positive change that is long overdue – accessibility.

In countries like the UK, the Disability Discrimination Act is now 25 years old. Yet in the last quarter of a century, institutions in Britain (like many other countries) have struggled to achieve the level of inclusivity that many of us had hoped for by now. The result of COVID-19 is that many museums have had no choice but to look at their digital presence, and explored their ability to extend exhibition experiences “Beyond the Walls”.

In the short term, this burst of creativity and rapid expansion into online delivery will help to keep museums relevant. In the long term it will ensure that they are not only limited to an audience comprised of physical visitors – those who are able or willing to travel for an experience. Instead, communities can be reached and relationships established with audiences that had never before had exposure to works of art, ancient artefacts or the educational tools that regular museum-goers are familiar with.

Whether it’s Virtual Reality (VR) exhibitions beamed to your device, innovative social media campaigns or interactive educational tools, this has been a period of exploration and one that I believe we will look back on with pride.

At Microsoft we are committed to accessibility

I understand how that heading might sound. Indeed, I would expect there to be a level of cynicism when it comes to a tech giant promoting initiatives reliant on tools they provide.

But I must argue that making progress in the area of accessibility has to be driven by those with the skillset and resources to drive real improvement. Museums and galleries can’t innovate in isolation, just as a software company won’t curate an exhibition. One of the most exciting aspects of my role today is that I can help to bring the most advanced and engaging technologies to bear so that the most vivid and authentic museum experience possible can be delivered anywhere, to anyone.

As a technologist I’ve worked in this field long before I joined Microsoft and I don’t look at this crucial issue with blinkers on. What I do know from first-hand experience, however, is that the work we are doing to support those with vision, hearing, mobility and learning difficulties, among others, is having a genuine impact.

You can explore some of the initiatives here.

In my last article for MuseumNext I talked about providing a digital window into the museum world. This is something that I believe that we must be driven to do with increasing accuracy and effectiveness – because the future of our institutions relies on it.

There is no doubt in my mind that museums are and should always remain at the core of our culture. But the fact of the matter is that if we don’t find ways to reach out and share those benefits direct to the screens and devices of those who’ve never had the opportunity to cross the threshold of a gallery or museum, they may never be engaged . . . never aware of what they are missing.

Similarly, I believe that museums have a responsibility to use advancements in technology to ensure that disabilities of varying forms are no longer an insurmountable barrier. Whether it’s our assistive technologies for people living with bipolar disorder or bespoke tools to support concentration and comprehension for those with learning difficulties, 2020 has taught us that we can, and we should do more for all audiences.

Want to find out more about how Microsoft can help museums develop enhanced visitor experience programmes? Connect with Catherine Devine on LinkedIn here.

About the author – Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine is the recently appointed global Business Strategy Leader-Libraries and Museums at Microsoft. She was formerly Chief Digital Officer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and every organization in the world to achieve more.

With Microsoft’s focus on understanding and solving the specific needs of Museums,  Catherine is leading this effort at Microsoft.

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