This Is Not For You (Or, Five Ways to Make Museums Accessible)

Museums are not for me.

I say this as a member of every museum's target demographic: a well-educated and semi-affluent women in her early-30s with a strong interest in arts and culture. My mother received her PhD from Cambridge University in classics and spent the early days of her career working at the British Museum (right across from the Rosetta Stone), so you'd better believe that I was dragged around to every museum within a 50-mile radius as a small child. But still, despite my background, I can't help feeling like museums are not for me. And apparently, I'm not the only one who feels that way. According to research by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sports, 51.8% of adults attended a museum once in Q1 2014-2015. When you look at socioeconomic class, 61.4% of high-income adults and only 38.1% of low-income adults went to the museum, despite the fact that in the UK, museums are free. (I still can't get over the fact that I can just walk into the British Museum without paying a cent.)

Earlier this week, when I found myself wandering around Glasgow in-between meetings, I decided to stop by the Kelvingrove Museum. As one of the most popular attractions in Scotland, I felt guilty about "opting-out" of the Kelvingrove. (I also felt guilty about not grabbing the nearest tourist coach up to Loch Ness to begin my relentless pursuit of Nessie. Call me Ishmael.) All of my friends had been pushing me to visit, including my favorite Scottish friend who referred to it as "bonnie Kelvingrove, the people's museum." So I reluctantly dragged myself inside the Kelvingrove, which, with over 1.2 million visitors a year, is the most visited museum in the United Kingdom outside of London.

And I was so excited about what I found inside that I stayed there for the next three hours.

1. Ancient History for the Rest of Us
The first week of my Fulbright, I visited the British Museum. Despite the many school groups sprinting through the halls, I still felt like the museum was meant for someone else. The object captions, for instance, assumed that I knew much more about ancient history than I actually did. Which was kind of embarrassing. Meanwhile, the object captions at the Kelvingrove were far more user-friendly.

Using comics instead of wordy descriptions makes museums much more accessible for students, as well as visitors with limited literacy skills and/or learning disabilities. About a forth of the Kelvingrove's Ancient Egypt collection is on long-term loan from the British Museum; there's a caption at the start of the gallery that says: "The British Museum's wonderful collection is owned by all the people of Britain. It is entirely appropriate that the citizens of Glasgow have the opportunity to see some of their collection here in Kelvingrove." (One day, I'll write a post about Scottish politics. I find this caption, written by the Director of the British Museum, to be delightfully passive-aggressive in so many ways.) I was stunned by the differences in how the British Museum and the Kelvingrove Museum displayed some very similar objects.

(A typical display at the British Museum)

(And a typical display at the Kelvingrove Museum -- which has a Book of the Dead video game on their iPads to teach visitors about canopic jars as they try to reach the afterlife)

You can guess which of these exhibits would be more popular with adolescent boys. Yes, unwrapped mummies are cool. But unwrapped mummies flanked with video games? WAY more cool. I know that there are some museum snobs out there who would argue that I'm advocating for the "dumbing down" of history/culture -- but, having spent most of my life working in education, I firmly believe that nothing matters unless students are learning. They're probably not taking the time to read your wordy object captions -- but I'm willing to bet that they are taking the time to play this video game. (Please. Like you weren't waiting for your turn in elementary school to play The Oregon Trail on floppy disk. I bet that you were even that guy who always chose to ford the river, weren't you?)

Museums need to remember that their visitors are a diverse group of all ages, ethnicities/cultures, languages, educational backgrounds, and (dis)abilities. Make your exhibits as accessible as possible so that ALL visitors can enjoy them.

2. Mini-Museums for the Littlest Visitors
When I was little, my favorite museum was the Buffalo Museum of Science. Because science is awesome. But also, they always had something for me to do; whether that was a coloring/stamping activity about insects or solving a dinosaur crossword puzzle, they had clearly thought about their littlest visitors and wanted to keep them interested. The Kelvingrove Museum has mini-museums scattered around their exhibitions. When I visited, there was one about feet!

(For kids! And Quentin Tarantino!)

These mini-museums were designed to be accessible for small children -- with display cases that were lower to the ground, tons of interactive features, and object captions designed to promote discussion. Walking around the Kelvingrove, I heard so many more visitors engaging in conversations about the objects than I had in the British Museum. They do an excellent job of asking questions on two levels: 1) They ask about personal preferences. In the Mini-Museum of Feet, they asked questions like: "Which shoes would you like to wear?", which asks children to examine the shoes closely and make a choice based on personal preferences. This helps them "buy in" to the exhibition.

And 2) They ask visitors to make inferences about the objects on display. Next to the display case of shoes, visitors are asked to think about what each pair of shoes might be used for. What kind of weather might you use the shoes in? What kind of event might you wear the shoes to? What kind of person might those shoes appeal to? And children weren't the only ones engaging in these kinds of conversations; I noticed tons of adults using these questions to spark conversations as well. (I'd highly recommend the Kelvingrove as a first date destination!) If you're interested in this type of museum curation, the Wallace Foundation released a case study on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum a few years ago and how they boosted participation through a similar program. Highly recommended.

3. Philosophical Debates Through Artwork
Probably the most engaging exhibition that I saw at the Kelvingrove was about the Barlinnie Special Unit, which opened in 1973 to take "the most violent and uncontrollable prisoners in Scotland." The BSU introduced these prisoners to artwork (allowing them to use all kinds of "potentially dangerous weapons like knives, mallets and chisels freely and safely") and promoted a culture of trust and respect. The staff and the prisoners mixed together and anyone could call a "special meeting" to address problems. (All of the quotes have been taken from the Kelvingrove's free printed materials on the BSU.) The Kelvingrove exhibited some of the artwork from the now-closed BSU, but also featured video footage and printed materials that debated the philosophical/ethical quandaries that the BSU brought up.

(Painting by an inmate at the BSU)

(Quotes about the BSU, debating the purpose of the prison system)

The Kelvingrove prompted its visitors to ask big questions about the world around them. All too often, museums find themselves entrenched in the past, instead of asking what can be done to make the future better.

4. Elements and Principles of Design that We Can All Understand
I hate teaching the elements and principles of design. Students have a hard time understanding them; I have a hard time explaining them. How much easier would it be to simply take all of my students to the Kelvingrove so that they could learn about the elements and principles of design through hands-on activities and then apply those concepts to classical and modern artwork?

(The color wheel and complimentary colors)

(Color symbolism)

(Patterns, explored through the Native American beadwork exhibition)

5. Home is Where the Art Is
You can tell everything that you need to know about the Kelvingrove Museum when you enter. You walk up the stairs and the first thing that you see? A brightly-painted statue of "Fat Elvis" with a neon light-up halo. The main exhibition hall looks like Lonnie Hammargren's episode of Hoarders (or your grandad's garage) with no real rhyme or reason behind most of the object placements.

There are tons of comfy seats, most of which also qualify as artwork, which means you can hang out for as long as you want inside the galleries. There are tons of exhibits that focus on Glasgow and provide free brochures and activities to help residents explore their community.

And traditional artwork gives way to new surprises that everyone can enjoy. A closer look at the Briar Rose room . . .

. . . reveals dress-up clothes so that little girls (or boys!) can pretend to be the sleeping princess from Walter Crane's paintings.

A painting called The Marriage of Convenience by Sir William Quiller Orchardson prompts visitors to analyze the image and then make up inner-monologues for the characters featured within . . .

. . . and then projects those inner-monologues into iPad thought-bubbles for all the world to see!

And this painting, Two Strings to Her Bow by John Pettie, asks visitors to choose which man the Regency lady should marry . . .

By taking a Cosmo-style quiz! (Shout-out for John, who's clearly the better choice, wanting to take you to GFT.)

Everything about the Kelvingrove clearly broadcasts that you should feel at home here and that the art featured within belongs to everyone. There's no thinly-veiled pretentiousness here -- no barriers to access in the form of object captions loaded with academic jargon (or the syntax of a particularly disengaging textbook) or exhibitions that aren't relevant to their visitors' communities or identities. There aren't uncomfortable wooden benches or posh coffee shops with overpriced beverages or rules against taking photographs (and irate security guards enforcing those rules). There's not an invisible sign over every doorway, clearly proclaiming that THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. There's only, as my favorite Scottish friend would say, "bonnie Kelvingrove, the people's museum."

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