Diversity and Inclusion

Museums are for everyone. Diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion lay at the heart of museum structure and as museum educators, it is crucial to consider all of these aspects when developing and executing programs. As much as we recognize however, we may face challenges. In this blog, I hope to share some of my findings, tactics, and reference materials to stay focused on diversity and inclusion and ways for us to be better able to implement our values in museum practices.


Background story

Prior to joining Museum Education program at the George Washington University, I remember facing challenges working in museum. One day during a story time program, the storyteller read the Family Book, by Todd Parr. This book was carefully selected to be read for our toddlers, recommended by our neighborhood youth librarian to ensure its developmental appropriateness. The book featured colorful and happy illustration that demonstrate to children how diverse families can be, but also to embrace differences amongst families. Unfortunately, a parent came up to me looking frustrated and infuriated after the story time session. She asked of who chose the book and told me how these types of things are not what she is trying to teach her children, specifically mentioning a part of the book on some families having two moms or two dads. I wish I responded better than I did. I could not say much back at the visitor because I was shocked at the unexpected feedback. All I could say was apologize and tell her that I will pay more attention to book selection in the future.

After this encounter, so many thoughts roamed in my mind. I felt unprepared as an educator for not being able to handle the situation wisely and not being able to say my stance on diversity and inclusion with confidence. Based on my personal story, I decided to think about how I should face similar challenges in the future and further improve myself as more dedicated museum educator.


What are definitions of diversity and inclusion?

The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) defines diversity and inclusion clearly for everyone’s understanding;

  • Diversity

The quality of being different or unique at the individual or group level. This includes age; ethnicity; gender; gender identity; language differences; nationality; parental status; physical, mental and developmental abilities; race; religion; sexual orientation; skin color; socio-economic status; education; work and behavioral styles; the perspectives of each individual shaped by their nation, experiences and culture—and more. Even when people appear the same on the outside, they are different.

  • Inclusion

The act of including; a strategy to leverage diversity. Diversity always exists in social systems. Inclusion, on the other hand, must be created. In order to leverage diversity, an environment must be created where people feel supported, listened to and able to do their personal best.


Is there policy regarding diversity and inclusion?

According to AAM,

“The American Alliance of Museums respects, values and celebrates the unique attributes, characteristics and perspectives that make each person who they are. We believe that our strength lies in our diversity among the broad range of people and museums we represent. We consider diversity and inclusion a driver of institutional excellence and seek out diversity of participation, thought and action. It is our aim, therefore, that our members, partners, key stakeholders reflect and embrace these core values”.


Is there museum-wide or organization-wide policy on diversity and inclusion?

Museum organizations have started to adopt and implemented more inclusive policies and practices, including:

  • Americans for the Arts’ Statement on Cultural Equity
  • The Association of Art Museum Directors’ Diversity Initiative with UNCF
  • The Association of Children’s Museums’ Museums for All initiative
  • The Southeastern Museums Conference’s Diversity and Inclusion policy
  • The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Diversity and Inclusion policy
  • The Association of Science-Technology Centers’ Equity and Diversity Committee Charter
  • The LGBTQ Alliance Welcoming Guidelines for Museums

For example, the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) have developed their own diversity and inclusion policy, which includes not only the statement itself, but also commitment that its member institutions should adopt and ways of demonstrating the commitment.


Example of museum-wide policy making

  • Minneapolis Institute of Art

MIA is an exemplar of museums who have created their own comprehensive policy and practices on the values of inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. Beyond policy itself, MIA create a framework around those values which the institution strives towards.

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“We strive to demonstrate leadership by modeling excellence and best practices for inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. Mia has a deep belief in the power of human creativity and the opportunities for connection and learning that exist when cultures and communities come together in collaboration and understanding. By recognizing and engaging the wisdom, knowledge, and creativity found within every community, we can begin to weave the complex history of our shared cultural heritage.” [The Framework at MIA]



Despite continuous efforts described above, there are big rooms for improvement. Museums can play even bigger role in impacting communities by advocating for diversity and inclusion. According to a report by Julie Nightingale, museums are exhibiting a powerful element of social inclusion and its influence can be even more tremendous with continuous efforts in the future. The following are findings from her research, which allow us to reflect and consider action plans for the future.

  • Museums have own strategies for inclusion, but the progress seem to vary.
  • Lack of a policy framework within museums.
  • Failure of museum directors to shout about it.
  • Staff members are scared of not knowing what to do.
  • Staff members resist being drawn into social inclusion work because they view it as “social work” and not part of their job description.


What can we do? (Recommendations)

Without efforts of museum professionals respecting, valuing and celebrating diversity and inclusion, changes cannot happen. As much as we recognize the importance of always advocating for these core values as emerging museum professionals and current museum professionals, we can also neglect them in the midst of busy life. Therefore, I have gathered some tactics and reference materials for me to stay focused on inclusion and continue my efforts. The key is to keep learning and sharing!

  • When working, constantly remind oneself of the goal of making the museum an inclusive and diverse place for everyone. Advocate the mission by advocating to raise awareness and be proactive so that other staff members also learn from seeing continuous efforts.
  • Advocate for museum-wide policy making to confidently present the important values of the institution to its staff members as well as visitors.
  • Be brave to bring up challenging topics and discuss with others. Acknowledge each other and embrace misunderstandings, unconscious biases, or stereotypes that may rise in conversations because these are valuable opportunities for us to learn together. No one is perfect!












Seniors+Museums+Digital Technology


Before starting my internship in senior center, I had zero information about senior citizens. While I was working with seniors and preparing for my museum facilitation program, I found out that there are not many researches or programs in museum focusing on senior citizens.  Since life expectancy is increasing globally, understanding seniors and their characteristics would prepare working with seniors as future museum practitioners.

Who Are Senior Citizens?

There is no single definition to define senior citizens and their ages. According to the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) defines “older adults” to be those over 50 years old. If he or she joins their mailing list, they send all senior discount information once he or she passes their 50 years old birthday. While the United States Census Bureau classifies Americans age 65 and over into “older population” category. Many studies accounts for a wide variety of definitions, but generally individual between 55 and 75 years old considers as a senior.


According to the U.S Census Bureau’s Current Population Reports, “65+ in the United States: 2010,”

  • The number of Americans ages 65 and older is projected more than double from 46 million over 98 million by 2060.
  • By 2056, their population will be larger than the number of those age 18 and younger.
  • The older population has become more racially and ethnically diverse.
  • Older adults are working longer.
  • Internet usage among the older population was up 31 percent points from a decade prior.

More information with graphs can be found in this link: https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2014/demo/p23-212.pdf

Aging-related Changes

The aging process involves changes in behavior, physical, emotional and cognitive condition of a person.

Behavior Changes

Physical Changes

  • Convey more positive emotions overall
  • Higher Satisfaction with family, friends, and life in general
  • Resistance to change
  • Senior committed crime rate declines
  • Loss of visual acuity
  • Hearing loss
  • Declining sensitivity to taste, smell, and pain
  • Decreasing muscle strength and stamina
  • Decreasing cardiac output
  • Weakening immune system

Emotional Changes

Cognitive Changes

  • More anxiety
  • Less depression and hostility if health is maintained
  • Frustration with physical changes
  • More fear of injury or illness
  • Decrease long-term memory
  • Gain in vocabulary and accumulated knowledge
  • Deficit in problem solving
  • Decrease overall intellectual functioning
  • Decline in dual-task performance


Why Seniors In Museums? 

The population aged 65 and over continues to grow more rapidly than population under 65. Senior citizens are interested in leisure-time activities and can afford both time and money. They may have limited understanding of art, but want to be educated about art and have the time to enjoy viewing art. Currently, museums are not well designed for senior citizens because they require too much walking and have very few amenities (such as bathrooms, benches, food and beverage shops).

Examples of Senior Programs in Museums

  1. MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York)- Prime Time
  • Design for adults age 65 and over
  • Free to New York City residents
  • Each month has multiple programs (including museum tour and hands-on activity)
  • Older adults can be creative, learn about modern and contemporary art, and connect with others


More information can be found in this link:




2. Whitney Museum of American Art- Senior Program

The Whitney Museum of American Art collaborates with local senior centers to provide various programs. When the Whitney’s Open Access Days, the museum is closed to the public and provides programs for participating senior centers. On that day, the museum offers Assisted Listening Devices, seating in the galleries, and complimentary refreshments. Additionally, the Whiney offers an accessible hands-on art making activity to seniors, and Slide Talks program that museum educators visit the senior center and homes to talk about Whitney-related topics.

More information can be found in this link:




Seniors and Digital Technology

According to the Paw Research Center Report, seniors are moving towards more digitally connected lives. Almost 67% of seniors are connected to online today. Although, they are not confident using electronic devices (Look chart below). Seniors prefer to learn about digital technology one-on-one education, but there are not many programs available for seniors to learn about electronic devices.

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Example of Digital Interactive in Museums

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Cooper Hewitt Museum is very digital interactive museum. Once visitors pay the admission, they will get the digital pen. The digital pen is used for drawing tool on interactive tables as well for saving artworks you are interested in. Here is the video how the digital pen works: youtu.be/ejIvvwmtX8M

Cooper Hewitt Museum’s digital pen and interactive tables are not specifically designed for seniors, but I think this would be a great example to introduce museums’ digital interactive to seniors because the table itself is huge with large text and fun program, which seniors can read the text information and find interesting while they draw their own design. Additionally, the digital pen is simple, easy, and light – seniors can easily carry around the museum and use it easily.

More Information

While I was researching digital interactive and museum programs for seniors, I found out interesting information of creating senior-friendly website. The guidelines for senior friendly website are suggested by the National Institute of Aging. If any of you need to create a website or digital information for seniors in the future, hope this information may help you. Here is the link: nlm.nih.gov/…s/od/ocpl/agingchecklist.htm


A Museum’s Challenge: Closing the Achievement Gap

The sole reason that I believe in museums lies in the potential impact the experience could have on the youth. Other visitors of other demographics are very important, however in the words of Whitney Houston: “I believe the children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they posses inside. Give them a sense of pride to make it easier, let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.” Sorry that I got a little carried away with the song, but this is a powerful quote that reflects many guiding principles that we follow as educators. The principles that embody the quote are: accessibility, representation, accountability, and our favorite, “the learner controls the learning.”

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With all the potential that young minds have, it is unfortunate that students in America don’t all have equal opportunity to exercise their fullest potential in the classroom. This is due to a concept called the achievement gap.

The achievement gap is a measurable difference in academic performance between groups. The difference is usually attributed to a number of factors, the primary factor being poverty. Some of the other factors that accompany the achievement gap are the opportunity gap and the learning gap. The opportunity gap is defined as the inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities. While the learning gap is the disparity between what students actually have learned and what they were expected to learn. Lack of opportunity to utilize resources (Opportunity Gap)  + Factors inhibiting academic progress (Learning Gap) = Achievement gap.

Where is the problem coming from?  

The No Child Left Behind Act, passed by the previous administration of George W Bush introduced the emphasis for standardized testing. Schools and districts are taking these tests all across the nation to quiz students on “universal concepts” that should be mastered every year. This was supposed to give schools and school districts an idea of their overall performance and expose programming to support schools/areas who did not score well.

Image result for Achievement gap

What really happened was that these tests exposed a lot of flaws within the American education system, where there were schools who’s Learning Gap was extremely wide because schools lacked resources to support the material. These resources could range from adequate teaching material, to uncertified teachers, to lack of space to overpopulation of the buildings. Researchers found a trend that these low performing, low learning, low opportunity schools were majorly found in high poverty areas across the United States. Within thesehigh poverty areas are usually black and brown children who are not getting the adequate schooling to keep up with many of their counterparts.  Students who are on the higher end of the achievement gap, many times those in low poverty areas go to school all year and are equipped with the necessary learning tools to achieve at high levels.So that when it’s testing time, they understand material. Students who are high poverty schools go to school all year without learning adequate material and take the tests and score poorly because the foundation was poorly planted.

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One of the major revenues of schools are based upon test scores they earned with the school year. So if a school is performing at grade level or above more money by the state is poured into their fund to continue to support academics. However if a school is poorly performing little funding from the government is invested in the education of those who attend, thus widening the opportunity, learning and achievement gaps.

Why does this matter to museum educators?

Museums, and museum educators will come into contact with students on both ends of the gap. Museums are places where individuals ideally can come in, feel welcomed, and learn on the same levels as peers who walk into those same doors.  Every child is capable of learning, however a concept like physics cannot be explained to most kids by reading didactics in the terminology of a physicist. The material must be broken down to their levels to be absorbed in a way that is relatable and understandable. There are students dealing with a system that has disenfranchised them. My question for the museum world is how can we give them back their power? Empowering children from all levels of socio economic statuses and test percentiles can help to eliminate the gap. It may start with a 45 minute trip to the Museum of Science and Industry, but it may bring about a confidence that has the potential to transfer into the many roles they play in their lives.

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Questions to leave you with as museum educators:

Why are informal learning environments important?

What can museums do to serve these underserved populations?

How can museums become more physically accessible to this populations?

What is the museum educators role in all of this?

Ca museums close the academic achievement gap?


Resources to leave you with:

Wonderful documentary: Waiting for Superman that discusses the state of education in America.


Youtube video from Harvard University breaking down dynamics of the achievement gap and what needs to be created to help close the gap.

A Tale of Two Schools: A documentary about two students in the same grade who have very different academic opportunities.


Link from the National Education Association detailing definitions and culture of the Achievement Gap in America.



“Community Engagement” | Museums & Incarcerated Audiences

The first time I walked into the prison pre-release center I’ve been interning at for the past 3 months,  all the wonderful, big, beautiful ideas I had been talking about all summer in my Museum Education classes seemed to fly out the window. I learned quickly that there were all kinds of crimes represented in those walls- drug distribution, fraud, assault, theft, sexual abuse, embezzlement- even murder. The inmates were trying to find jobs, make money, reconnect with their families, access healthcare, get therapy, and find a place to live. The questions that kept circulating through my mind: WHAT am I doing here? What do museums have ANYTHING to do with this group and this life stage? How in the WORLD am I going to find a way to relate to them?

Here is how I started to try and answer those questions:

The current US population sits at 323.1 million. The current incarcerated US population is 2.3 million. That comes down to about 1 in 110 Americans. 


Most of our correctional facilities emphasize rehabilitation as a central function. Rehabilitation is defined as the act of restoring someone to health or normal life through training and therapy. Unfortunately, it does not always play out that way. 

According to the Crime Museum, “the basic idea of rehabilitation through imprisonment is that a person who has been incarcerated will never want to be sent back to prison after they have been set free. It is hoped that an inmate’s experiences while locked up will leave such a lasting impression that a former prisoner will do whatever it takes to avoid a second term. Unfortunately, research has consistently shown that time spent in prison does not successfully rehabilitate most inmates, and the majority of criminals return to a life of crime almost immediately. Many argue that most prisoners will actually learn new and better ways to commit crimes while they are locked up with their fellow convicts. They can also make connections and become more deeply involved in the criminal world.” 

This is when I began to make a connection. Museums are some of the most unique public spaces that exist. They are safe-houses, meeting places, and learning centers. They foster connection, curiosity, understanding and healing. Maybe these could be places where rehabilitation happens.

In 2013, Rand Corporation conducted a study that showed that 43% of inmates who participated in educational programing were less likely to return to prison. This is the window of opportunity for museums! What better way to engage with an audience to make a difference in their lives and in the lives of those in their communities. Organizations such as Rehabilitation Through the Arts are already doing this. RTA’s mission is to “use the transformative power of the arts to develop social and cognitive skills that prisoners need for successful reintegration into the community. RTA also seeks to raise public awareness of the humanity behind prison walls.” Click here to see an example of what they do. 


Community engagement is a popular topic in museums these days, focusing on what areas of the community can be reached next. The numbers are staggering, and prove that the incarcerated population is a significant part of our communities. In what ways can museums lend themselves to this audience? I think, in a single word, education. Sing Sing Prison Museum is on its way towards addressing this question. Although still in the making, this museum believes in second chances. They see the importance of education, the development of interpersonal skills, and involvement in the arts as important factors in proper rehabilitation. They want this mission to be at the core of their services as they partner with organizations such as Hudson Link, to inspire and encourage education among the prison population.

Another example of a feasible program for this audience that would encourage some of the necessary components to rehabilitation would be for a museum to arrange a partnership with a local prison, potentially one that would allow for the families and prisoners to experience the museum together. This would invite in families that may not have ever visited a museum before while also exemplifying opportunities to engage with family, creating and developing meaningful relationships and memories with their children.  It would also allow this group a chance to approach education in a new and powerful way.

As I finish out the last weeks of my internship at the prison pre-release center, I notice that I have answers to most of my early questions. I am here as a representative of the museum community. I am here to meet and know people that are different, and then again, not so different from me. I am here to foster connection and conversation, and to invite curiosity. I am here to lend a new perspective on eduction and open doors. There is a great need for more museums to address this group. There is much opportunity and possibility to be had. 


Some Resources: 








People with Anxiety Disorders + Museums


Anxiety is something that all humans have and will experience. It is a normal feeling that we all have and should not be afraid or anxious to feel it. It helps us cope with intimidating or uncomfortable experiences, such as public speaking or asking someone out. For some people, it goes beyond just one moment, it goes further to actually chain them down and really hinder their daily lives. Museums and museum facilitators can help people who deal with an anxiety disorder, which can help them feel less anxious throughout their experience.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety: “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome”

Anxiety Disorder: “A mental health disordered characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activates.”

The three main types of Anxiety Disorders

Generalized Anxiety Disorder: People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms.

Panic Disorder: People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending.

Social Anxiety Disorder: People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fear full of offending others.

My goal here is not to make an attempt for museum professionals to attempt to self-diagnose or attempt to diagnose/treat visitors have these anxiety disorders. The goal overall is to make an environment, exhibit or facilitation in which, people who have an anxiety disorder to feel less stressed or anxious during their museum experience.

Museum Environments

In American society and culture, mental health issues have consistently been seen in a negative light. It’s seen as a defect that is often associated with being institutionalized. Think about how people in America feel about emotional therapy/counseling versus physical therapy. One is seen negatively as if they need help to function while the other is a common occurrence of someone is just trying to overcome a physical injury.  We seem to commonly have a polar opinion about it. Compared to other parts of the world, mainly Europe or Australia, mental health is seen just as important as physical health.

The Norwegian University for Science and Technology found that appreciation for art and culture can reduce people’s risk of anxiety and depression. University College London found that museums can make people feel less lonely, especially those who feel marginalized or isolated. Museums can be a place of restoration and tranquility. Taking a look at art museums, which create these places that invoke a sense of relaxation. An example is the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, they have a beautiful open courtyard in the midst of a museum that can sometimes feel quite small and tight. Areas that allow for someone with an anxiety order to be able to breathe, remove themselves from an anxiety-prone situation and be in a less stressful environment.

Courtyard in Smithsonian Museum of American Art


A great example of a stress-reducing area is something like Artlab+ at the Hirshhorn. It’s a place where teens can be more express and be able to do what they want but also in a museum and social environment. It has a limited capacity so it won’t feel as overwhelming as a large museum exhibit. Visitors are also free to explore their own interested such as videography or photography. It provides that stress-reducing space that helps quell anxiety.

Interactive stations

Along with the idea of having a less stressful environment, it’s important to have hands-on or interactive areas/stations within a museum. Hands-on carts that allowed for a more personal facilitation or interactions for visitors can be helpful and aid someone who has social anxiety. A smaller group, or even a one on one interactive) can be less stressful environment than a large tour group. It is also important to note that it also does the same. In some cases, it can feel like overwhelming to someone too.  Overall It is a more intimate experience that allows for personal connection and will make people with anxiety feel more included.


Audience-based facilitations can really help bring out people with anxiety. Allowing them to lead the discussion and explore their interests within the facilitation. Spewing out facts and information can become overwhelming as if the visitor was in a classroom and they need to write everything down just to make sure they retain it all can be extremely stressful. Facilitators should be warm and friendly, similarly to a friend rather than a lecturer at a university.

An educational theory such as Vygotsky proximal zone of development educational theory will create a more obtainable knowledge that does not feel unobtainable. Another example is creating flow with the facilitation as illustrated by Csikszentmihalyi’s educational theory. The final educational theorist I’ll mention is Gardner who believes in multiple intelligences. His theory of different type of intelligence that correlates with people’s strengths on how they learn.

Question framing and response framing is vital to reducing stress. If questions are being asked that have one factual answer that not only stagnates the conversations but also make people who anxiety feel more anxious especially if they can’t answer the question. Responses are just as important. Responding to correct and even incorrect answer in a positive demeanor really change how someone with anxiety can move forward during a facilitation.


Museums should and can become places of positive social experiences that will lead to reduced social isolation. Calming experiences that reducing anxiety, whether that’s the environment in the museum or a specific space. We want museums to be fun and exciting, warm and friendly, educational and positive. We want to create inspirational and meaningful experiences that help all our visitors grow. Sometimes we need to step back and look at those people who are not generally seen, such as someone with an anxiety disorder, and make them feel welcome and important within the museum.







Sight Unseen: Teaching Art to Visually Impaired Audiences

Understanding challenges visually impaired audiences face:

Reading the study conducted in 2003 by Fiona Candlin titled, “Blindness, Art and Exclusion in Museums and Galleries,” focuses on the experiences of visually impaired visitors to several London art museums.

Her interviewees were visually impaired and blind visitors who actively visit local art museums. She argues that those surveyed had more in common with average guests who enjoy visiting museums than with visually impaired visitors. They came from all social classes, cultural, racial, religious backgrounds. Their desires for visiting art museums are the same as sighted people. Examples include; the love art, enjoying the quiet spaces, the opportunity to take family members, meet friends to enjoy the café and shop at the gift store.

The survey revealed a very polarized outcome between those who criticized programming at the museum and those who praised it.


  • Felt marginalized as a disability group rather than being treated like an average visitor
  • Programming lacked an educational progression. Interviewees contended that in general museums tend to teach to the lowest denominator, as not to exclude anyone. Additionally, they were spoken to like a child thus, making an assumption that if a person is visually impaired they do not know anything about art.
  • A misconception of how touch facilitates learning and aesthetic responses. Visitors learning through touch need guidance to know what is being touched.   Resources used for tactile learning should be relevant and equivalent to the objects to understand scale, weight, temperature, form, texture or rhythm.


Interviewees that appreciated programming at museums attended ongoing organized events, thus allowing them to feel a sense of inclusion and normalizing effect. Generally, the survey emphasizes that visually impaired visitors would like to participate in mainstream programming, rather than a marginalized group that has special needs that determine an aspect of their experience.

Candlin outlined what would be ideal practices for museums, but also points out the main challenges museums have about accommodation visually impaired audiences is funding.

  • Large print labeling
  • Everything available in audio format and Braille
  • Guides upon request
  • Greater access through touch
  • Introductory sessions and increasingly sophisticated seminars
  • Description incorporated in lectures
  • Back up resources available
  • Exhibitions would include sound, touch, smell and taste

Candlin, Fiona (02/01/2003). Blindness, art and exclusion in museums and galleries. Journal of art & design education. , 22, (1), p 100-110 (ISSN: 0260-9991)

Two examples of creating inclusive programming accessible to many audiences:

BBC highlights Lisa Squirrell, a gallery guide at the Tate Britain in London in a video clip about art experiences for visually impaired audiences.  As a visually impaired educator, she argues, she and her visitors get a deeper understanding of art because they take the time to learn through discussing a painting’s overarching and finer details.

Squirrell quotes Picasso, who said, “Art is a blind’s man profession, because he doesn’t paint what he sees, but what he feels.”  Squirrell expresses her ability to develop an emotional response by creating an image in her own mind. Her process includes reading extensively about the artwork, listening to a close description by a sighted person and then is guided with hand movements in front of the pieces to understand their shapes and forms.

On the Art Museum Teaching blog it describes how the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) and Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) worked together to give students an inclusive multi-modal art museum experience.

DISD’s main goal was to expose their students to art and illustrate to the students that they have the ability to create and appreciate art just as any other student. DMA appreciated the opportunity to create their first ever touch tour. Both groups wanted an experience that engaged all the senses permitting open dialogue and conversations about the art.

The process included the collaborative teams of teachers, educators, conservation and exhibition departments. They spent time considering issues about navigating the space and which artworks would be most beneficial. The conservationist department wanted to give the students an opportunity to touch artwork without gloves.

The objects chosen allowed for a highly effective experience.   Both the sculpture garden and museum galleries were utilized.   Large sculptures were chosen allowing more than one student to explore at time, while at the same time allowing students to converse about the objects. At each object, educators gave a visual description of the gallery space to situate students, teachers and the art in the space.

Research and effective inclusive programming reveals both museum audiences and educators can benefit from incorporating sensory activities–sight, touch, sound, smell and taste–into art programs.  Visually impaired or blind audiences can enjoy art as a mainstream visitor and museum educators can better engage wider audiences.


NPR Podcast titled, “Blind Art Lovers Make the Most of Museum Visits with ‘InSight’ Tours” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Elizabeth Salzhauer Axel and Nina Sobol Levent, Art Beyond Sight: A Resource Guide to Art, Creativity, and Visual Impairment, New York: Art Education for the Blind, 2003.

Daryl Lussen Wilkinson, Art Beyond the Eyes: A Handbook for Visual Art Teachers Working with Students with Visual Impairments, San Bernardino, CA: Create Space, 2014.

Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing Visitors


Museums have always had a relatively Deaf friendly model at their very core—one walks through a gallery alone or with maybe one or two people, looks at objects, and reads whatever placards are nearby. A Deaf person who can read well can access this kind of experience just as well as their hearing companions. A guided tour may be available, but in many museums visitors are far more likely to walk themselves through a gallery at their own pace.

However, museums have shifted in the last fifty years, and this change has entered a breakneck speed in the last fifteen. Many museums have moved away from the object-and-placard approach in favor of a more dynamic approach, with multisensory experiences in galleries and programming tailored for certain audiences. This shift has been incredible for nondisabled people, but without a similarly speedy shift in accessibility options, a museum can become inaccessible for wide swaths of the population.

Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing 101

According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, nearly 20% of Americans (48 million people) report some degree of hearing loss. The most common causes of hearing loss in adults are noise (such as industrial noise, loud music, and combat-related noise) and aging. However, hearing loss can affect anyone for any number of reasons. Some conditions that cause deafness are genetic, and the HLAA reports that 2-3 of every 1000 American children are born with a detectable degree of hearing loss.

People with hearing loss use many words to identify themselves. People with a significant degree of hearing loss who consider themselves part of the Deaf community frequently call themselves Deaf (with a capital D). People with a significant degree of hearing loss who do not consider themselves part of the Deaf community frequently call themselves deaf (with a lowercase D). The medical establishment also uses lowercase-D-deaf to refer to deafness in an audiological sense, that is, a severe or profound degree of hearing loss.

People with hearing loss who have some level of usable hearing or who don’t consider themselves deaf or part of the Deaf community frequently identify themselves as Hard of Hearing (capitalized or lowercase) or hearing impaired. ‘Hearing impaired’ is a term that is falling out of favor, and it has long been disliked by the Deaf community who consider it to be inappropriately medicalized language.

Capital-D ‘Deaf’, alongside ‘Blind’, ‘Autistic’, and ‘Little Person’, are the standard exceptions to the person-first language convention. Deaf, Blind, and Autistic people, and Little People, generally prefer identity-first language, that is, they prefer not to be called “a person with deafness,” “a person affected by blindness,” “a person with autism,” or “a person with dwarfism.” This is in direct contrast (but not conflict) to people with Down Syndrome and some other people with disabilities, who overwhelmingly prefer person-first language.

Communication Needs and Preferences

Not all Deaf, deaf, and Hard of Hearing people use sign language. Some prefer written communication, some prefer spoken communication, some prefer speechreading, and some prefer communication systems like Signing Exact English, Total Communication, and Cued Speech. All forms of communication are valid and dependent on the individual’s needs and preferences.

Most sign languages are grammatically distinct languages, not just the spoken language put onto the hands. It should be noted that there is not a single sign language, or even one sign language per spoken language; the United States and Canada use American Sign Language, while the UK uses British Sign Language, Australia uses Australian Sign Language (or Auslan), and South Africa uses South African Sign Language. Nor are all of these sign languages from English-speaking countries related. American Sign Language is based off French Sign Language (langue des signes français, or LSF) and is entirely unrelated to British Sign Language, which developed naturally by the gradual codification of ‘home signs,’ or signs used by Deaf people who do not have access to an official sign language. All this to say that when one meets a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person who uses sign language, one cannot assume that any sign language interpreter will be able to communicate with the individual.

Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing Needs in the Museum

People with hearing loss have the same right of access to museum spaces, activities, and services as the general public. Every effort should be made to provide reasonable accommodations to a Deaf/deaf/Hard of Hearing visitor. These accommodations may include:

  • Sign language interpreters
  • Audio guide transcripts
  • Video transcripts
  • Assistive listening devices
  • Sign language tours
  • Written directions to restrooms, elevators, visitor services, etc.
  • Real-time captioning for events and tours
  • Open-captioned videos

A note on interpreters: it is the responsibility of museums and other public spaces to provide sign language interpreters at no cost to the visitor. It is never appropriate to expect the visitor to provide an interpreter or use a friend or family member to interpret. As a result it is important to make and maintain relationships with an interpreting agency nearby to ensure the museum has access to interpreters when needed. If possible, interpreters who use non-ASL sign languages and interpreters who speak more than one spoken language should be available as well.

A number of best practices regarding hearing accessibility in the museum have been proposed:

  • Staff and volunteer training (to ensure every person working in the museum has at least a base level of knowledge of deafness and any accommodations the museum offers)
  • Visitor services staff or volunteers who have a basic understanding of American Sign Language
  • Adequate lighting in every public area of the museum (i.e. not too dark or too bright)
  • ASL audio guides (in addition to printed transcripts)
  • Visible cuing (e.g. a visible way to communicate emergency information, “the museum is closing in 15 minutes” notifications, etc.)
  • Regularly scheduled ASL tours
  • ASL interpretation at every public event
  • Accessibility information easily found on the museum website
  • Posted signage describing any ambient sound effects or looping audio

Special Considerations

The presence of deafness does not exclude other disabilities. The museum should consider the possibility that any person who requires hearing accommodations may also require visual accommodations, physical accommodations, medical accommodations, and/or mental accommodations, or vice versa. To that end, wherever possible transcripts of audio guides or videos should also be available in large print and Braille, any posted signage describing ambient sound effects should be visible from multiple heights (e.g. from a sitting position), and any number of other combinations of accommodations.

In people who were born with or developed hearing loss at a young age, literacy is somewhat lower than the general population. Many studies have measured the reading levels of Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and hearing adults and found that Deaf and Hard of Hearing adults have a reading level of 3rd-4th grade on average, compared to 7th-8th grade among hearing adults. It is important, therefore, to avoid unnecessarily complicating any written text produced for use by Deaf and Hard of Hearing people without oversimplifying and becoming patronizing.

However, do not ignore Deaf and Hard of Hearing kids! In any exhibit or program where one plans for hearing children, one must make considerations for Deaf and Hard of Hearing children as well. This presents a challenge in that children of any hearing ability frequently do not read very well, so transcripts of audiovisual elements of the exhibit may not be helpful for young Deaf and Hard of Hearing kids. Instead, any number of creative solutions can be used: ASL storytime, assistive listening devices usable in children’s galleries, and others.


Deaf, deaf, and Hard of Hearing visitors represent a significant portion of a museum’s potential visitors. How can we create spaces where they feel welcome and engaged, learn and create, and want to return?


“The Sixth Floor Museum Launches the ASL Guide for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Visitors” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GK8a0YnvNFY 

Sonnenstrabl, Deborah M., and H. Latham Breunig. “About the Hearing-Impaired Audience.” Roundtable Reports6, no. 2 (1981): 9-13. http://www.jstor.org.proxygw.wrlc.org/stable/40479693.

“Disability and Inclusion: What Museum Front-Line Staff Need to Know” http://www.artbeyondsight.org/dic/module-3-effective-communication-and-interacting-with-people-with-disabilities/what-museum-front-line-staff-need-to-know/

“Multi Sensory Museum: learning from the deaf and hard of hearing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dEvjjhM2UU8&t=2s

“Basic Facts About Hearing Loss” http://www.hearingloss.org/content/basic-facts-about-hearing-loss