Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Why Access Barriers Aren't Easily Fixed

This month, I’ve been thinking about access barriers. The idea of throwing the doors wide open is something many of us dream about. Foundations give real money for DEAI efforts. People speak about these efforts at conferences. Whole departments are focused on this work. And, yet, our audiences remain largely unchanged. Why?

Last week, I talked a bit about the structural issues inherent in our systems and how they may play a part in our access issues. Basically, when our staff is unhappy or overworked, it’s hard for them to make the visitor happy. What are some other access barriers?

We are. Wait, what? You? Well, not just you. All of us, me included. Museums, like all professional fields, are spaces policed by unwritten norms and regulated by our credentialing systems. We are rarefied and like it that way. And, as such, many of our ideas are resistant to other forms of thought. We loathe breaking our frameworks. Or worse, we have no idea that our problematic frames exist.

For example, many museums focus on issues like ticket prices or transportation as a way to remove access barriers. Both are seemingly good solutions. Decrease cost or increase ease at visiting and more people will come. I once stood in my workplace lobby in pajamas for more than an hour watching empty buses drive up to our entrance. We had waived entrance for the exhibition and paid for transportation (and pizza), and no one came. As I mentioned last month, I’m not one to be seen in ugly shoes or my pjs. I was that willing to put myself out there (it was a pajama party). But, those solutions are not getting at the reasons people aren't coming. Why? Because, we often see the "solution" to the problem in terms we have already determined. We have the "if we build it, they will come mentality." 

Diversity is another common thought problem. Diversity initiatives are often coded terms for including a certain category of person. Now, I say this carefully. People who haven’t been included need to be included. But don’t think you can fool people. If your recent interest in an underserved group will be unwelcome if it comes “coincidentally” when you have an exhibition by an artist of that same group. Your non-visitors are savvy—even savvier than you sometimes. People know when they are being played. And people don’t forget. Simplifying diversity is a short-sighted, and ultimately unsuccessful, way to increase accessibility.

Why do we do this? It goes back, in part, to last week. We’re busy and exhausted. We care, a whole lot, but we also need to get that grant report out. We’re strapped. And, so we pick simplistic solutions. But what is a better way to deal with this? First, as a field, we need to have these discussions. We need to think about the big issues, beyond ticket fees and bus tickets, that are keeping us from broadly growing audiences.

Putting concepts into boxes is easier than facing uncomfortable truths. For example, people might not care about the deep thought processes curators had. People might not want an educational experience. People might only come for a class. We need to accept people as they come. 

This kind of solving within our paradigms causes huge problems. I’ve many a time wanted to sing “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” at low attendance events. We’ve all been there, I’d guess. Fabulous exhibitions with dismal attendance, brilliant talk that even your mom was too busy to attend, thoughtful classes without students. Of course, people not showing up is bad for business. An old colleague used to say 1 in 5 people spend money; more people walk in, more spend money. I don’t know if his stats are right, but he had a point. More people are better for business.

But the issue is also psychological. Staff needs to feel like they are going to succeed. Participation is one measure of success (we can talk about if this is good another day). I grew up in the rust belt after the steel mills closed. I get that times are hard all the time. But even in that kind of town, we’ve had a few wins. We’ve felt success. In museum work, if you are trying to bring in underserved audiences, you often find yourself caring a great deal, often without any wins.

So, what are some other big issues that you see? What are ways we are systematically putting up forcefields even if we say the doors are wide open? What are the ways you want to see us do better with accessibility?     

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