Tuesday, September 03, 2019

We are the Solutions to Access Barriers

This month, we’ve been thinking about access barriers. I took us way off the beaten path on this subject. While I do admit to loving a tangent, these last few weeks have been purposeful detours. In our field, everything is tight. Money, time, energy, goodwill…we have only enough if we are lucky. We try to solve problems and often look for the most parsimonious solution.

We’ve all been there. A grant comes in. We whip out our logic model. We figure out the program that gets us the solution the grant wants. This way of solving has been occurring for years in our field. But we also know that it hasn’t made an appreciable impact on the people coming to museums.

People see impact and changes when they don’t solve for “x” using the same old formula. This month I talked about two variables that are often ignored when we talk about access and equity: the way we do our work and the frames we use to judge our work. I chose these because often when we talk about access, we think about ways to get people to come. We forget it is a lot harder to change other people. It’s a lot easier to change ourselves. Of course, changing yourself requires a certain level of self-reflection. Being honest with yourself, as an organization, is hard. But when you can really look at yourself, your workflow, and the flaws in your assumptions, you are also in control of the changes you can make.

Now, I’m not an expert in throwing open the doors, but just one voice, trying to make this happen. I put it out to everyone. I cheered every time people tagged me in their shares. And, I liked every comment. There was one particular thread that came in through Twitter from Rebecca of Melbourne, Australia. I loved how she brought up so many issues, often combining structural issues with the related effects. I’ve been thinking about her comments all month. From the very start, we are often setting ourselves up for challenges. We beg people to come in but we have formidable ticket booths. We are basically setting up a contradiction. To add insult to injury our visitors’ desks are often a barrier (both physical and perceived to entrance), Rebecca notes.

At my organization, we’ve just started to talk out the ways our space might be accidentally signaling inaccessibility to staff. These conversations are hard. They take time. But we believe the outcome will be worth it. How many organizations are doing this?

The relationship between perceived barriers and physical ones are incredibly important. If someone is already uncomfortable with the notion of coming, what does a physical block do? Prove their point? Now, I understand the economics of tickets, trust me. No one in leadership in a museum can be immune to the financial responsibilities of keeping collections available. Rebecca’s point gets to such an important point. We do these things one way, say putting a ticket desk up in the middle of the lobby, but we don’t always interrogate what the perception of our conventional wisdom is, and as such, we ignore contradictions therein. Our ticket desks are often more like draw bridges, gatekeeping, rather than inviting people in. Then we wring our hands when people don’t show up.

Rebecca also mentioned another issue about our museums and how we entice people. I’m a big e-reader. I never check out a book before reading the preview. I love shoes. I generally try them on before I buy. I even taste ice cream before selecting my flavor. Our whole society has moved to a transactional model where previews are the expectation. That is, except museums. We expect people to pay upfront on spec. We are giving people no tools to assess interest or value, and then we can’t understand why people aren’t snapping up the tickets. (Rebecca’s full thread is, hopefully, listed below for you to read.)

Overall, my point from this month, and I think Rebecca’s, is that much of our accessibility problem lies in us, not our visitors. We need to be self-reflexive and honest. We need to add new voices, from within our organizations, to help ourselves see the ways that we aren’t actually opening doors for visitors. And, then we have to make the necessary adjustments if we are truly hoping to open doors.

For more, read this thread, starting here:
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