Museums and How to Know about Access

By Graham, Helen | New Formations, Autumn 2013 | Go to article overview

Museums and How to Know about Access


Graham, Helen, New Formations


MUSEUMS AND HOW TO KNOW ABOUT ACCESS

We will come to the elephant, the security guard, the mannequins, the fear and the fries. But all these moments took place in 'a museum' and so it is with 'museums' that we begin.

Museums are odd institutions which exist to do odd and particular kinds of work with materiality, time and social relations. Museums make themselves as the kind of structure which allow things from the past to be preserved so they exist into the future. (1) Museums make themselves into specific kinds of spaces which make these things--and the people, the knowledges and the ideas they are used to represent--available to 'the public'. There are things. There is time passing. There are people. The museum is the organizational means of managing this task of keeping safe and making available.

Tony Bennett has long spoken of an insatiability in museums' mission. Bennett has located this insatiability in the dynamic created between, on one side, the rhetorical demands to be 'equally open and accessible to all' and to meet the 'principle of representative adequacy sustaining the demand that museums should adequately represent the cultures and values of different sections of the public' and, on the other, the 'political rationality' of museums 'as instruments for the reform of public manners'. (2) Yet the insatiability is, perhaps, even more fundamental. Museums are there to do that which they cannot fully do. As Bennett's use of 'accessible to all' suggests, 'access' has come to be used in a general way to manage this mediation between museums' collections and all potential visitors. Access here has a particular meaning. Museums 'keep safe' material culture by differentiating access from use. Museums tend to manage their dual task by giving 'access' to objects via sight through protective glass and climate controlled cases. (3) To touch is in constant danger of tipping over from access into use and using up.

Where 'access' ends and 'use' begins is never finally determined. Yet 'access' does act as a kind of bulwark. Museums' very claim to be 'accessible to all' invites the insatiable calls for more access to come but, through the twinning of 'access' with 'use', it is also the very same tool used to define the point of overreaching. This operates on an object-to-object basis through condition assessments and the setting of conservation and display standards and it also works on an institution-wide basis. At the institutional level 'access' is the means of imagining audiences who might be included and excluded; it is used to advance the importance of addressing exclusions and is used as the conceptual frame which prioritises--or not--resources to address exclusions. So here are two effects of 'access'. While 'access' can be used to challenge what might constitute the museum making available it also secures the central importance of what the museum keeps safe. Access is a tool in museums' insatiable hegemony--it identifies museum collections and displays as central and it both contests and manages consent.

Yet while 'access' has this general significance in museums' rhetorical purposes, 'access' is also a word that has been very specifically and powerfully used by disabled activists, over the last forty years, to generate pressure on all public bodies and spaces, aspects of which have now been formalised into law. (4) Museums have also responded in various ways over this period by adding ramps, re-modeling toilet facilities, monitoring fonts and font sizes on labels, adding pictorial signage and Braille, developing tactile exhibits and touch tours of the collections, organizing sign language tours, representing disabled people's lives and setting up access panels to advise the museum. (5)

Indeed, because of the insatiability set off by museums' very purpose, they have most often been known through critical intellectual work. That is, museums avowed purposes have themselves generated critical unmaskings and revelations which have pointed--via appeals to imperialism, racism, patriarchy, democracy, participation--to the macro and generalised power behind museums' specific surfaces. …

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