DIVERSITY AND ACCESSIBILITY AT THE SMITHSONIAN
IN THE 1990s, when the Smithsonian wrote a set of guidelines to help designers increase the accessibility of their exhibitions, the directives became the standard in the field, translated into several languages around the world.
Now, the Institution is dusting those off, identifying barriers to access and participation—not only for visitors, but also for employees—and finding solutions so that the Smithsonian remains relevant and accessible to our global audience and workforce.
"Accessibility means giving equitable access to everyone along the continuum of human ability and experience—not just in the physical and communication environments, but in representation and content as well." – Beth Ziebarth, Director, Access Smithsonian.
The ways in which our museums are working toward these goals are dizzying: In 2016, 38 Smithsonian museums or research centers reported sponsoring or participating in 600 initiatives for diversity and inclusion that inform public programming and staff hiring and include historically underrepresented groups.
One example is Project SEARCH, a 10-month internship program to help young adults with cognitive disabilities increase their job readiness skills. Or the Future Kings after-school program in the Smithsonian's 3-D studio, where boys learned about the process, materials and technology used in 3-D fabrication. Morning at the Museum offers early museum access ad sensory-friendly activities for families of children with disabilities—including autism, sensory-processing and intellectual disabilities.
At Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, in New York, the exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision challenged visitors to close their eyes and experience the world through touch, sound and smell. Objects on view included a 3-D map of the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian campus that talked when touched and a wearable device that allowed users to feel music as vibrations against their skin.
And Pepper, a robot donated by Softbank Robotics, is breaking down language barriers by translating Swahili phrases and proverbs that appear throughout the World on the Horizon exhibition at the National Museum of African Art. Several other Peppers are sprinkled elsewhere around the Smithsonian as well.
The hard work is paying off: For its persistent tangible work in weaving a Latino presence throughout the Smithsonian and its partner museums, the Smithsonian Latino Center was presented with the Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion award from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The Smithsonian also recently participated in an AAM working group to identify strategies to improve diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion in museums around the country.
Ziebarth noted Smithsonian staff has started an "accessibility network" that hosts training sessions, presentations and workshops. Recently, a representative from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights led a session about making digital media more accessible—for example, PDFs formatted with fonts that can be translated to speech by screen readers; high-contrast color palettes; text descriptions of non-text elements such as images, tables and charts; and descriptive audio that explains the action taking place in a video.
"It's not just one office's job to improve accessibility—it's everyone's job," Ziebarth said. "People are coming up with new solutions all the time."