Increasing Access at the Royal Ontario Museum

Kate Zankowicz is a museum educator at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She blogged for us back in November on object-based, multi-sensory learning at the ROM.  This week, she shares with us an interview she conducted with Elizabeth Novak, a Royal Ontario Museum Accessibility Advisory Committee (ROMAAC) member (more on accessibility commitments at the ROM here). They discuss certain opportunities and challenges that occur when working on accessibility issues in museums and envision what greater access could look like in the future.

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Elizabeth Novak has been a Royal Ontario Museum Accessibility Advisory Committee member since 2011 and has served a one year term as the committee’s Community Vice Chair. She is passionate about issues relating to accessibility and inclusion for persons with disabilities, as she herself has low vision. Elizabeth holds a BSc. Honors Degree majoring in Zoology from the University of Guelph and a Masters of Museum Studies Degree from the University of Toronto.  She currently works for two City of Toronto Museums in the capacity as a Museum Program Instructor for the Mackenzie House Museum and as a Heritage Interpreter for the Todmorden Mills Museum Heritage Site.

I met with Elizabeth a few weeks ago to chat about her work as an accessibility advisor and her ideas about the future of museums.

K: What does inclusion and access mean to you?

E: Inclusion means facilitating an environment where all members of society have complete participation in its activities, regardless of the physical or cognitive barriers that one might possess. It’s when everyone’s abilities are accepted and respected for contributing to the greater whole. Access is a part of inclusion. If everyone is to be included and feel safe to participate in society barriers must be overcome through the process of accessibility. Accessibility is about creating an environment or a world where there are no physical and social barriers to one’s personal growth. Access is also a result of inclusion. These two terms are distinct, but are starting to be recognized as being integral to each other. Inclusion and accessibility are coming together. In today’s technological world, technology is opening up inclusion and accessibility opportunities that weren’t even available a decade ago. Museums and other cultural institutions are recognizing this paradigm shift.

K: How can we work to make museums more inclusive?

E: We work by listening to the audiences and communities that the institution serves. Museums have to be out there and more actively engaged within the cities and communities around them, on a local, national or international level. Gone are the days of museums being authoritative models of elitist inclusion. Museums should be a place for everyone to come together, a place for community gathering where all members of the public can explore what interests them and where they can have access to information to help them grow. It is the role of the museum to make itself more accessible in order to achieve this goal, by adapting to new changes in technology, such as social media, designing accessible websites, attending community events, becoming a part of university and college settings, reaching out to younger generations of students and creating a community footprint. You see this a lot now; museums are now gathering places for community events.

K: What aspects do you consult about and what are some of the achievements of the advisory committee?

E: I’ve consulted with the museum about modifying text panels and artifact labels, as well as lighting levels for community members with low vision. For instance, in our Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World exhibit I was consulted about font size, text panels, labels, lighting positioning, the design of exhibition plinths. We also worked on creating less glare on glass cases as well as arranging the gallery space to accommodate people in wheelchairs and on scooters. We had a large number of handmade tactile objects that were really well done.  I’ve also advised about the closed captioning in video sequences, tactile Braille books, large print books and about the accessibility of the museum logo.

K: What projects have you been involved with that have changed the institution?

E: The Mayan exhibit, Maya: Secrets of their Ancient World in 2012 was a great example of collaborative work. Designers really participated with the committee and listened to us. They put in a conscious effort to design the exhibition to make it accessible and engaging for the broadest audience possible. It was fantastic to feel like, as committee members, we were actively engaging with design process and that our concerns were taken seriously, that a large institution was interested in the feedback and that the committee was a platform for positive change. I went to see it and because I have low vision I usually have trouble reading artifact labels and text panels. There were no barriers for me; I went and saw all the artifacts and had an immersive experience—that doesn’t always happen. Seeing other members of the public also deriving enjoyment from something that I had advised was also inspiring.  The tactile mounts that Georgia made, the colour schemes for text panels that provided contrast, were so well done.

K: What are some negative experiences you’ve had in museums?

E: A lot of museums are rushing towards using augmentative reality technology because people are enamoured with the new-ness of it. If you are just throwing it in for the ‘wow’ factor, it’s not always successful from an inclusion point of view. Sometimes there is a lack of consultation about technological enhancements, and I wish we could have come in earlier, as a committee, to help out with that. The accessibility process only works if communities are consulted right from the inception of the project. Museums often get it only half right—downloading apps or zooming in or providing QR codes—that’s not necessarily accessible. I want to experience the museum. Onsite technology such as computer screens that provide a magnification of text labels can be useful, however, because I can’t read text labels. Ipads can be accessible tools but sometimes that’s just a gimmick.

K: What are some of the challenges of engaging in advisory work with museums?

E: Finding the momentum to keep these projects going within the institution can be a lot of work. Keeping the ideas generated by committee members fresh and engaging, with new ideas and perspectives depends on a committee that includes people with various disabilities, and members who serve various communities. So you have to always be recruiting new thinkers and members, to keep the work it does current. The work that ROMAAC does is dynamic so you do feel like you are making a difference. We’ve been able to consult about programming, architecture, exhibit design, and social media over the last few years. You get to see these changes occur so you know you are making an impact, which is an immensely rewarding process to be a part of.

K: What is the inclusive museum of the future like?

E: I think it’ll be both tangible and intangible. The museum of the future will be physical space that communities can visit in the real world, and a virtual space that anyone in the world can visit via online websites. The virtual world can allow people who don’t have physical or economic access to participate. That doesn’t replace value of a real museum but if it’s thoughtfully done, virtual museums can bring museums to the rest of the world, and get more people asking questions, which is what museums are designed to do.

K: What should museums be doing that they aren’t?

E: Museums should be looking at how they can truly and effectively use augmentative reality technology. ORCAM is one of those technologies; people who are visually impaired consulted and participated in design testing and it works. A lot of assistive technologies are bulky, non- portable, expensive to use and conspicuous. People with disabilities may not necessarily want to draw attention to their disability. It’s a device that’s portable, with a camera sensor that sits on your glasses and it has a logarithmic box that’s programmed to recognize faces and objects and reads text back to you. In my ideal museum, we would all be provided with one. It gives you the freedom to learn at your own pace, read panels and labels and you can program it to recognize artifacts. You wouldn’t need to book a special tour, or carry around a large print book, or try to fight your way through the crowds to get really close to a label. It’s technology that becomes a part of you—and gives you more freedom and independence.

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Kate Zankowicz is a museum educator (Royal Ontario Museum) and a doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (University of Toronto). Zankowicz has developed multisensory educational programming, descriptive audio tours and has trained staff and volunteers in inclusive pedagogy workshops. Her thesis examines the roles that women played in making museums, galleries and exhibitions more socially relevant for diverse audiences by developing multi-sensory, experiential education. Zankowicz currently serves as the Community Co-Chair of the ROM’s Accessibility Advisory Committee (

One comment

  1. […] inclusion in your museum? Kate Zankowicz, Museum Educator at the Royal Ontario Museum and regular Incluseum blogger is looking to form a panel on inclusion in museums for the California Museum Association and is […]

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