At NESM we pride ourselves on offering all our visitors, young and old, a fun and engaging museum experience. This isn’t just about what exhibitions and events we put on or even what activities we organise; it’s about ensuring that everyone can enjoy our museum and our collection irrespective of who they are. In other words, making the museum experience accessible to everyone who wants to visit us.
For museums, the word ‘accessibility’ can cause a fair degree of trepidation. That’s not because the sector doesn’t care, or because we don’t think that accessibility is a priority, but because it can be intimidating and we are so keen to get it right. For smaller organisations such as ourselves, who don’t have huge resources of people or money, it can be hard to know where to begin
Here at NESM we certainly experience our fair share of these challenges in trying to improve accessibility. Our building is one of the biggest hurdles; we love our historic home but a Grade II listed, 120 year old ex-police, fire and ambulance station is certainly not the ideal space for a modern museum. Historic buildings like ours tend to be awkward shapes, sizes and come with the added feature of listing restrictions. This can mean additional costs, difficulties in planning and sometimes rethinking things entirely!
Our 120 year old building is fantastic but challenging for accessibility
It’s important to remember that accessibility doesn’t just mean ramps for wheelchair users and hearing loops for those with reduced hearing - it means making your space usable and enjoyable for as many people as possible. So that means thinking about everyone, from those that may have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), dyslexia or a cognitive condition to visitors who are partially sighted, deaf or have limited mobility. It can seem like you have a lot of bases to cover and it can be difficult to know where to start or what to prioritise, particularly with limited funds and a small team, who are often trying to do several jobs at once.
But however daunting it may seem, none of this is an excuse for not trying and so we are continually focused towards making the NESM experience better for everyone, improving accessibility a little bit at a time. Every museum’s experience is different but for NESM we’ve found that tackling improvements around accessibility is about mindset. As they say, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step!
So instead of feeling overwhelmed with what we haven’t done, we’ve started to tackle accessibility in bites, working on projects to improve things when and where we are able and making sure that, when we’re looking at any changes in the museum, accessibility considerations are firmly in the mix.
We’ve also chosen to look at realistic goals, which may sound obvious but as an independent and self-funded museum, our ‘realistic goals’ can often pale in comparison to others. With a team that is chomping at the bit to improve NESM’s accessibility it can be disheartening to think like that. But Rome wasn’t built in a day and setting realistic targets specifically around our unique building has helped us organise our thoughts, aims and priorities.
And we do get our really good days. While we’ve been closed we have finally, after years of trying, been able to install a lift into the museum. This means the upper floors of the museum will be accessible to wheelchair users and those with wider mobility issues for the very first time and we are thrilled. We’ve also gone about widening doorways and adding ramps (where possible) as well as improving lighting, heating and our toilet facilities, with an all new accessible toilet being installed as I write this blog.
We have lift off!
In 2019 we also launched our Sensory Friendly Days, when we opened the museum without lights, smells or sounds so that it could be enjoyed by people with a range of sensory disorders without fear of sensory overload, and with additional staff support and resources. We also created a quiet room and launched our sensory backpacks, which are available for any visitors who need them. These free backpacks can be borrowed to be used around the museum and include prompts to engage children and adults that may struggle to verbalise or communicate their feelings, fidget spinners, activities to encourage discussion and other resources to offer increased accessibility and inclusion. The response we got to this initiative was amazing.
Our sensory friendly backpacks and quiet room have proved very popular
As our building poses so many challenges, we’ve also had to think outside the box. For us, and for many of our beloved visitors, changes to improve physical access are integral but what happens when we physically aren’t allowed to make the changes we’d like? In those instances, we’ve begun community engagement programmes with things like our pop-up museum events to take NESM on the road, using exhibits, vehicles and exclusive activities to reach a wider audience. This pop-up museum experience has already been showcased at the Great Yorkshire Show, Sheffield Fayre, the Emergency Services Show and many more. Offering a programme like this has helped open up the NESM experience to those that may not traditionally find themselves wanting to go to a museum or may not have travelled to see us in person. It also presents new opportunities for exciting displays and activities in alternative spaces, like parks and town centres.
We enjoy taking NESM 'on the road' with pop-up exhibitions
We are also working hard to get our dementia cafe and memory box programme up and running. We hope that we will become a community hub that offers a space for socialisation, enjoyment and respite whilst showcasing the amazing impact museum objects can have on the symptoms of dementia and other cognitive conditions. We also encourage all our visitors to get in touch if they need a little bit more help prior to their visit, and we can make sure our staff are on-hand to assist in as many ways as possible.
But access goes further; it can also mean making the museum inviting, accessible and enjoyable to anyone that may not find traditional museums engaging or anyone who may feel unrepresented. At NESM we try to tackle this through various means, such as keeping costs for our visitors to a minimum so that a four person family can purchase tickets to the museum and a drink in our coffee shop for under £30.00.
We also do things behind the scenes such as planning and writing our interpretation boards using accessible language and, where we can, design our signage using high contrast, bold colours to assist with visibility and clarity for those with dyslexia or sight problems. We are now also working towards having large print options of all of our signage in each gallery space as well as language translations and audio tours.
It’s not just exhibition signage we are striving to make more accessible. In each of our newer gallery spaces you’ll find different options to cater for individuality, ability and personal preference. We strive to include a mix of written interpretation, digital screens, projections and tactile options (such as handling objects). Having these options allows for differing ability and access needs whilst keeping the spaces interesting. In some of our latest exhibitions we will be offering tactile drawers, full of handling objects that are there to be pulled out for those with sight problems or those with dementia and other cognitive conditions.
We’ve even begun to think carefully about our seating, offering different height and back-support options for those with varying degrees of reduced mobility or conditions. We also strive to use bold contrast colours around doorways, signal a change in floor surface/height and use clear signals around handles on doors and we are aiming to replicate this around the entire building.
We know we are a long way from being perfect, if that’s even possible. But we are dedicated to getting as close to that as we possibly can, and we know there is so much help and guidance out there to help us get it right. We are proud to say, as a self-funded, independent organisation we have made enormous improvements in the last 18 months, even at a time when the future has looked so uncertain. Through the kindness of local volunteers, grants and the free time and space we have only had because of our long coronavirus closure, we have made significant steps towards NESM’s accessible future. Through a mix of our programmes and services as well as the changes made to our building we hope that more visitors will be able to enjoy and engage with NESM in 2021. We will continue to keep finding alternative ways to make our space a place for all but for now, check out our website www.visitnesm.org.uk for more information about the museum, access and what to expect.