Early Monday morning, two other museum staff and I travelled to Palmerston North for a conference on Museums of Inclusion: He Waka Eke Noa, looking at ways to make our institutions not only accessible to all, but also welcoming and relevant.

Warmly received by the local hapu of Rangitane, we heard from a range of speakers about the many different types of barriers that continue to exclude people from museums: from barriers to even entering the museum building, such as entry fees, to barriers that can make it physically difficult to navigate the museum, such as steps. There was rich discussion about cultural inclusion (and exclusion), looking at which stories are told, from whose perspective, and to which audiences. Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku referred back to the title of the conference, asking ‘whose waka is it? Who steers the waka, and who decides if full inclusion has been reached?”

We looked at how museums could make our content much more accessible, such as giving tours in sign language and accompanying written labels with audio versions. Practical sessions included tips on how to make exhibition spaces easy to navigate – and experience in full – while using a wheelchair.

It was immensely valuable to learn ways to break down barriers, and then to be inspired to go further. Physical and cultural access for all is just the minimum expected of museums, but what we really need to strive for is active and meaningful participation from a broad range of people within our community. That requires building relationships with a number of groups, especially those that have been marginalised, and over time increasing the diversity within museum staff.

I learned that 24% of the population lives with a disability, and that there are over 20,000 native speakers of New Zealand Sign Language. It’s exciting to think of the potential to work collaboratively to share stories from these communities and more that are not often heard.

I gave a short presentation on gender diversity, introducing those who weren’t familiar with the topic to the many ways that neither bodies nor personalities are limited to the binary model of female and male. With reference to the medically unnecessary surgeries still routinely performed on intersex babies and young people (and which the UN classes as torture), I encouraged museums to be leaders in acknowledging and welcoming all those whose realities aren’t reflected in the gender binary.

It was interesting to hear about what can make visiting the museum much more enjoyable for people with autism, such as having quiet areas to sit, away from lots of sensory stimulation. Another thought-provoking session looked at young people’s access to arts, culture and heritage while held in youth justice residences, and for incarcerated adults.

We were proud to receive a certificate as a finalist for a Museums Aotearoa Award on behalf of our Curator of Social History, Gail Pope, and to hear her congratulated for her wonderful work on the Napier Cemetery tours. All in all, it was a very valuable few days in Palmerston North and we’re looking forward to putting our new insights and perspectives into practice. Please do get in touch if you would like to give us some input on ways we can be more accessible, inclusive and welcoming.

Jess Mio – Art Curator, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 27 May 2017


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