Removing Museum Barriers to Entry for Aging Adults

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

March 18, 2020

It’s estimated that there will be 72.1 million older-Americans in 2030. This has broad implications for how the US economy will work and many services—including museum services—will need to adapt in order to meet the age-specific needs of this group.

It’s twice the population compared to the numbers in the 2000 census. As of the 2010 census, adults aged 65+ made up 26.4% of the population and that number is expected to increase with the 2020 report. This has implications for museum visitor engagement.

Museum Barriers for aging Community Members

Kera Magarill, Behavioral Health Initiative Specialist for Washington County (Oregon), gave a presentation in May 2019 to outline the current age statistics and review some of the barriers to museum access for older adults. Magarill lists five main barriers:

  1. Comfort
  2. Sensory
  3. Physical
  4. Safety
  5. Practical

Let’s break each of these down to identify challenges and possible solutions.

Comfort

When someone is physically uncomfortable it can be due to overcrowding, new and overwhelming spaces, lack of cleanliness, and perhaps most important of all, the lack of areas to comfortably rest.

Solution
Members of the aging community have a lower threshold when it comes to whether and for how long they can tolerate physical discomfort. Museum are often large and crowded spaces with little to no areas for rest nor much (if any) comfortable furniture. When considering aging adults and their physical comfort, museums should explore their space to see what areas can be transitioned to be more restful and explore how more furniture can be added. Additionally, to address the overcrowding concern, museums should consider after hours programming or special program events limited to a small group.

Sensory

Anything that pings one of our five senses provides a sensorial input. When things are too loud, too bright, too strong a smell, etc., it can overwhelm a person and cause mental discomfort. Museums are beautiful, large spaces, but some exhibits can trigger sensory overload.

Solution
For exhibits or exhibit spaces that can trigger sensory overwhelm the museum should consider alternatives for how to display the exhibit or change the space. Or, consider an after-hours, adjusted version that is accessible to people who need lower sensory input.

Physical Accessibility

Ageing members will have an increased variety of physical accessibility needs including easy access points, ramps, and elevators. They may also need accessibility tools to help them see, read, hear, experience, and learn about the exhibit.

Solution
In addition to providing accessible entry points and elevators, museums will need to consider the many learning aids they can provide to support blind or low-vision visitors, and deaf or hard of hearing visitors. Crafting touch displays with art or objects reproduced with aspects raised or lowered to indicate color and contour are a wonderful way to convey visual aspects by touch. For audio elements words can be transcribed and sounds described in visually compelling ways in order to convey the spirit of the spoken material.

Safety

Members of the aging community are vulnerable to physical hazards and bad actors.

Solution
Have staff and security visibly available to assist members in distress. This will help to provide aging members with a sense of (and actual) safety.

Practical

Practical access to the museum can include transportation needs, options for low to no cost entrance, and general awareness that the museum is an open and welcoming space for the aging community.

Solution
Team up with your local senior community centers to distribute information about the museum and its programming. Additionally, many community centers have transportation or can facilitate transportation for their members. Museums can partner with the local community center to help aging members overcome the practical barriers to museum access.

It’s not just the aging community who will benefit…

As you read through these barriers did you notice that they’re not exclusive to just the aging community? No matter their age there are many members in our community who would positively benefit from the museum addressing any and all of the top five barriers: comfort, sensory, physical accessibility, safety, and practical access. By implementing solutions to address these issues for the aging community the museum also helps other community members who share some of the same barriers to entry.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, grant writing and the future of museums for a wide variety of clients. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and download your free copy of Rachael’s latest book from Lucidea Press, How to Select, Buy, and Use a Museum CMS.

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