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More on Museums for Us

The Museums for Us project flows from a groundswell of work exploring how museums, galleries, heritage sites, archives and libraries might provide engaging and accessible experiences through actively collaborating with people with intellectual disabilities.

The project is based at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and will run from November 2010 to February 2011.  However, a core aim of the project is to build on and create dialogues between projects going on in this area all over the world.  One aim of the project is to launch a proper, more accessible and more engaging website which might host examples of other projects and other useful resources so if you’ve been involved in a relevant project, do get in touch. And I’ll be doing a proper call for contributions soon.

The particular influences of this project, however, lie in both existing and ongoing work led by the Accessibility Program at the Smithsonian Institution and the work I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in over the past six years. For me, this work has included coming in as a very temporary Adult Learning Officer at, what was then (in 2004), Sheffield Galleries and Museums Trust and being inspired by an inclusive art group that met every week in the Millennium Galleries, then beginning some work with an incredible group based in Glasgow’s Castlemilk on the new Museum of Transport Riverside project. Since then – at Newcastle University – I was part of a team working with John Harbottle, Keith Turnbull and Brian Baston who are all members of the Better Days group to develop digital stories for the Northern Spirit: 300 Years of Art from the North East gallery (opened 23rd October 2010).

However, the main influence on my practice in this area was the people I worked with through the Heritage Lottery Funded History of Day Centres project which was run from the Faculty of Health and Social Care at The Open University and the Open University-based Social History of Learning Disability group. The History of Day Centres project was initiated by Professor Dorothy Atkinson to explore and conserve the history of the larger day centres as they were closed as part of a wider modernisation process aimed at supporting people with learning difficulties become more fully part of their communities.

Coming from a museum learning and access background, the History of Day Centres project gave me the most amazing opportunity to work in a sustained and collaborative way with people with learning difficulties on oral histories, a booklet and then finally a display at the Museum of Croydon.  However, it also allowed me to see museums from the outside and to see how the sector in its broadest sense has a part to play in the policy and politics of inclusion. It then opened up a whole new academic literature – from social care, social policy, learning disability studies and disability studies – which has proved incredibly exciting and inspiring.

What I hope the Museums for Us project might offer is a way of exploring links between some of the recent re-theorising of disability and the practices associated with ‘access’ in the museum and heritage sector. The core questions of the project are: What are museums like for you and how might they be better? However, the other integral question of the project is – does theory help?

This website – and its more accessible successor – will be focused on the project as it develops and will be written in a straightforward way. The more theoretical musings will go on in a companion blog called AccessPraxis. Feel very free to ignore this! But as the topic is ‘access’ it made sense to honour that by being as open as possible.

Looking forward to hearing from you,

Helen Graham

Museum Practice Fellow
Centre for Education and Museum Studies and the Accessibility Program, Smithsonian Institution

For more information on what I’ve been up to see my profile at International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University.

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