Archive for May, 2009

The Disabling Museum, Part 3: Restrooms

May 26, 2009

Slide 33

Museum restrooms are great places to get a sense of how well not just so-called disabled visitors are accommodated, but anyone who might need space or privacy in a restroom. This might include larger visitors, people with ostomies, visitors with small children, etc. 


Slide 34

Here’s an “accessible” restroom that can be cruel to the user. Notice that immediately after you enter, you have to make an immediate sharp right turn and open another door — outward — with barely enough room to maneuver. And if someone comes out the door you’re trying to enter … trouble, potentially.  This could also be awkward for someone with a bag, or an overweight/obese visitor, or someone who maneuvers their wheelchair with difficulty.


Slide 35

Here’s another so-called disabled accessible restroom in another museum. It features a door that opens outward in a narrow corridor. This photo is foreshortened and does not convey just how narrow. On top of that, this restroom is located in a dark, creepy space in an out-of-the-way location. And this is in a major museum that has been renovated in the last couple of years. 


met restroomBy contrast, here’s a restroom in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A wide door and then a straight shot, with plenty of maneuvering room. And the stalls are adequate for most visitors’ needs. The downside is that because of the straight access, you can see right into it when the door is open — but that could be taken care of with a privacy wall or privacy screen in front of the door. 


The next time you visit a museum, notice the number and location of the restrooms. Are there enough? And are they conveniently located? This will tell you a lot about how thoughtful the museum is of visitors’ basic physical comfort.


The Disabling Museum, Part 2: Disability & Hidden Disability

May 24, 2009

Disability in the United States

 According to US government statistics, 26 percent of all Americans are officially classified as having a disability. What’s not captured in that figure, however, is that two in three Americans are overweight, and one in three is obese. From a purely clinical perspective, this is likely to lead to difficulties in walking, standing, and moving, especially in confined spaces.


Also, vast but unknown numbers of Americans have chronic back pain, which is of course a disability.


Hidden Disabilities

Many disabilities cannot readily be seen. These are hidden disabilities.

Here is a brief list, generated after about a 15 minute Google search, of potentially disabling diseases and conditions — most of which you would not notice in a museum visitor:


Sometimes, a disability is hidden even to the person who has it — for example, early hearing or vision loss. There are thousands more of these potentially disabling yet hidden diseases and conditions.





Kathleen’s story

Kathleen Dunleavey wrote this email in response to Steve’s essay in the September/October 2008 issue of Museum magazine:

“I am partly like the average museum visitor you describe in your column… I am strong, thin, childless and have good vision without any obvious sign of disability (unless being 56 years old with silver hair counts as a disability).  Yet, like you, I have wondered, for 2 personal reasons, why the hell there are no benches in many Museum galleries.  The first reason, I have a lung disorder which causes me to tire after 30 minutes or so of walking and the second reason, I long to be able to gaze at an object with the serenity of stillness that sitting gives.”


This active, vibrant woman has travelled internationally on a container ship. But she also has a disability — although you wouldn’t know it to look at her. By her lights, museums do not meet her needs.


Our friend Viva is another good example of why you want to look at individual needs, not at group disabilities. 

Slide 31

To meet her, you would not know she is in chronic pain. And she has another non-obvious health issue:  Gluten intolerance.

Visitor Comfort in Museums: Lobbies and Stairs

May 18, 2009

Crowding in lobbies, atria, and other transitional spaces is understandable in older, outdated buildings, but strangely, it’s being built into new museums. 



This is the lobby of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.  The primary way to reach  the galleries, which are all on floors above the ground-floor lobby, is a pair of elevators. Slow elevators. Crowds like this gather in the lobby about every five minutes. The only other way to get upstairs is a small staircase set off to the back of the lobby like an afterthought. 



Here’s a stairway in the same museum, connecting the galleries on two floors. Since all galleries are two stories high, it’s very long and very narrow.slide-24It’s very artistic and all, but I would not want to be caught in this narrow space in an emergency. 



This is the new de Young Museum in San Francisco, which opened a couple of years ago. The rise and run of this staircaise are such that you overshoot the next step but don’t quite reach two steps below.It’s not exactly human scale, unless you’re 6’8″, or perhaps 3’4″. It’s an annoyance bordering on a hazard.