Making the Museum Accessible:
Penn Museum Finds New Ways to Serve Diverse Audiences
February 28, 2017
, Volume 63, No. 25
In 2016, the Penn Museum, home to a renowned collection of art and artifacts from around the world, completed construction on a long-awaited ramp leading up from the sidewalk to the elevated Warden Garden and main Kamin Entrance. First opened in 1899, this stately museum entrance became accessible to people using wheelchairs and pushing strollers for the first time in the Museum’s history.
“Wheelchair accessibility for our entrances and galleries has been a high priority for our Museum, but it is by no means the only kind of accessibility we are concerned with,” said Julian Siggers, Williams Director of the Penn Museum. “With our Digital Penn Museum, we are opening our doors virtually to anyone with computer access. With our Museums for All and ACCESS card programs, we are working to eliminate financial barriers to visiting. Increasingly, we are developing diverse programs to welcome guests with special needs.”
Inside the doors of the Museum, the concept of “accessibility” is expanding, as new programs for adults and children with disabilities—and now families with special needs—are being developed and incorporated into programming for the public. In the last few years, the Museum has developed Touch Tours, now offered in conjunction with Philly Touch Tours (PTT), for groups of people with blindness or low vision; has delivered training sessions for sighted arts staff to learn tactile and verbal description methods through PTT; and has piloted audio description at a popular lecture series. In addition, the Museum worked with the Penn Memory Center to create programs for adults with dementia and developed school programs for children with diverse special needs, including students with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Several new programs for families with special needs kick off this winter and spring.
Ellen Owens, Merle-Smith Director of the Museum’s Learning Programs department, explained the focus on special needs: “We are responding to museum visitors with vastly different interests and needs—one approach does not fit all. A program could be educational, social, inspiring, and fun, but most of all, it needs to be friendly and considerate of our audiences.”
According to the US Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey, 16% of people in Philadelphia County have some form of a disability and nearly 20% of Americans have a disability—about one in five people. “The museum sector now places a major focus on inclusive practices, and we are proud to offer programs that fulfill that initiative,” Ms. Owens said. “Our goal is to make a Penn Museum experience welcoming and meaningful on more levels, [and] to more guests.”
A growing number of specially-designed accessible programs are open to adult and school groups and can be scheduled in advance, with program information available online. The majority of the new accessible programs are developed by Megan Becker, Access Program Specialist and GRoW Annenberg Educator, the Museum’s first Special Education-certified staff member. Ms. Becker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Kevin Schott, the Education Programs Manager, long engaged in the Touch Tour program, is spearheading newly-designed programming for people who are blind or have low vision and their families. He can be reached at email@example.com
New public programs designed with families in mind: Evening Expeditions, a new Homeschool Family Day with a focus on autism, and Tactile Trip Around the World, a program for people with visual impairments are scheduled in March. A sensory-friendly cool down space will be available to visit for the duration of the event. These activities are similar to those offered at the popular 40 Winks with the Sphinx program. Admission: $30 first participant ($25 for each additional participant), $15 adults. Email or call Megan Becker at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 573-5309 with any questions about the event. Advance registration required: www.penn.museum/calendar
• Wednesday, March 8, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Homeschool Family Day: Special Focus on Emotions and AutismFace-to-Face with World Cultures: A Special Archaeological Adventure
Families are invited to visit the Penn Museum for an exploration of emotions across cultures, inspired by this year’s One Book, One Philadelphia’s reading selections. Geared towards both children on the autism spectrum and those who are not, this weekday program includes a reading of My Cousin Momo and an interactive gallery tour that celebrates differences. Through close looking, role playing, and drawing activities, children explore the different ways we use and read facial expressions to convey and understand emotions today and in cultures from the past. Participants can also partake in art-making activities, storytelling, and a hands-on artifact conservation workshop focusing on Native American cultures. Admission: $12 per child/adult; one adult per family free; children under 3 free. Register online at www.penn.museum/calendar
• Saturday, March 18, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tactile Trip Around the World
With this new program, the Penn Museum invites visitors who are blind or visually impaired and their companions to explore the Museum’s galleries through touch and verbal description. The program will feature touch experiences in eight of the Museum’s galleries, including the Sphinx in the Egypt Gallery and the Quilin in the China Gallery. Museum staff will be stationed at each location to guide those with low vision or blindness through the tactile experiences, give verbal descriptions, and offer assistance with wayfinding. The program is drop-in, with visitors welcome to experience the Museum at their own pace. Visitors with vision loss who require or prefer sighted guides are encouraged to bring an assistant or companion. The program is included with regular Museum admission (one sighted companion per visitor receives free admission). No pre-registration is required, but RSVPs to email@example.com are strongly encouraged.
In the future? The Artifact Loan Box program, allowing schools and centers to rent sets of teaching objects, will release tactile Egypt and Rome options that include raised maps and Braille translation; the Penn Memory Center will return for another special touring opportunity; and Museum educators will travel to Philadelphia School District classrooms to teach in the extended school year for special needs students. Philly Touch Tours, with the Museum, will release a new Rome Touch Tour, allowing visitors that are blind or partially-sighted to touch select objects in our Rome Gallery.
“We will continue to test and develop programs to make the Museum and its mission—to transform understanding of the human experience, throughout the ages— accessible to more people,” said Ms. Owens. “The accessible opportunities for schools have really grown – we worked with 1,660 students in 226 classrooms over the last two years. Our hope is that more and more people will look to us for meaningful programs that respect differences and accommodate diverse special needs. The true impact is when you see the kids respond to the lesson – when they count coins in a simulated Roman marketplace or identify the facial expressions on our sculptures. There’s a real joy in seeing the practical connections made between the past and present with this incredible and often-overlooked group of students.”