Discovering Horniman Museum’s new accessible offer

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The Horniman Museum in London is a celebration of culture. Housing a renowned selection of artifacts and anthropological findings, the museum paints a world infinitely rich, varied and colourful. Now, with the reopening of their (highly accessible) World Gallery and the revamping of their Discovery Box series, Horniman has extended its reach to a greater number of diverse communities. James Zatka-Haas investigates.

Three people stood around museum table

Horniman’s Access Advisory Group curating the Perspectives on Disability case. Photograph: Benedict Johnson .

In redeveloping The World Gallery, the team sought the help of The Access Advisory Group (AAG), a panel of access enablers brought in to ‘better represent disability at Horniman.’ They assisted with everything from the floor layout to the font and copy (and are currently helping redesign the new website.) It is clear to see the effect AAG have had on the project.

The whole gallery is built with the different  access needs of its audience. The layout quite literally wraps the cabinet around the viewer, and each cabinet can fit in two wheelchairs with space to move, and seating is built in too. The videos as you enter feature both BSL and subtitles, and accessible maps and guides are dotted throughout.

Along with the reopening of The World Gallery, Horniman’s Discovery Objects make a welcome return. The boxes form a community based initiative that saw 17 groups working with the museum to develop small box size museums. There are contributions ranging from large refugee focused organisations like ReWrite, to smaller, more community-led initiatives like Lambeth Mencap.

Two woman sift through objects in a museum

ThreeCs creating their Discovery Boxes at the Horniman. Photograph: Simon Mooney.

Each box is a response to a certain theme put forward by the particular organisation. The themes range from reflections on play, freedom, home and communication, to more comical issues like ‘a survival kit for landing on a new planet’, or ‘wings wheels and whiskers.’ Each box houses objects either found or made by the members of the organisation, and the visitor is free to pick up and interact with the findings.

Standout Discoveries Included Redstart Art’s box on ‘Protection,’ which included a sculpture of a small golden armoured dinosaur and an embroidered cloak which gave the wearer protection from harm. The Stroke Association – responding to ‘communication’ – explored the ways we communicate and why. Particularly following a stroke, it is important to communicate openly. Their box contained a beautiful pink mask (which wouldn’t look out of place in Kabuki theatre) and some handmade scarves, all of which gave their offerings a lovely ornamental feel.

All Together Now – responding to the theme ‘pulse’ – filled their box with an array of bells, woodblocks and other instruments. It invited group interaction; led by the musically confident who, beginning with a simple beat or melodic line, directed a small improvised orchestra.

The objects work because they put forward questions that we could all relate to. Although the themes were clear, you were free to interpret the Discoveries however you liked. Their tactility allowed for a deeper sense of interaction, and the conversations from around the boxes ranged from the playful to the reverie; from a single memory to a shared past. There was a palpable sense of ‘community’ in the room, different groups sharing what is important to all of us, interacting in ways which wouldn’t usually be possible.

Horniman has done an excellent job in extending its reach. The World Gallery and Discovery Boxes are open for you to experience.

To find out more about upcoming exhibitions and visitor information, visit the Horniman Museum website.