Earlier in the year I spoke in Brussels at the 20th edition of Communicating the Museum, an international conference run by AGENDA.
For this iteration of the conference, the theme was Participation. Delegates came from across the globe, with representatives from major institutions including the Met in New York, Louvre Paris, Louvre Abu Dhabi, the major museums in Brussels, Royal Museums Greenwich and Tate.
The fact that this was the first time access had been addressed by this twice-annual conference series perhaps says a lot about the lack of global priority for this subject within the museums sector. However, the pockets of best practice and passionate individuals who champion access in their institutions should, of course, be recognised. Some themes of interest began to emerge from the presentations and museum visits.
Yves Goldstein runs a new space called KANAL in Brussels, created from an old Citroen garage. With a colossal footprint, this building has been made into a space for artists and people from all communities in Brussels to create a museum of their own making. He talked about abandoning the notion of communities because they are divisive.
He suggested ‘citizens’ as an alternative term because it requires active consideration from each and every individual about what it means, in KANAL’s instance, to be a citizen of Brussels. This in turn means that each person has to make a conscious decision about how other citizens of that locality are treated and supported, placing social responsibility on the individual to consider and care about these matters.
We visited several museums including a relatively new addition, the House of European History, which has the core European ideal of stressing the importance of historical awareness, but in an engaging way that is sensitive to the unique experiences and cultures of each member nation. This is easier said than done, particularly around wartime narratives.
For me, the visit hammered home how big the influence colonialism has had on our education system and British understanding of history. It reminded me that there are many narratives and individual experiences to any public event, and that it’s really only ever those in positions of power who get to shape how those events are understood for generations to come.
Raquel Meseguer, travelled from the UK to share her ‘Dreams of Resting Spaces’ in which she contemplated the opportunities for museums to become more accessible for people who need to rest or lie down a lot. As part of this, she highlighted the ceiling as another dimension to add to possible exhibition spaces. Read my interview with Raquel for Disability Arts International here.
Personally, the enduring message from the conference came from Diversity Inclusion Manager at Tate, James Brandon, who said that when “somebody has to share their lived experience in some format either through training or sharing their stories for interpretation… we need to appreciate it, remunerate it, and recognise that when people share their experiences there is an emotional tax that comes along with that.”
On reflection, I think now, more than ever, is a time when we need to be citizens, seek out the hidden histories and recognise the emotional tax that comes from sharing personal narratives and in fighting for a more inclusive society.
Watch the film Disability Arts Online commissioned in partnership with the British Council for its Disability Arts International website, which looks at the accessibility offer of two UK gallery/museum institutions, Tate and Attenborough Arts Centre: