The external Access Advisory Group (AAG) at the Horniman Museum and Gardens has been running since 2007. In 2013 we re-recruited a Chair and twelve of the fourteen current members. The group name reflects access rather than disability as it aims to challenge barriers to access at the Horniman.
AAG benefits the Horniman significantly: prompting us to solve access issues in areas from signage campaigns to public programming, helping us ensure access is embedded in capital projects, discussing our access questions and sharing best practice/ pitfalls from members’ experiences of physical and intellectual access in other organisations. Members have joined us on interview panels and celebrated our good practice via social media.
AAG also benefits its members. Tincture of Museum, a group member, says, “Being a member of the [AAG] has… given me a sense of involvement and empowerment in museum decisions and exhibitions… [I]t has brought me into contact with other members of the panel and helped me appreciate… the range of barriers visitors can face. I really feel a part of the museum.”
The way you set up your group will be unique to your organisation but here are some points to consider:
- Ensure your organisation is ready to act on the group’s advice
Establish awareness and buy-in for the group across your organisation. Set up an internal structure to ensure the group’s advice is useful, timely and acted on. Our Director: Collections Management & Special Projects is our internal champion who works with Learning and Exhibitions teams to identify issues the AAG should be consulted on. Advice from AAG is followed up by project leads and monitored by our quarterly internal Equality Action Group.
- Ensure you have the resources to run the group long-term
Resources include: staff time to coordinate the group (AAG is administered by Community Learning and Exhibitions); expenses including payment for the Chair, lunch and refreshments, members’ travel, access support such as BSL interpreters; an accessible space for the group to meet; other benefits for members such as free access to paid exhibitions. We prioritise resources for AAG to meet 4 times per year.
- Appoint a group Chair
Museum sector research shows it is best practice to recruit an external, disabled Chair to ensure impartiality and to benefit from their expertise and contacts. This is not essential and some museums chair access groups internally. We sent out a role description and simple application form to some of our access heroes and recruited Barry Ginley, Disability and Access Officer at the V&A.
- Recruit members
We recruited local people with daily lived experience of disability who were interested in museums, world cultures and making museums more accessible physically and intellectually. Other museums focus on particular disabilities and you will have your own criteria. Your Chair can also help recruit members. We sent out simple application forms with the option to complete them over the phone or in person. We held the first meeting as an informal group interview for everyone to decide if it was for them.
- Schedule meetings
Think about the timing of meetings (this can be discussed and amended at the first meeting). We schedule meetings to avoid members having to travel in the dark or in rush hour. Schedule meetings at useful points in project timelines (when you are able to provide concrete information but before binding decisions have been made).
- Provide opportunities for all members to contribute fully
When recruiting members, find out their access requirements (including how they would like to receive information about the meeting and any extra support needed). This can be done by the Chair. We circulate all paperwork two weeks before each meeting. Keep your agenda to a maximum of four items and always include an AOB for members to share current projects, examples of best practice, etc. Use the first meeting or group interview to jointly create a short Group Agreement. This could include communication rules (we always raise our hand and say our name before speaking), and other rules to ensure everyone can contribute. Ask members if they are happy to be contacted individually or as a group for support between meetings and add their response to the Agreement.
- Invite staff and external contractors to meetings
It is much more effective if staff members, designers, architects hear advice from the group directly. Prepare staff in advance by sending them the Group Agreement, highlighting any communication strategies and chat to them about any concerns they have.
- Act on the group’s advice!
Act on advice or discuss why you haven’t. Tell the group when you have acted on their advice and its impact. This builds trust between the group and the museum which is vital to a productive relationship.
- Evaluate the group on an ongoing basis. We are working on ways to make more staff aware of AAG as a useful source of advice and support and are trying to find the best method for small group working within AAG.
Rachel Harrison is Community Engagement Officer at Horniman Museum and Gardens