Accessibility Rules Could Threaten Older Museums

By David Prudames | 19 February 2003
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Shows a re-enactment of an Edwardian classroom.

Left: the museum was set up to collect and interpret the everyday and ordinary things of Worcester. Image courtesy of Worcester City Museum Service.

The Museum of Local Life in Worcester faces closure because, according to the City Council, making its 500-year-old building comply with accessibility regulations will cost too much.

While a decision is pending on how best to store a much-loved social history collection, the museum will close for a year. However, some local museum staff have suggested that a coucil budget shortfall is to blame, not the museum's accessibility costs.

Shows an external view of the timbered museum.

Right: the institution was originally opened as the Tudor House Museum on August 1, 1971. Image courtesy of Worcester City Museum Service.

Nicole Burnett, Museum Manager and Social History Officer, told the 24 Hour Museum that while it isn't possible to widen doorways and install a lift in the Grade II listed building, efforts and plans have been made to make the institution accessible.

“We always knew we were in a difficult building and we are aware that it is difficult to get to the upstairs, but we have enough staff to give adequate attention,” she explained.

“We were planning to have a touch screen computer which would be accessible by wheelchair users and we have a collection of handling boxes. Also, if someone wanted to see something quite particular, we could take it out of the cabinet and show them.”

Shows a museum display of a maid drying a child in bath.

Left: over the last five years visitor numbers at the museum have risen from 8,500 a year to 32,000. Image courtesy of Worcester City Museum Service.

“Assuming the museum closes, there would be no access at all to the collection. It's the sort of museum people expect in a city, it's got a brilliant atmosphere, the staff have got great knowledge and it is just a shame. Special needs students that can't read history from a book come here see the history and they can understand it.”

The potential closure of the Museum of Local Life raises issues for institutions housed in older buildings, which will soon be required by law to offer full disabled access to their collections.

Shows a re-enactment of an Edwardian teacher and class.

Right: the museum will particularly be missed by local schools who regard it as a perfect teaching aid. Image courtesy of Worcester City Museum Service.

“Even if a building has accessibility issues, that shouldn't be used as an excuse not to do all the things that can promote access,” explained Rebecca Linley, Learning and Access Development Officer at Resource, the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries.

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 has given public institutions until 2004 to ensure they are accessible, whether literally or in terms of alternative access.

Since alternative access is already being offered by staff at the museum, it would appear that converting Worcester's Museum of Local Life need not be such an expensive exercise.

According to locals, this news might give councillors pause for thought when they debate further plans for museum closures.

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