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Museums and How to Know about Access


Museums exist to keep material culture safe and make this vulnerable material culture available. The term ‘access’ is used to manage this tension. Tony Bennett has long diagnosed an insatiability to the politics of museums - that the stated purpose of museums to be accessible to all and to represent all can never be achieved. As a result of this insatiability within museums’ purpose, museums have tended to generate critical intellectual work which unmasks where museums fail. Yet this is not only a desire associated with intellectual work, it is also built into the technocratic desire to know in order to improve. As such technocratic frustration always holds the potential for epistemic openness. This essay works within the logics of access and the technocratic desire to know; something which flowed from the project on which it is based - Museums for Us (2010–2011) - which was conceived as a Museum Practice Fellowship based at the Smithsonian Institution. The Museums for Us project responded to the institution’s epistemic openness by working with people with intellectual disabilities, their families and teachers to explore and share their experiences and views of museum visits. In its final section, the article returns to its point of origin - a seminar held by the Centre for Education and Museum Studies - where five of us involved in the project (some of us with and some of us without intellectual disabilities) spoke of our experiences in our own voices and in our own way. For some staff in the room this created the conditions for a kind of ‘tacit’ knowledge (Strathern 2000), which has since enabled future programmes at the Smithsonian. Yet for others the seminar failed. The quality of knowledge and its basis for action were not secure. Using poetic ethnographic description self-consciously taken from the established academic discipline of anthropology, this essay - taking a certain ethical risk - re-encodes the experiences of people with intellectual disabilities visiting museums within an academic register. It does this very deliberately to explore the epistemic techniques through which certain ways of knowing access as life and contingency might become seen as a ‘useful’ approach to knowing access for a wider range of museum practitioners. The article, therefore, also knows itself as an access practice which, as with many access practices in museums themselves, makes exclusions as it seeks to make available something it believes is of crucial significance.

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