Volunteer blog

Hear from volunteer Gabby who recently joined us at The Beaney to take a look at accessibility at the museums: 

“I have always loved museums for as long as I can remember. Whether it was a school trip to the Toy Museum, or a family outing to one of the country’s hidden gems, I absolutely loved seeing all the objects and learning every single thing I could about each exhibit. My mum has very vivid memories of family visits, where my brother would look at one object and then tear off to find a play room or a packet of crisps in the café, while she had to painstakingly push me in my wheelchair around each exhibit so I could see it from all angles and read every morsel of description I could find! 

I think my passion for museums stemmed from the fact that they were one of the more accessible family activities we could do when I was growing up, myself being a wheelchair user with Cerebral Palsy and my brother being autistic. While other families may have had adventures at Center Parcs getting physically active, museums and other heritage sites were the mark of our family holidays. Without knowing it, I think this is where my awareness of accessibility began to grow too. 

In September 2022, I enrolled at the University of Kent and began living in Canterbury while I studied for a degree in Philosophy. This has been a great way to explore my disabled identity further and begin to understand how it impacts my life. However, it wasn’t until I enrolled on the elective module “Disability and the Arts”, in January 2024 that my passion for disability and inclusion really came to life. 

This module focused on the intersection and integration of disabled people and the world of arts and culture, including cinema and representation, theatre and accessible performances and museums and how they work to help disabled people access their exhibits. As part of this module, my lecturer arranged for my class to visit The Beaney and receive a tour from Leanne Macdonald who is the Health and Wellbeing Programme Coordinator. As well as admiring the wonderful exhibits The Beaney has, Leanne explained some of the initiatives the museum has put in place such as audio descriptions, touchable objects and sensory backpacks as well as inviting feedback on how they could further improve their access. 

I adored my visit to The Beaney, admiring the exhibits and being reminded of wonderful childhood memories of looking around museums and feeling so safe and secure, but what I loved the most was their clear dedication to engaging disabled people and making them feel totally welcome, something which I had not noticed I needed growing up, but as I have got older, realized is still sadly a rare thing for disabled people to feel. I was also pleasantly surprised at The Beaney’s keenness for feedback and the receptiveness for my suggestions, such as including information relating to guide dogs on the website and creating more seating opportunities for visitors (both of which are now in place today). This visit really opened my eyes and ignited a passion for seeking access anywhere I could, prompting me to now seek a career in the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) sector. 

Two people in a museum exhibition. The person on the right is using a wheelchair and wears a blue patterned dress and an orange lanyard. They are talking to another person in a pale suit who is repositioning an item in an open display case

Gabby (right) with Murray O’Grady (Museum Audience & Engagement Officer) adjusting displays in the Aphra Behn: Literature’s Best Kept Secret exhibition.

So, in April, when it was time for me to find summer work experience as I head into my final year, it was a no brainer to reach out to The Beaney. Happily, Leanne responded and remembered me and my feedback and welcomed me into the museum team for a month to work as an EDI Volunteer! 

This month has been so varied in terms of the projects I have worked on, and I have yet again been so pleasantly surprised at The Beaney’s willingness to adapt, add and respond to my feedback, something which I was initially worried about, as The Beaney already has a great access provision, so I was worried that, firstly I may not be able to add much value in terms of my insight, but also that the team might not be willing to accept that they had much more to improve on. I was very wrong, and I have felt so valued throughout my time working here. 

Working with the team, I have assisted with an application to a SEND museums project, given insight into the accessibility of the current Special Exhibition, helped assess online accessibility information and update the visual story. Changes should come into effect soon, so watch this space! 

It means so much to me that my changes will make a lasting impact for The Beaney and its visitors, and as we head into July, Disability Pride month, The Beaney (and myself) can be proud of their continuous efforts to welcome and engage with the voices of disabled people. I cannot wait to visit again throughout my final year at university and see what the museum does next.” – Gabby Rolls (EDI Volunteer)

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Artefacts in exhibition case The Beaney Museum

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