A Museum for Everyone: Accessibility at the Please Touch Museum

Historically, museums have struggled reaching out to and welcoming populations with various forms of disability. Like the rest of society, most museums often times neglected to make their institutions and programs accessible to people with disabilities. Fortunately, examples do exist to show that at least some museums strived to make themselves inviting to individuals, regardless of their abilities. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), for example, implemented several programs, including a story-hour reading program, to engage with children with mobility impairments beginning in 1919 and continuing through much of the 1920s and 1930s.[1] Sadly, museums still have not become universally accessibly institutions. One museum, however, has developed facilities, equipment, and programming to make visitors with both developmental and physical disabilities feel comfortable in a museum.

Individuals with developmental disabilities, particularly autism, often feel uncomfortable and even overwhelmed in spaces with large numbers of people and environments out of the ordinary and as a result many find museums unwelcoming. The Please Touch Museum (PTM), located in Philadelphia has begun to make this population feel more at ease through the implementation of special programing. Known for its engaging sensory exhibits, the museum has implemented its “Play without Boundaries” initiative to make children with autism and their families more welcome in the museum. The initiative sets aside specific hours during the day (typically in the early morning and evening) and transforms the museum into a less overwhelming place. The museum dims the lights and plays quiet music and other soothing sounds throughout the building. Staff trained to work with individuals with autism provide tours.[2]

Please Touch Museum2.jpg
An example of a quiet kit, similar to what is offered at PTM. Image courtesy of funandfunctional.com.

During times not specifically designated for children with autism, the PTM has facilities and equipment available to autistic individuals to make them feel more comfortable. Each day, the museum sets up a “Quiet Space of the Day” zone which provides a calm and quiet space for both children and their families who might need a break from the noise during their visits. Additionally, the museum provides “Quiet Kits,” which contains items such as sound reducing headphones, that aid in limiting sensory information that may otherwise make children with autism feel considerably uncomfortable.[3] Therefore, these kits allow children on the autism spectrum to visit the museum during all hours of operation. PTM even offers a special professional therapeutic membership that the museum created for organizations who serve children with disabilities.[4]

Please Touch Museum1
Dylan playing at the Please Touch Museum. Image courtesy of Noelle Murphy.

Parents of children with autism have praised the museum’s efforts to make their families feel welcome. In an interview with National Public Radio, Noelle Murphy, a mother whose three year-old-son, Dylan, lives with autism spoke highly of the PTM and the “Play without Boundaries” initiative. Upon first entering the museum, Dylan felt overwhelmed and had an accident. Upon noticing this, museum staff not only provided Dylan a pair of hospital scrubs to use while he played at the museum, they washed his cloths. According to Noelle, she felt overcome by the fact that she finally found a public place where both she and her family felt they could relax and enjoy themselves without the fear of anxiety or having to explain Dylan’s behavior.[5]

While the PTM provides a sterling example of how to make a museum accessible to children with autism and their families, it also proves accessible to children with physical disabilities. According to the museum’s website, the entire museum, even the museum’s carousel is wheelchair accessible. Additionally, the museum provides visitors with adult-sized wheelchairs free of charge, available at the admissions desk.[6] The museum’s site links to a blog written by a staff member who interviewed the mother of a visitor with moderate cerebral palsy. In the blog, the mother states that, with some exceptions, she found the museum very accessible and offers her advice on some areas where she feels the museum could make their exhibits even more accessible to those with physical disabilities.[7]

In recent years, several museums across the United States have made significant strides in the area of accessibility. Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum has provided programs, facilities, and equipment for people with a range of disabilities to make the institution more welcoming to all. The museum created quiet spaces, noise-canceling headphones, and even special headphones in order to alleviate a source of discomfort for children with autism. The museum also ensures that the entirety of the building and most of their exhibits are accessible to all, even individuals in wheelchairs. Indeed, the Please Touch Museum offers professionals an example of how museums can engage many populations, even groups as diverse as those with disabilities.

[1] Nicole Belolan, “An ‘effort to bring this little handicapped army in personal touch with beauty’: Democratizing Art for Crippled Children at the Metropolitan Museum of art, 1919-1934,” New York History 96, no. 3 (Winter 2015), 51-52.

[2] Jessica Naudziunas, “How to Make Museums More Inviting for Kids with Autism,” NPR, June 16, 2013, accessed May 1, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/06/18/193092510/how-to-make-museums-more-inviting-for-kids-with-autism.

[3] “Accessibility,” Please Touch Museum, accessed May 1, 2016, http://www.pleasetouchmuseum.org/visit/accessibility/.

[4] “Membership,” Please Touch Museum, accessed May 1, 2016, http://www.pleasetouchmuseum.org/support/membership/.

[5] Naudziunas, “Accessibility.”

[6] “Accessibility,” Please Touch Museum.

[7] “Meet My New Friends!”, Pinky’s Please Touch Museum, May 14, 2016,  accessed May 1, 2016, http://pleasetouchmuseum.blogspot.com/2009/05/meet-my-new-friends.html.

Image Credits:

Cover: “Please Touch Museum,” Twitter, accessed May 3, 2016, https://twitter.com/pleasetouch.

Image of break box: “Early Childhood Break Box,”Fun and Functional, accessed May 3, 2016, https://funandfunction.com/early-childhood-break-box-3824.html.

Image of Dylan: Jessica Naudziunas, “How to Make Museums More Inviting for Kids with Autism,” NPR, June 16, 2013, accessed May 1, 2016, http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/06/18/193092510/how-to-make-museums-more-inviting-for-kids-with-autism.



2 thoughts on “A Museum for Everyone: Accessibility at the Please Touch Museum

  1. The Please Touch Museum sounds like a really wonderful place. I found the story about Dylan particularly touching, as it gives a personal account of an experience that could have been horrible but was expertly mediated. Although I hesitate to call my food allergies a disability, going to a restaurant or other venue and seeing them go the extra mile in making sure that I am safe is very relieving and makes me feel cared for. I can not imagine how Dylan and his family must have felt, knowing that they were not a burden and that the museum welcomed them with open arms, and most importantly, were entirely prepared to accommodate Dylan’s needs. I hope that other museums can take a cue from the Please Touch Museum, and adapt to be more accessible, inclusive, and sensitive to disability.

    1. Thanks for the response, Julia! It looked like an amazing place to me too. I get what you are saying and I agree: though allergies are not disabilities, it is nice to see places that go the extra mile to make everyone feel welcome. That picture of Dylan warmed my heart!

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