Too often, accessibility is an afterthought in the design world, or it’s paid cursory attention if any at all. But one museum is setting an example for best practices moving forward, and it’s not a tough act to follow. 

wheelchair user at the new Being Human exhibit at Wellcome Collection in London
At the Wellcome Collection in London, the new permanent gallery was designed with accessibility in mind​​, using sight lines that work for wheelchair users and clever paint tricks that act as visual aids © Wellcome Collection

London’s Wellcome Collection is a free museum that aims to make people think about the intersections of science, medicine, life, and art, and with its new permanent gallery, it’s doing just that. Since “Being Human” opened in early September, disabled activists have been hailing it as “the most accessible museum space ever opened in Britain,” according to a report in the New York Times - and for good reason. 

By working with multi-disciplinary architecture and design studio Assemble, as well as two advisory panels, one science-based and the other comprising artists, activists, and consultants focused on the representation of disability and difference, the Wellcome Collection created a space that’s especially convenient and accommodating for people with disabilities. 

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Being Human explores the concept of humanity in the 21st century across four categories—genetics, minds and bodies, infection, and environmental breakdown—via some 50 artworks and objects ©Wellcome Collection

Design elements like video screens and other displays are hung at the optimal height and depth for wheelchair users, and the benches that are normally placed front and centre are offset so they can pull up to get the best view. People with visual and hearing impairments were taken into consideration, as were those with anxiety, autism, and other mental-health conditions.

“What we need is ease of access,” Lady Marie Dawson-Malcolm, a wheelchair user, told the Times. “You don’t want to turn up, take one look at a display that’s too high and say, ‘It’s not for me.’”

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Zimbabwe's Friendship Bench project placed benches near mental-health clinics and gave local grandmothers pointers on how to have structured conversations with people in distress. A replica bench appears in the gallery, along with audio describing the project ©Wellcome Collection

Especially not when the displays are as fascinating as these. From a 3D portrait printed from the DNA that artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg extracted from discarded hair, gum, and cigarette butts she found in New York City, to a replica of Zimbabwe’s Friendship Bench project that paired grandmothers with those in mental health distress for structured conversations, to a bronze and perfume sculpture with notes of breast milk, this is not your typical major-museum exhibition. 

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The genetics section of the gallery includes a tank of zebrafish, a species that shares 70% of human genes © Wellcome Collection

The exhibition’s accessible design was one thing, but its curatorial approach was most important, as the University of Leicester’s Richard Sandell told Alex Marshall for the Times. “Many disabled people hate museums of medicine because they viewed them as patients to be cured,” Marshall wrote. “This show doesn’t…it puts their stories first.”

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