Part 5 | Inclusive Programming at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum

by John Rae | December 2012

Editor’s Note: In his article series for the OHS Bulletin John Rae examines a variety of access issues for heritage organizations and institutions. In his fifth installment, John discusses how commitment and ingenuity can go a long way to developing programs that provide access in smaller facilities. John, an OHS member and volunteer, has recently been appointed to the newly created Inclusive Design Advisory Council to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

This article first appeared in the December 2012 issue (no. 186) of the OHS Bulletin.

When designing accessible programming in smaller institutions, a little ingenuity can go a long way!

Imagine a collection of approximately 12,500 shoes under one roof, including a pair of shoes from ancient Egypt, opulent walking shoes from the roaring ‘20s to moccasins from First Nations communities in Canada – shoes everywhere!

“It’s an incredible collection. But it’s not what you’d expect,” says Laura Robb. “Yes, it’s shoes, but it’s also much more. It’s an art collection; it’s an ethnographic collection. The museum showcases what’s important to various cultures and communities through an everyday object that nearly everybody uses.”

The efforts of Laura Robb and Jacquie Reich, two docents at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto demonstrate what commitment and a little ingenuity can produce when it comes to building access into a facility’s programming, even in a smaller facility like Bata.

“I had been a docent at the Bata Shoe Museum for about a year, and I was familiar with the education department’s huge hands-on collection,” said Robb. “I thought we could create a great program for visitors who are blind or have low vision by utilizing these objects in a different way, building tactile diagrams for some artifacts, and tweaking the docent training a bit.”

Jacquie Reich is equally excited by their work.

“I became interested in the project from a collections management perspective, and when Laura informed me about the project at the Bata Shoe Museum, I jumped at the chance to get involved,” said Reich. “I think with the sheer volume of most museum collections, there’s really no excuse not to have authentic objects for visitors to handle.”

Once begun, it’s important to build access into a facility’s ongoing, regular programming.

“It’s really important to us that the project continues after we’ve left the museum,” said Reich. “Our work involved putting together training manuals for the Bata Shoe Museum’s docents, so that other staff can continue the tours. In the training manuals are photos of all the hands-on artifacts and tactile diagrams we built. We’ve also included directions regarding where these pieces go, and talking points to discuss. We’ve also included some valuable insight received from the community.”

This accessibility addition complemented the already sophisticated docent training program in place, but with a few adjustments for visitors who are blind or have low vision. Without the Museum’s existing tour training program, it would have been difficult to train volunteers to conduct effective multi-sensory tours.
Robb reflected: “It’s really satisfying to introduce the collection to a new audience. Sonja Bata has amassed an incredible collection, and I love that we’ve been able to welcome a new public into the museum.”

It’s a collection that deserves to be better known, and with leadership and a little ingenuity, similarly sized museums and art galleries can also provide greater access to their collections for all visitors, including patrons with disabilities.

Tour fees are $14/adult, $12/senior, $8/student, and $5/child, and allows one complimentary companion per paying visitor with a disability. Please contact Andrea Field at andrea@batashoemuseum.ca or 416-979-7799 ext. 242 to arrange a guided multi-sensory tour or visit www.batashoemuseum.ca.

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