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A national museum for all of the people

The National Museums of Scotland are building a new Museum of Scotland to house the treasures of Scotland's cultural heritage. The trustees want the displays to be accessible to everyone. Much is now known about access for the physically disabled, and this knowledge is being incorporated. There has, however, been little comment on access to displays by those who have learning or communications difficulties.

The exceptions are "The Big Foot", a pilot project at the British Museum in London to explore how groups of children from special schools related to an exhibit, and "Let Me Show You", a project at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow which is the basis of current work at the Science Museum, London.

Yet many people with learning or communications difficulties, including both individuals and groups from schools, adult training and resource centres or organisations which care for those with disabilities, would have a much enriched experience if museum staff, teachers and carers all knew more about how to organise, programme and conduct visits, using techniques devised to make displays more accessible.

The resultant lessons, guidance and training will also be networked to the 400 or so non-national museums in Scotland and indeed, with the help of the Museums and Galleries Commission, throughout the United Kingdom and abroad. This pioneering work will accordingly benefit displays not just in one new building but in all existing museums, historic houses and visitor attractions, national and non-national.

It is intended to study all existing work on intellectual access and survey existing displays with curators, education staff, guides, designers and security staff (who see where different groups of visitors already go). Needs will be discussed and observed and a series of visits will be devised for individuals and small groups with a wide range of disabilities. This could be paralleled by corresponding visits to schools, caring bodies and adult centres by museum staff to increase their own awareness and understanding.

It is hoped to identify exhibits that excite interest and show how that interest could be increased by interactive and other educational or communication techniques. Museum staff have identified at least three areas - ancient Egypt, the Plains Indians and geology - which are suitable for organised parties.

It is also hoped to monitor these pilot projects to see how far "Discovery Room" (interactive) techniques and perhaps specially adapted computers (such as those used by Capability Scotland, formerly the Scottish Council for Spastics, at Upper Springland, Perth) could be of use with different forms of disability. The scope for developing audio-guides for those with reading impairment or other communication difficulties is being explored.

Following on from these conclusions, courses will be introduced for teachers, carers, museum staff and volunteer guides in museums throughout Scotland and the UK. The Intellectual Access Trust, a new charity, has raised funding to appoint a project officer on a two-year contract: Ann Rayner can be contacted at the NMS, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF (0131 247 4046, fax 0131 220 4819).

The project has the full and enthusiastic support of the director and staff of the National Museums of Scotland, of the wider museum community in Scotland through the Scottish Museums Council, of the Scottish Tourist Board under its "Tourism for All" initiative and of organisations such as Disability Scotland, Enable, Capability Scotland and Libertas. It has been endorsed by the Scottish Office education and industry department.

Its completion in 1998 will enable displays in the new Museum of Scotland, the most comprehensive museum development in Scotland this century, to be truly accessible to all right from its opening.

Ronnie Cramond is a trustee of the National Museums of Scotland and former chairman of the Scottish Museums Council.

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