By Stela N. Ikokwu
Museums exist for the society. They can be a vibrant force in society; a place for learning, discussion, debate and deliberation. They can be welcoming, warm and inclusive. They can celebrate diversity and shape our views of the past and present in the planning for the future.
Every museum desires to satisfy its visitors, this includes the able bodied and persons with special needs. A person with special needs require special attention while visiting the museum to enable him/her enjoy the visit and get maximum benefits of the experience.
A person with special needs may be that person who because of a kind of impairment has suffered a disability which eventually leads to a form of handicap the totality of these difficulties, inconveniences and circumstances therefore prevents him from living a normal life. Persons with special needs may include among others:
Persons with mental retardation, persons with visual impairments, persons with hearing impairments, persons with physical bodily impairments and persons with multiple impairments.
As a museum professional therefore whose responsibility it is to ensure pleasurable museum experience of these classes of persons, one needs to adequately plan ahead and put together a series of resources to achieve this. These provisions range fromthe physical to the psychological and even, methodology of approach.
As a museum professional, one needs to first recognize that persons with special needs deserve our love and care, hence the need to avoid any form of discriminations against them. One needs to get close and devise ways and means of establishing rapport with these class of people by making visits to them when necessary. This builds trust, confidence and a bond between us in the first instance and getting them to visit the museum becomes easy.
In addition to this, one can organize sensitization/outreach programmes to bring people with special needs to the gallery. This can be achieved by establishing links with local societies for people with disabilities, holding consultations and educational programmes that will whet their appetites for making a visit to the museum.
As a museum professional one needs to strive to remove all forms of physical and architectural barriers as this will reduce certain difficulties they are likely to face during their visit. Such things to be considered may include provision of wheelchairs, ramps to access lower levels, adequate lighting of movement paths and noticeable floor designs that can assist this class of persons.
The museum professional equally needs to be attitudinally flexible. One should be able to essentially accommodate easily, their feelings behavior and beliefs at all times. He should avoid discriminatory attitudes and making disparaging comments during their visit. He needs to draw them closer by making them feel loved and wanted. He should be able to create a warm and friendly atmosphere to make the visitors relax and relish the tour.
Provision of specialized resource materials are also important. Materials like audiovisual aids, Braille interpretations and other tactile facilities and object replicas will go a long way in making visits of persons with special needs enjoyable and rewarding.
Personally, the education officer should demonstrate essential qualities of eloquence, understanding, accuracy understanding and orderliness. He should be able to exhibit vital ethical practices of decorum, etiquette and careful and cautious dressing as well as avoiding the use of distracting objects. He should be seen as a role model and an example to follow.
Having said all these, as a museum professional one will need to employ specific goal getting methodologies in interacting with persons with special needs while on museum visit. These among others include engaging them in activities that can keep them busy. Employing series of demonstrations, discussions and questions, lectures, and introduction of projects to be carried out. All of these will encourage deep assimilation and understanding that will ultimate guarantee a rich and enjoyable experience.
Having itemized all of these as basic requirements for the museum professional in caring for this special class of persons, the need also arises for us to call on the relevant authorities of government, saddled with the responsibility of providing basic infrastructure and facilities in our museums to rise to the occasion and ensure that the essentials are put in place. We have some of our galleries located across the country that come in multiple floors. It will not be out of place to have lifts, escalators, ramps e.t.c installed where necessary. Adequate electricity should be provided in our museums to enable the systems work perfectly.
Government should take a second look at the tourism and culture sector and tremendously increase annual allocations to its agencies. The idea of making paltry budgetary provisions for the development and maintenance of Nigerian Museums should come to an end. The time has come for all hands to be on deck and stop paying lip service to this essential sector. For standard infrastructure and facilities to be installed in our museums, enough funds must be provided. When this is done, people with the right direction and orientation should be engaged and the right attitude be maintained. If these are not done, as a country we risk the fate of parading sound and experienced museum professionals comparable to some of the best in the world but lacking the adequate tools, infrastructure and environment to put their knowledge to practice.
Mrs. Stela N. Ikokwu is of the National Museum, Enugu.