Designing exhibitions is one of my favorite parts of my job, but it can be very challenging when all the required federal regulations and local policies get worked into the planning. Some of the most asked questions I get are about accessibility in exhibition design. At one point or another, most museum professionals are challenged by the regulations put forth in the American Disabilities Act. Adopted in 1990, this law is considered to be one of the nations first comprehensive civil rights law, and its goal is to make the world accessible to everyone no mater their physical ability. The main challenge is that it was not written specifically for exhibition design, and it perceived by some to be a recommendation rather than a requirement.
When frustration arises because of ADA I like to reflect on this perspective… these relatively mild regulations are nothing compared to the challenges experienced everyday by those people there were written to protect. Yes, it’s true, that someone might not be able to hang a case as high as they would like, but is that really comparable to the everyday obstacles of someone in a wheelchair? If that doesn’t help refocus the planning, it’s good to remember that these regulations are a law, and the fine for a first offense could be as high as $75,000.
Another note, after actually attempting to read the ADA handbook a couple of times I have found that for reference it is easier to use the Smithsonian Guidelines for Exhibition Design. https://www.si.edu/accessibility/sgaed. They do a great job of discussing issues that are specific to the museum environment. Here are the a few of the most common questions that arise, and the standard solutions.
How much room do you need between things or for a passageway?
Legally, ADA requires 32” for a stationary “doorway” or opening, and 36” for a “walkway”. The regulations apply to standard single doorways in construction. Even though this is the regulation, I like to use the rule of 42” or more for this answer. The reason being is that passages in most exhibitions are not doorways or walkways. They are the distance between pedestals or the passageways through works hanging and sitting on the floor. Next time you walk through a high traffic door (like a public bathroom) take a look at the door frame. There are usually some dents, scraps, and other damage. Unless you want you pedestals and walls to take a beating, I would recommend allowing more room than required. Also, door requirements were written several years ago and wheelchairs have evolved a lot. I worked an artist once whose automated chair was 42” wide and could climb stairs. It was awesome but a massive machine.
Now I know you are thinking that there is the pathway we want visitors to take, and then there is those visitors that walk their own path no matter what. This can be frustrating and hard to plan for, but the thing to remember is, if the opening or path is intended for the visitor in any way then it needs to be to ADA regulations. You will not be able to control every visitor. Know that whatever you plan there will be that one visitor that does something completely unexpected. Another standard measurement that is helpful… If I really do not want someone between two fixtures (like a case and a wall) only leave a space 12” or less. Most people over the age of 12 will not try to shimmy through a gap that small. The main goal is to show that you have done you best to create a pathway that is open to all.
How tall can a pedestal or case be?
Pedestal height is probably one of the biggest hurdles with exhibition design and realizing an artist or curators expectations. The highest a standard pedestal or table top surface should be is 36” from the floor. I would recommend 31″ for a large table. The 36″ height is really not negotiable. It can cause a lot of problems for artists that want to focus and direct the viewing position their audience has in the gallery. It is, however, important to realize that the work will not be accessible to 20% of the population if you don’t follow this regulation. Lower is better for large table displays where visitors are expected to see something laying flat from several feet away. Another dimension that is helpful is that if a wheel chair is able to pull under something then it should not be lower than 27” from the floor.
One of the biggest challenges with pedestals and other horizontal display surfaces is the labeling. Give this a try…write something on a piece of paper, and then put it flat on a shelf 36” or more off the floor. If you sit in a chair next to it, and try to read it, I guarantee you will not be able to read it. Or if you can…wow!…you need to look into joining a basketball team. I have gotten letters from many visitors concerning this, and how they are frustrated not being able to read the information needed to understand the work. Installing the label on a nearby wall or the side of the pedestal is a much better option. If it needs to go on a deck consider adding a stand or block behind it to tilt it toward the viewer. One exception to the pedestal height regulations is for a wall case or pedestal smaller that 10×10” square. You can have it a little high at 40” or 42”, and it is shallow enough that it can’t be seen from the floor.
How high does something have to be for people to walk under it?
This one is pretty cut and dry…7 feet. If you want people to walk under a piece of art or anything like a doorway or a structure then your need 7 feet of clearance. This is one a lot of people forget to consider, but trust me when I say it’s a big one. Visitors getting concussions is not a good thing. This regulation is important to know for hanging projectors too. If you can, I recommend buying equipment with lens shift and hang your projector as high as possible. I had someone actually crawl up on a bench during an exhibition and steal a projector. Just a couple of cables and out the door they went. If a work needs to hang lower than 7 feet you will need to add some sort of platform or indicator underneath to accommodate those people with canes. Otherwise, they can unknowing walk right into the artwork. Having a platform under a work also indicates that no one is expected to view the artwork from below, and creates a nice visual barrier.
A good thing to remember, in all of these scenarios there is the legal answer, and the recommended answer for exhibition design. There are a lot of reasons to consider going beyond the basic requirements if you can. The other thing to remember is that these rules only apply to “visitor pathways” where the public is expected to use. This does not include back of the house parts of the installation. I’ve had tech closets behind exhibits that were really only made for those of us that had to get to a media player if it was on the fritz. Just remember, a good rule of thumb is…If one visitor is expected to experience something, every visitor should expect to experience it.