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What does it mean to be an accessible museum? As operations manager and accessibility coach at Carnegie Science Center, Justin Tognarine leads community members and colleagues in embracing this critical question. It’s about more than just removing physical barriers to visitation, says Tognarine. It takes training, community engagement, and a museum-wide effort to make everyone feel welcome. Across all four Carnegie Museums, he is helping lead the charge—as a resource and an ally.
Q: Why are you so passionate about accessibility?
A: What stays with me is a visitor complaint from a few years ago. This person came to the Science Center and didn’t feel welcome. He experienced sensory overload—which is easy to do here with rockets launching and robots singing—and he had a meltdown. The person who was here with him felt like they were being judged and unsupported. Since then, I’ve made it my mission to not allow another visitor to feel that way. All of the Carnegie Museums have so many amazing things to see and experience and I would hate for somebody not to be able to take part because of their disability. Because of something we didn’t do to help bridge the experience.
Q: What does bridging the experience look like?
A: Engaging with our community and listening to their needs and desires. We have accessibility working groups that then help set priorities. We’ve brought a lot of organizations in, such as Creative Citizen Solutions, Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy, and Evolve Coaching, to assist us in trainings. We want to help staff feel comfortable in situations that they may not have encountered before, so we’re giving them plenty of time to role play and ask questions, and making sure they have on-the-spot support and resources.
Q: Does each of the four museums have its own unique set of accessibility challenges?
A: It’s sensory overload at the Science Center, so we’ve been focusing on being more sensory-friendly. We don’t have a whole lot of non-tactile areas, so we’re already very hands-on with exhibits and activities, whereas the Museum of Art and The Warhol, and even the Natural History Museum, have very visual representations and have had to think more closely about how to make their collections more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired.
Q: What’s the response been to the Science Center’s new sensory-friendly hours?
A: One member said his daughter is not normally able to do the farm area in the Little Learner Clubhouse because it’s too overwhelming with sounds and surprises. But with the adaptations, he said it was the best time they’ve ever had at the museum. How awesome is that? In March, we had a family come from Ohio just for the event. It’s shocking how many people have never been to the museum simply based on our atmosphere.
Q: Has the Science Center had success with other accessible programs?
A: At the suggestion of a community partner who said our 21+ Nights were just too much for them, we hosted an adult sensory-friendly night, and it took off. The Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf partners with our education department to fit a summer camp into their curriculum. The Pittsburgh Center for Autistic Advocacy trained our Fab Lab staff on autism awareness as we work to create a sensory-friendly Fab Lab experience. We’ve started to add more sensory-friendly movie times in The Rangos Giant Cinema. And we’ve also offered verbal description tours.
Q: What’s the most helpful thing you’ve learned on the job?
A: Listening to people about why they’re not coming to the museums is huge. Whether it’s sensory overload, or there’s not a curb cut [for strollers and wheelchairs], or signage isn’t updated or doesn’t have braille. It’s then about making it a priority to remove as many of those barriers as possible for people, for participation. Talking to our community and just putting ourselves in their shoes has really opened my eyes to things we never thought of.
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