Beyond disabilities: widening the inclusivity scope in Museums and cultural institutions (3/3)

Dec. 21, 2021, 4:13 p.m.

The last topic to be addressed in this series of posts about inclusivity –and how museums and other cultural institutions hold a stake on it- is ageing. Ageing is one of the most transversal realities that societies have to face. The development of a welfare state in western societies implied an increase of life expectancy due to the implementation of retirement and other measurements related with health and wellbeing. The counterpart of this is that population from several countries are experiencing this phenomenon called ageing also due to extreme economic crises, putting young people on the position of not being able to settle nor have financial stability until older age. Biding these two acceptations, UNESCO defines “ageing of population” as a process in which the proportions of adults and elderly increase in a population, while the proportions of children and adolescents decrease. This process results in a rise in the median age of the population, this occurring when fertility rates decline while life expectancy remains constant or improves at the older ages.

This ageing of the population, together with a greater demand of time that working life requires of young people, means that the largest segment of population interested in occupying their free time is precisely the one that comprises adults aged 65 or over. Besides concerning about what to do with this free time, an aged population also implies other challenges like an increasing pressure in medical services. The stress put over “healthy ageing” means both physical and mental wellness, and beyond sport classes and outdoors activities, activities that involve learning and communicating become more and more important.

According to Charlotte Coates in her article ‘What is Active Ageing and how can Museums help?’ museums hold a whole host of information, hence becoming an ideal destination for mental stimulation further than a simple educational day out or a visit. Museums and cultural institutions must understand that not all older adults are the same, and they might have diverse needs. In these needs is where the two previous posts of this series come along: Not only people in current societies are getting older, they are also getting more diverse ethnically, sexually and affectively.

It is important to consider that there are migrant people also getting old in the places they arrived to years ago. Most of these people did not enjoy the new existing cultural, social and political policies, suffering from segregation and exclusion within the target societies. These people also need to gather and engage with others, communicate themselves and feeling part of the society they live in- whether because they feel older or because they haven’t been considered as leisure and culture enjoyers.

On the other hand, there are also issues with older adults and LGTBQIA+ communities. Some main references of the fight for equal rights are also getting older. Some other people haven’t explored their identity or their sexuality until very late years. Having safe spaces where these people still feel like they are part of the fight and part of the change movement should be one of the tasks that museums and cultural institutions could accomplish. There are also older adults that, on the contrary, are disrespectful or uncomprehensive with the LGBTQIA+ reality, and so cultural institutions reveal themselves as the best place of communication and encounter with this ‘other’, creating links between past, present and future, creating places of knowledge, of encounter, and of dialogue, promoting respect and tolerance, thus having both an educational and a social role.

There is one little thing more to be addressed in this post about ageing, being this that most of the vast writing that has been done about active ageing and museums comes from a western perspective. This has a lot to do with the fact that the majority of aged countries are those that have carried out colonial politics, these being most of the western countries and also the big powers of the Asia-Pacific region –even though this last region has not experienced ageing as much as western countries and it is a quite recent circumstance. This is the reason why most of the examples given in this post come from a European and Northern American context. If you, dear reader of this post, have other examples, from other regions, please share them with us, via a comment to this post, or an email to

Generally speaking, there are four points to keep in mind when talking about good practices in museums regarding engagement, participation and inclusivity of older adults: communication, participation, health care and creativity.

Starting with communication, most of the programs curated and presented by museums in order to engage older adults come from the side of memory and heritage. Having the knowledge and involvement of people that have experienced certain historical moments or decisive political changes in any exhibition enriches the historical and social perspective of it. This has a lot to do with communication. Involving older adults as participants in curation and divulgation for certain projects and exhibitions makes them an active part of what is going on, also strengthening the links between people and museums. This happened for examples in a collaboration between the University of the Third Age or U3A (an international movement based in the United Kingdom whose aims are the education and stimulation of mainly retired members of the community) and the Horniman Museum. This natural history museum created a researching project in 2011 that enabled the development of the museum’s collection to be better understood, and has ensured the contributions of people involved, being these students of the U3A and past curators, detailing their roles, backgrounds, and professional work while at the Museum.

Not by chance, the United Kingdom has been one of the most active countries when it comes to develop policies in order to face the challenges that an ageing population implies, also highlighting new opportunities that this segment of society can bring to enrich the experience of museums and galleries. The British Museum elaborated a very detailed guide of their actions together with the Age Friendly Museums Network.

Communication comes along with participation. The ethnological museum of Rumšiškės, near Kaunas Lagoon in Lithuania, is a good example of how older adults participate in activities that involve heritage, storytelling and traditional crafts. There has been some projects and exhibitions addressing topics such as the Nazi occupation together with lighter topics linked to other landmarks in the history of the country. The open-air museum of Lithuania is one of the largest ones in Europe and it’s very indicated for older adults, not just because it offers activities outdoors related with a healthier lifestyle, but also because their life experiences become important links to the organization of exhibitions and workshops, thus illustrating how older adults give invaluable contributions to society as first-hand witnesses of significant events and as carriers of invaluable intangible heritage.

However, museums should not oversee health care issues related with older adults, such as isolation and dementia. An example of fighting both was given by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna (National Gallery of Modern Art) in Rome, Italy. In collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) of New York (USA) –which has a wide project on fighting Alzheimer and Dementia with art- the Galleria started a project called ‘The Memory of Beauty’. This initiative worked with ifferent groups formed by up to eight patients of Alzheimer or dementia who were driven through itineraries of four art pieces of the museum by a small team of educators and medical staff. These visits are planned as a cycle of activities in different days in order to help people to establish contact with others and with their personal memories. Other initiatives of museums against isolation can be found here.

Photo provided by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art History, where a group of people of different ages and diverse mobility can be seen enjoying an art exhibition.

Finally, I want to close this post with an example of how cultural actions can also emphasize and foster creativity within older adults. A good example was given by the Beltaine Festival in collaboration with Age & Opportunity, settled in Dublin, Ireland. The Beltaine Festival is a unique event in Europe and has received support from different organizations in order to promote active citizenship among older generations of Irish population. Its aims are to raise awareness about people’s capacity to grow and be creative in older ages, to let older adults participate meaningfully in the arts both as artist, organizers, audiences and critics, and to frame a national policy that acknowledge the potential of arts to transform the lives of older adults. More information about the examples given here of good practice regarding Ageing, museums and cultural institutions can be found in this link to the Learning Museum’s Project.

Summing up, there have been several points among these three posts that address inclusivity in a wider than disabilities scope. The usage of memory and active participation, encouraging people to create and to express themselves in safe spaces created by museums, acknowledging diverse people as potential guests, creators, visitors and critics, re-reading museums’ collections from their points of view, approaching artistic objects to different audiences by guided activities in collaboration with specialists, and also making diverse people participants –directly or indirectly- of the task of collecting are some strategies that lean on an educational agenda more than on a design one.

Applying some of these points could make a huge difference when it comes to make museums and cultural institutions more accessible and inclusive spaces, and from Museum for All we encourage all kinds of museums and organizations to care a bit more about diversity and about making connections between different people, now even more that we all have been pushed through difficult isolation times and connection means a lot more to us.

Rocío Sola, for the Museum For All blog, December 2020