Accessibility: myth and reality – A critique of the ‘Troy’ exhibition at the British Museum

There has been a lot of controversy about the latest temporary exhibition to be launched at the British Museum. Art Not Oil is one of many groups to have been outraged by BP’s sponsorship of the exhibition, for example. However, upon visiting the exhibition last week, my primary concern was that of the exhibition’s accessibility.

Access means different things for different people. In the Heritage sector, accessibility commonly refers to how equipped the space is to feel welcoming to disabled and/or differently-abled people of all ages. For me, access is more than that. Accessibility, in my view, goes beyond issues of disability, encompassing language-barriers, barriers to education, mental health issues, pricing, and so on… essentially, I would say that an accessible exhibition should present no barriers to anyone.

Unfortunately, the Troy exhibition was not an accessible exhibition, for the following reasons:

  1. The cost: A full-priced ticket to the exhibition costs £20. For many people, £20 would cover the cost of food for a week. To sell tickets to a single exhibition at such an extortionate price restricts access to those on a budget, trying to save or simply incapable of paying such an amount, many of whom may well be keen to see the exhibition or may benefit from seeing such an exhibition. Given the content of the exhibition – and its BP sponsorship – it is also unclear where exactly this money is going…
  2. Capacity: When I went to visit, on a Tuesday afternoon, the exhibition was full. People were crowding around exhibits and there were queues to see even the first objects on display. This was very odd, given that the exhibition did not seem ‘full’. I believe that the objects on display were too close together, so perhaps the rooms should have been laid out in such a way that would facilitate people’s view of the objects.78890291_523420575048936_6012507430427033600_n.jpg
  3. Labelling: The first half of the exhibition were labelled with panels that were very low down, at mid-calf level. There were elderly people hunched over trying to read the labels and others kneeling down or straining to do the same.
  4. Lighting in the cases: In many of the cases, light was shone onto objects either from the side or diagonally from above. This obscured the details on some of the objects, such as the fragment of pottery below, whose cuneiform text is totally indistinguishable because of the shadows caused by the lighting.78675211_982519448794739_2290266902292856832_n
  5. Lighting of the space: This was one of my biggest concerns. The exhibition was very dark, with low lighting throughout. I appreciate that this gave an ‘old-worldy’, mysterious atmosphere to the exhibition, but it was personally very disorientating, and did not help with the fatigue triggered by the case-lighting and low-level labelling.
  6. Sounds: There were also a lot of disorientating and distracting sounds being played throughout the exhibition. A high-pitched song (possibly a folk-song or chant) was being played on repeat in the second room and this could be heard as you travelled around the exhibition. Repetitive sounds are really unhelpful to those – like me – who are often overstimulated by what is going on around them. I often found myself unable to concentrate on anything, let alone the content of the exhibition.
  7. Content: My issue with the content of the exhibition is twofold. Firstly, the text was not as clear as it could have been. As a graduate who had the opportunity to study classical literature and culture, I was able to follow the content of the exhibition. However, had I not received the education that I had, I would have found it an incredibly difficult exhibition to follow. There was an attempt at a continuous narrative, but it was too wordy and in many parts comprised little more than a list of names which, without context, would mean absolutely nothing. Perhaps an introductory room, with a storyboard of key events in the mythical story of Troy and the key protagonists, locations and interpretations, would have made this more accessible. Secondly, I found the physical content of the first half of the exhibition quite underwhelming. A lot of the content had been lifted from artefacts that I felt I had seen before and which were doubled in the permanent Greek exhibits at the museum. The links between these objects and the Troy myth were also sometimes tenuous, and their relevance was not always explained. Furthermore, content that had been added from elsewhere only went to exacerbate the narrative that Troy belonged to a realm of white, male academia. The treatment of the story was dry, which is a shame given that the story itself is so exciting and could have presented a real opportunity for the museum to engage with a large audience that may not otherwise be excited by history and culture. I personally went to the exhibition in the hope of seeing something *new*. Thankfully, the second half of the exhibition did a better job of fulfilling this, but I was left disappointed by the first half. Perhaps the intention here was to show the contrast between ancient and recent history and their interpretations of the story of Troy… If this were the case, I feel it could have been carried out more effectively.

 

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There were aspects of the exhibition that I really liked. The collaboration with Waterloo Uncovered, for example, was wonderful. It was excellent to see the exhibit addressing (albeit briefly) contemporary issues such as mental health in its discussion of grief and PTSD. The same was done with brief comments on colonialism and sex-trafficking in relation to Marian Maguire’s artwork and Helen of Troy’s experience respectively. It was also encouraging to see the exhibit (finally) address the role of women, but disappointing that this appeared as an afterthought, at the end of the exhibition. ‘The Shield of Achilles’ was also an exceptional addition to the exhibition.

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The main conclusion to be drawn from my visit is that the accessibility of the exhibition was compromised by its curation. I feel that changes could have been made to make the exhibition more engaging, accessible and ‘complete’. If I were to re-curate the exhibition, I would perhaps start from the end, from the present day, and work backwards; I think this would be a more impactful, engaging and tangible way to start the exhibition. I would prioritise the sensory experience and eliminate the aforementioned barriers to appreciating and interacting with the content. It is clear that accessibility was not a priority for this particular exhibition, and perhaps the price of entry charged by the British Museum was set as a deliberate barrier to dissuade attendance of those that its accessibility issues would affect…