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Accessibility & ASD within the Museum

Serving a variety of topics from art to science, museums and similar cultural institutions seek to be immersive centers of education and community. A growing emphasis on visitor-focused programming has taken root in museums in the 21stcentury, posing a challenge of accessibility. To serve an entire community effectively, museums must incorporate the educational needs of their constituents into their offerings. This endeavor is not easily achieved, however, due to the wide variety of learning styles and intellectual abilities of any audience.  It is the job of the museum to invest in programmatic planning to target marginalized audiences, such as those with developmental disabilities who are often excluded from public spaces due to their complex needs. This systemic exclusion exacerbates the social isolation of this audience: “Stigma is the greatest barrier to participating in public spaces.”[1] This is especially true for audiences experiencing autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition that produces a broad range of abilities and needs. Museums therefore must take direct action to combat this stigma through tailored programming for adults and children with ASD in order to fulfil their missions of community accessibility. 

Developing programming for children and adults with ASD is not straightforward because of the great intellectual diversity of those with this diagnosis. There is great variation in how ASD affects an individual’s intelligence and behavior, and symptoms vary in severity.[2] Some individuals may be significantly intellectually impaired with affects on their literacy and communication abilities. Others may experience advanced skills in some categories with pronounced weaknesses in others. For children with autism, sensory needs are particularly pronounced as sensory input affects participation. For this reason, children are more likely to stay home than participate in external activities that may overwhelm their senses.[3] For adults who have had longer experience with navigating their symptoms, experiencing external activities and surmounting the sensory challenges they pose can be an empowering form of self-advocacy because it fosters a deeper understanding of their condition.[4] A common need for individuals with autism is rigidity and routine, meaning individuals would benefit optimally from consistent programming that can establish a routine frequency of visits.[5] For these reasons, museum visits can be extremely beneficial, however the existence of triggers and barriers often curtails this potential.

Visitors with ASD directly benefit from positive programming. For example, participants from successful programs reported that they would feel comfortable returning to the museum during normal operating hours without crowd reduction, meaning this program contributed to an increase in confidence in handling social outings.[6] Increased familiarity with the environment of a museum could assist in building coping strategies to overcome triggers.[7]Opportunities to participate in sensory friendly programs increase the confidence of participants because they are able to interact with others in an environment controlled to meet their sensory and social needs.[8] These positive experiences are therefore powerful in reducing the social marginalization of autistic audiences and increases their sensory resilience.

Among the activities most appreciated and impactful in ASD-friendly programming is the act of artmaking. Artmaking can stand alone as the core activity of the program or can be incorporated as an exhibition element. Artmaking is highly interactive, and survey results showed audiences responded well to exhibitions that had interactive features. Artmaking specifically stimulates visual and motor senses within a controlled environment.[9]

One of the most popular museum programs for adults and children with ASD is a sensory reduction session featuring reduced museum operations. While effective, this program also presents a paradox in destigmatizing ASD. Sensory reduction programs are typically hours reserved for audiences with developmental disabilities who may be overwhelmed by large crowds or exhibit audio. Because the audience for these programs are largely neurodivergent individuals and family, participants may enjoy the activities free from the judgment of other neurotypical museum guests who may not understand autistic behaviors or reactions.[10] In this setting, families often enjoy a sense of solidarity or recognition of their challenges and identities. 

Lastly, one of the most significant offerings a museum can provide to its neurodivergent audiences is electronic resources which may help them prepare for an in-person visit. Studies have shown that families affected by ASD may avoid museums altogether out of fear of unfamiliar environments. Plan-making can counteract this uncertainty, and families may seek to identify museum guidelines ahead of a visit to account for emergency exits, spaces for quiet time, and other resources to address emergent physical or emotional needs.[11] By making this information available online, museums can increase accessibility by helping families plan for their visits

As is evident in the complex development process for special needs programming, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving accessibility for neurodivergent audiences. These museum visitors benefit from a range of activities that will address their spectrum of sensory, intellectual, and social needs. While museums have historically been inaccessible to these vulnerable communities, efforts by museum educators to bridge the gap with programming have been mutually beneficial for the participants, their families, and the host institutions. More comprehensive studies are needed to evaluate the success of such programs, and museums should prioritize this audience because of the rapidly increasing rate of autism diagnoses. By integrating the autistic community into its operations, museums have the powerful ability to set the standard for the de-stigmatization of developmental disabilities.

Article by: Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate, History and Museum Studies

Tufts University ’23

[1] Libby Hladick et al., “Accessibility and Inclusion for Families with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Cultural Institutions,” Curator: The Museum Journal 65, no. 2 (2022): 437.

[2] Langa et al., “Improving the Museum Experiences of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Their Families,” 323.

[3] Hladik et al., “Accessibility and Inclusion for Families with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Cultural Institutions,” 436.

[4] Sam Theriault and Beth Redmond Jones, “Constructing Knowledge Together: Collaborating with and Understanding Young Adults with Autism,” Journal of Museum Education 43, no. 4 (October 2, 2018): 369.

[5] Hladik et al., “Accessibility and Inclusion for Families with Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in Cultural Institutions,” 436.

[6] Mulligan et al., “Examination of a Museum Program for Children with Autism,” 2013, 313.

[7] Langa et al., “Improving the Museum Experiences of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Their Families,” 328.

[8] Kulik and Fletcher, “Considering the Museum Experience of Children with Autism,” 28.

[9] Mulligan et al., “Examination of a Museum Program for Children with Autism,” 2013, 313–16.

[10] Kulik and Fletcher, “Considering the Museum Experience of Children with Autism,” 28.

[11] Woodruff, “Finding Museum Visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” 83–84.

Encounter Black History in the Nation’s Leading Music Museums

As included in the Motown Museum exhibit Motortown Revue.

There is no disputing that the Black community has had a profound impact on the music that defines American culture. From jazz to rock and roll, from hip-hop to the blues, America’s rich musical traditions would not be the same without the enduring contributions of countless talented African-American artists and musicians.

This Black History Month, we are sharing some of the most impactful music museums in the country. Many of these museums are located in historically Black communities, and all of them celebrate the careers of some of the top Black artists in global music history.

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem

New York, NY

Photo: National Jazz Museum

First on our list is a small but growing jazz museum in New York’s historic Harlem community. This museum is dedicated to the preservation and celebration of jazz music and its enduring ties to the Harlem area. One of the National Jazz Museum’s strengths is its live programming, which is frequent and free to the public and under the creative direction of Grammy-winners Jon Batiste and Christian McBride. We hope you visit the next time you’re in the Big Apple! Learn more.

Universal Hip Hop Museum

Bronx, NY

Photo: Universal Hip Hop Museum

Not far from the National Jazz Museum is the Universal Hip Hop Museum in the historic Bronx, an epicenter of the hip-hop genre. This relatively new museum has already made quite an impact in the New York arts community for its engaging exhibit [R]Evolution of Hip Hop, described as “an immersive journey through Hip Hop History.” Fans of this genre will not want to miss this innovative new museum. Learn more.

Motown Museum

Detroit, MI

Photo: Motown Museum

The Motown Museum, located in Detroit, is ecstatic to have reopened to visitors this year! Surround yourself with the history of Motown giants like Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, and the Temptations as you take an immersive tour of Hitsville U.S.A. Those unable to visit in person can enjoy their virtual exhibit, the Motortown Revue, online. Learn more.

National Museum of African American Music

Nashville, TN

Photo: National Museum of African American Music

Those seeking a multi-genre experience should look no further than the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, the Music City. According to their mission, the NMAAM is “the only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the many music genres created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans.” Visitors should expect lessons in jazz, groove, and the blues in this immersive exhibit complex, located along Nashville’s historic Broadway music corridor. Learn more.

The New Orleans Jazz Museum

New Orleans, LA

Photo: New Orleans Jazz Museum

The New Orleans Jazz Museum promises that visitors will experience “Jazz in the very city it was born.” Like the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the New Orleans Jazz Museum explores jazz in all its forms with a special focus on the musical traditions of New Orleans, a historically black community and a vital center of music and culture in the American South. Visitors will enjoy seeing instruments played by New Orleans-born global phenomenons like Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino while enjoying free daily performances from talented jazz musicians. Learn more.

We encourage you to visit these places and the many other incredible music museums that showcase the great impact the Black community has had on the global musical landscape.


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

Modern Views on Museum Leadership: The Case Against Visionary Leaders

In her article for Hyperallergic, Chazen Art Museum director Amy Gilman precautions museum professionals against falling into the “cult of the visionary museum director,” the idea that museum leaders should aspire to grand visions for the future of the institution.[1] She argues that this perspective is shortsighted and does not account for the short-term and long-term steps and strategies required to realize a museum’s mission: “As directors we must keep envisioning at the 1000-foot view, but unless we can ground that view in pragmatic examples that help our teams link aspiration to action, the 1000-foot view remains an elusive and frustrating dream.”[2] While Gilman’s argument against the visionary director is controversial, the evidence she provides to support this argument proves that she herself is an effective leader whose career could be interpreted by some to be visionary. For this reason, this article and the topic of effective museum leadership in general allude to the ideological shift modern museums experience to meet the changing needs of their communities.

The job should be less about fantastical visions and more about defining practical objectives for the entire institution and its constituents.

Amy GIlman, HyperallergiC (2021)

Museums are facing increasing public scrutiny about their missions and purpose in their respective communities. To maintain relevancy, museums must meet the complex needs of their communities, and museums are therefore experiencing great changes. It is more important now than ever that museum leaders be intuitive, dynamic, and competent to facilitate this institutional reinvention.[3] Now that museums are increasingly more active in their communities, directors have an even greater need to have experience in public relations, business management, finance, and marketing. While curatorial skills are an advantage, some high-level museum director job advertisements do not require experience in non-profits.[4] As scholar Willard Boyd asserts, the director must understand the mission and culture of the museum. Directors must have an aspirational vision of the museum grounded in reality, and the director must have the means through which to achieve the vision.[5] Boyd agrees with Gilman about the need for a pragmatic, rather than visionary, director: “To be effective, the director must be able to figure out what the right things are and then be able to get them done.”[6] For the role of the director, imagination must be accompanied by sound judgement.[7]

Additionally, Sherene Suchy reminds museum professionals of the importance of strong emotional intelligence. Effective leaders should communicate their passion for their institution to others, including potential funders and trustees.[8] Emotionally intelligent directors are likely to practice cohesive leadership, meaning responsibility is shared and staff training and development are prioritized. Cohesive leaders exemplify the behaviors they expect from their staff.[9] Emotionally intelligent leaders often lean into empathy, a trait critical to modern leadership. It is a driver of change, and leaders who practice empathy may be able to understand the pressures facing underpaid staff. For this reason, empathy is the foundation of diversity, inclusion, and pay equity.[10]

In the study of leadership in museums, it is apparent that there are many ideas about the qualities and skills an effective director should possess. Just as institutions have unique needs and missions, there can be no definitive model of a director that could efficiently serve any museum. Willard Boyd reminds the museum field that a perfect director does not exist. Instead, trustees should search for an effective leader who can grow as he or she gains institutional knowledge.[11] The ideal values of leadership, namely pragmatism and emotional intelligence, are not quantifiable and are challenging to identify in the candidate search process. Board members should therefore be prepared to assess candidates not just on their exciting ideas for the position, but also on their commitment to their current posts.


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University


[1] Amy Gilman, “The Era of the Visionary Museum Director Is Over … or It Should Be,” Hyperallergic, July 27, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Gail Anderson, Reinventing the Museum: The Evolving Conversation on the Paradigm Shift, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2012): 1.

[4] Willard L. Boyd. “Wanted: An Effective Director.” Curator 38, no. 3 (1995): 171-172.

[5] Ibid., 177-178.

[6] Ibid.,177.

[7] Ibid., 178.

[8] Sherene Suchy, “Emotional Intelligence, Passion and Museum Leadership,” Museum Management and Curatorship 18, no. 1 (1999): 60.

[9] Des Griffin and Morris Abraham, “The Effective Management of Museums: Cohesive Leadership and Visitor-Focused Public Programming,” Museum Management and Curatorship 18, no. 4 (June 2000): 335-368.

[10] Amy Whitaker, “Reconsidering People as the Institution: Empathy, Pay, Equity, and Deaccessioning as Key Leadership Strategies in Art Museums,” Organizational Leadership 64, no. 2 (April 2021): 257.

[11] Boyd, 177.

Fundraising Galas: Effective or Expensive?

As we enter another busy holiday season and close out 2022, many museums and non-profits are engaging in special fundraising projects to increase end-of-year giving. Among these development strategies is one that many museum professionals have come to know and even fear: the annual gala.

Fundraising galas, most popular during the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, are one of the most popular and commonly used high-yield development projects. A well-executed gala not only brings in significant income—it also attracts media and drives public interest in the museum or charity hosting the event. Many of these events, such as the notorious Met Gala, are synonymous with wealth and popularity, but are they effective in creating economic stability for the host institution? It’s a complicated issue over which development and museum professionals are divided.

One could describe them the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy: the worst option, except for all the other options that have been tried before.

Taylor Dafoe, ArtNET

Galas clearly create economic opportunities for those participating. During gala season, event planning agencies, furniture rentals, event venues, caterers, and entertainers experience a significance increase in business. Many museums and non-profits lack the operating capacity to achieve an event of such scope with their in-house resources, so they seek out community partners to pull of these fundraisers. This creates fantastic opportunities for collaboration, but often stretches the financial limits of the fundraising institution.

Best fundraising tactics stipulate that the cost for executing a gala should not exceed 30% of the income generated by the event; however, this is a budgeting goal that is oftentimes unrealistic, especially for nascent and small organizations. Galas come at a staggering cost to plan—a study for ArtNet reveals that some museums’ gala budgets exceed the total income brought in by their yearly admission sales. This ratchets pressure for museum staff to plan and execute an event that will surpass the steep investment.

Not only is the stress of planning a successful event a considerable burden for museum staff—it also often precludes them from completing their typical professional duties. This is especially true for smaller organizations, as development departments often cease other projects in the months leading up to the gala in order to complete the rigorous planning process. As seasoned fundraising professionals note, this can considerably negatively impact a museum’s overall fundraising success by derailing other significant revenue-generating projects.

In addition to apprehensions regarding the fundraising efficacy of galas, some professionals note the ethical dilemmas of such projects. Academics Philip Hackney and Brian Middendorf reveal that galas can potentially contradict the intentions and missions of the non-profit institution. Because these celebrations often focus on grand gestures of decadence, they may not represent the non-profit’s philanthropic values. This may be especially relevant for nonprofits dedicated to serving an economically disadvantaged population. 

In light of these arguments against the traditional gala fundraising model, some alternatives may point towards a more sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many museums to forgo their annual in-person galas. Some institutions opted to host virtual events. While these events typically worked towards a reduced fundraising goal, the virtual nature also decreased overhead costs. Some nonprofits like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital also produce “no-go” galas, sponsored events with no in-person party. As fundraising professionals recognize, annual galas are attractive because of their abilities to drive large donations; however, museums can work towards this goal with other major gift campaigns that may require less investment of limited resources.

Overall, galas are a recognizable form of fundraising that increases visibility in the public eye and introduces museums to potential repeat donors. Museums should exercise caution, however, before pursuing such an event. Fundraising professionals recommend museums consult their boards and operations staff to determine feasibility and goals for such an involved project.


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

Haunting Attractions for the Halloween Season

Agatha Wojciechowsky. American (born Germany), 1896-1986.
aw 0323, 1963.
Watercolor on paper.
Courtesy of the Collection of Steven Day, New York, NY

Image from the Minneapolis Institute of Art from the Supernatural America exhibit.

It only takes a few steps into a pharmacy or grocery in the month of October to see the impact of Halloween on the public. Aisles are filled to the brim with candy, fake spiderwebs, and gregarious costumes in anticipation of a raucous holiday season. As the town of Salem prepares for a record-breaking month of tourism, one thing is abundantly clear: mainstream interest in the occult, the scary, and the supernatural is stronger than ever.

Can this affection for the macabre manifest in the museum world? Is it possible to run exhibitions on the things that go bump in the night? Would people view a museum as the authority on the supernatural? In short, yes! Many museums have capitalized on the paranormal. Some institutions have featured supernatural themes in rotating exhibitions while others dedicate their entire exhibition capacity to allegedly haunted objects. For example, the recent traveling exhibit Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art enjoyed well-attended displays at the Toledo Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Speed Art Museum.

Of course, a bizarre and subversive topic like the supernatural lends itself to dramatic and otherworldly interpretations, with many institutions blurring the line between museum and haunted house. But rather than dismiss these unconventional museums for their unorthodox methods, we should approach them with curiosity—they are tapping in on an interest that is in high demand. If these institutions can generate excitement for visiting exhibits, they are making an invaluable contribution to the museum and historic house community.

Here are some haunting attractions to enjoy this Halloween:

Zak Bagan’s The Haunted Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada may look like a haunted mansion from the outside, but it holds hundreds of artifacts relating to true crime and the supposed supernatural. With thousands of positive reviews, it is clear that the Haunted Museum is providing an exciting and memorable visitor experience.

The Paranormal Museum in Ashbury Park, NJ is a popular roadside attraction in the New Jersey community. Combined with the Paranormal Books & Curiosities shop, the Museum is home to many haunted artifacts and ghost-hunting equipment.

Of course, historic Salem makes this list with the Salem Witch Museum, one of many occult museums and historic houses in this scenic New England town. At the Witch Museum, visitors can expect to learn about the origins and impacts of the Salem Witch Trials and will be encouraged to consider more modern iterations of this community-wide panic.

Image courtesy of Save Our Cemeteries.

No list of haunted attractions would be complete without mention of New Orleans. For those seeking a more interactive activity, a cemetery tour is the perfect fit. Explore the historic crypts and mausoleums of Orleans parish while learning about some of the cemetery’s most prominent residents. Tours conducted by Save Our Cemeteries, Inc are historically accurate and mutually beneficial—proceeds earned from tours are reinvested into the critical preservation of these historic landmarks.

Happy Halloween from the Tufts Museum Studies Program—we hope you have the happiest and safest of holidays!


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History & Museum Studies

Tufts University

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