Inclusion in Action Case Study: Royal Ontario Museum

Royal Ontario Museum logo

 Things to Remember: Re-Examining the Design of Out from Under

Royal Ontario Museum


Preamble Our Story Learnings Moving Forward
Acknowledgements Contributors Resources Dig Deeper



The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is Canada’s largest museum with collections that span art, culture and nature from across time and around the Globe. Among North America’s most renowned museums, the ROM is home to more than 12 million objects and specimens, 40 galleries and exhibitions spaces and a range of fascinating exhibitions, lectures, tours and events. We consider access to our collections and information to be one of our primary and defining responsibilities, and are committed to creating inclusive experiences for all visitors.

Our missteps when it comes to access, diversity and inclusion have been well documented, and as an institution we acknowledge our shortcoming, and continue to grow in our understanding of how best to create equity throughout our museum practices. In doing so, we also recognize that it is important to share the challenges and learnings that arise from what has been widely considered a success. To illustrate this, we’ve chosen to spotlight the award-winning exhibition Out From Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember, an important moment for institutional change at the ROM, to shed light on our process in creating access within the physical constraints of a heritage building, and designing an exhibition that is inclusive to all.

Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember premiered in October 2007 at the ten-day Abilities Arts Festival in Toronto. From there, it was adapted to fit within the ROM’s physical space during its run from April 17, 2008 to July 13, 2008. Currently, it is part of the permanent exhibitions at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The first of its kind in Canada, Out from Under was curated by faculty members from Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies. Content was largely generated through a special topic seminar designed to uncover the hidden history of disability. Students were invited to identify an object representing a particular era or moment in Canadian disability history and explore its significance. The product of these seminars was a display of 13 diverse objects revealed a rich and nuanced history that pays tribute to the resilience, creativity, and the civic and cultural contributions of Canadians with disabilities.

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Our Story

Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember was not initially planned to be shown at the Royal Ontario Museum. As so often occurs, the initial spark for this transformational event was a seemingly ordinary interaction and the willingness of a Change Agent to speak up. In this case, that interaction was the attendance of the Abilities Arts Festival by a woman named Christine Karcza.

At the time Christine was a member of the ROM board of trustees, a motivational speaker, life coach, and adviser on “how to remove barriers of all kinds.” Christine also identifies as having a disability. Experiencing Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember, Christine noted that the show was very physical, and seamless in the way that it created access through clever design choices and by providing multiple avenues to engage with the content; but most impressive in her view was that it was an exhibit like every other exhibit. It did not present as a heavy-handed attempt to integrate access into an exhibit, rather, it was simply an inclusive exhibition.

Shortly after attending Out from Under, Christine made the case to the ROM board and executive to bring the show to the ROM, and received the go-ahead. Of course, this is not the end of the story. The exhibition of Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember was a transformational experience for the ROM, and one which even internally we may have yet to fully realize. It set the tone for how we engage with community on exhibitions related to their culture and narrative, how we create equity across our exhibition offerings, and how we create greater access within our spaces in a way that is inclusive to our diverse audiences.

Upon greenlighting Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember, we ran into our first roadblock: we had no idea where to put it. Despite having an exhibition to install, we still had to heavily adapt it to work within our space. At the time, the ROM was still more or less under renovation as the finishing touches were being put on the Michael Lee Chin Crystal, and our gallery space was at capacity. Considerations related to where to house the exhibition included: elevator access, barrier-free washroom availability, path of travel clearances, whether doors had automatic features, and the lighting set-up. Access to the exhibition was critical in selecting the physical space in which the exhibition would be housed, and by applying this lens, Out from Under changed the way we thought about our own space, space we had been working in for years!

The Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design were used for their technical specifications relating to physical access when installing exhibitions. To further guide our efforts, and provide crucial lived experience expertise, a steering committee for the exhibition was created. Eventually through committee insight, a comprehensive review of our physical space, and the use of the guidelines referenced above, a space was selected.

Like most spaces, our space was not perfect. Accessible design in 2008 had only truly come into prominence following the passing of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act in 2005, and even then compliance to the minimum requirements of the Act is not best practice. As such, we needed to find or create inclusive solutions for imperfect spaces. To further compound the necessity to get it right, as part of Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember the ROM would be hosting a 300 person grand opening and reception for a diverse range of attendees, many of whom identified as having a disability.

A work plan was created, within it were key tasks to ensure access including: removing doors, testing access features, securing American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and real-time captioning for the opening, adding a ramp to our speaking platform, ensuring availability of seating, and bringing on attendants to assist guests in navigating a barrier-free route through our still under-construction space. In hindsight, many of these features have become commonplace in our museum. Currently, in 2018, access features are tested daily by security on their patrols, seating is spread throughout all of our spaces, and ASL interpretation is provided for keynote programming. However, in 2008, these were novel, and as a result, somewhat daunting, tasks.

We highlight the discrepancy between past and present to communicate a key takeaway: the learnings we gained from Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember have bolstered our capacity to engage with our audiences, and by incorporating inclusive elements into the very fabric of our institution, tasks that were once daunting have become routine.

In opening Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember, the community told us that not only did we do accessibility right, but that they also felt included. In their willingness to share we realized the magnitude of what we had accomplished with the show. How did we know? We asked them, and captured feedback during our opening. Of those in attendance a majority identified as having a disability, they told us how we did:

  • “A thoughtful and detailed representation of such a significant piece of hidden history.  I have a strong appreciation for the tremendous amount of thought, energy and organization behind this complex work.”
  • “Terrific!  As an adult living with a disability since birth, seeing and recording this display of history (my history) instills a greater sense of pride in me.”
  • “Fantastic!  The tangibility of items and visualizing the roles in peoples’ lives offers a level of meaning that is experienced as opposed to learned.”
  • “Every once in a while, someone, usually another PWD [person with a disability], holds up a mirror.  The Reflection reminds me of my greatness, beauty and collectivity. This exhibit does that – all of us reflected, all of us together.  How wonderful we are better together!”
  • “Absolutely wonderful exhibit!  This is history as it should be – by people who lived it and live it today.  Inspiring, thoughtful and moving.  Congratulations to everyone involved.  A true remembrance of people with disabilities’ past.”
  • “Yes!  We need more of this three-dimensional documentary.”

Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember was a success. In 2008, the iteration showcased at the ROM was awarded an Access Award for disability issues by the City of Toronto, and was widely praised by the public and the media. However, perhaps the most meaningful outcome, was the shift that it ignited internally. Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember cemented the importance of access, representation, diversity and inclusion, provided a tangible business case for this work, and created a group of advocates amongst ROM staff who continue to drive this agenda to date. It gave us things to remember, and forced us to be better. There is no going back.

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Learning Symbol, notepad and pencil in a circle Learning Symbol, notepad and pencil in a circle

Learning #1

Physical access is about more than the physical.

By creating a physically accessible space in collaboration with experts and community, and based in established practice, we set a tone for how Out From Under would be perceived. That is, by creating a foundation of access we were able to build towards inclusion. We removed the often cited barrier that “physically” the museum does not feel like a place for me, and in doing so, allowed the content and the connectivity of the show to further draw audiences into their museum.




Learning #2

Authentic community representation drives authentic community engagement.

“[Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember] is a project of celebration and struggle, of solidarity and subversion,” said co-curator Catherine Frazee. “Disabled people don't seek merely to participate in Canadian culture – we want to create it, shape it and stretch it beyond its tidy edges.” By creating an environment in which community voice was represented, heard and included, we aimed to include those who identify as having a disability in authentic and meaningful ways. However, we were somewhat overwhelmed by the feedback which we received directly from our audiences. In hindsight, this is not surprising but it is worth noting that representation and equity, are inextricably linked to audience engagement.


Learning Symbol, notepad and pencil in a circle Learning Symbol, notepad and pencil in a circle

Learning #3 

Design for one, apply to many.

Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember was an innovative approach to the exhibition process. It shared agency in ways that were previously considered unthinkable, created access in ways which were previously untested, and broke down barriers in ways that were previously unimaginable. However, it was also experimentation by any definition of the word. Well-considered experimentation, but experimentation none-the-less. The beauty of this design process was not only the development of guidelines and roadmaps for a single community, but the creation of guidelines and practices which continue to be adapted, and applied across diverse audiences to date.

Learning #4

Best practice changes. Willingness to change shouldn’t.

We recognize that standards and best practices are a moving target, some of the approaches that we had taken during the Out from Under exhibition may now be considered dated, and we have adapted several of the initial processes that were created then. This is important, as it highlights that this work is never completely done. A desire to learn more, and do better, is needed. As new institutions continue to set the bar higher, and the demand for access and inclusivity from the public gets greater, we need to be ready and willing to respond.

Moving Forward

Beyond our physical space, Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember was a transformational exhibition for the Royal Ontario Museum. It laid the groundwork for how we share authority, and include community voice in our space. That is, by integrating community in planning, curation, content, design and communication. This approach is a roadmap which we unintentionally created, and which, we have yet to fully understand the history or the scope of. It is incomplete, and likely flawed, and requires reflection, collaboration and innovation to remain relevant and appropriate. However, it is a testament to the power of a single advocate, a single project, and a willingness to embrace uncertainty and learn with humility. It is the culmination of all these things that creates a more accessible, diverse, inclusive and equitable ROM.

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A most gracious thank you is owed to the team of Catherine Frazee, Melanie Panitch and Kathryn Church at the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson University. It is your vision and passion which propelled Out from Under to the forefront of the arts and culture conversation in an era when such topics were unprecedented.

We would also like to acknowledge Christine Karcza for her relentless advocacy for matters of access, diversity, equity and inclusion at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Lastly, thank you to all involved in the exhibition of Out from Under at the Royal Ontario Museum, your diligence allowed the crucial conversations of Out from Under to be given a voice in one of North America’s premiere cultural institutions.




Headshot, Christian Blake


Inclusion Advisor, Royal Ontario Museum

Christian Blake is the Inclusion Advisor at the Royal Ontario Museum where he works directly with the museum’s access, diversity, equity and inclusion portfolio. Beyond his role within the Museum, he is also a clinical Occupational Therapist working with children and youth. Christian brings his unique clinical lens for enabling participation and engagement, and a profound passion for museums and galleries to the pursuit of equity and inclusion across the cultural sector.   




Headshot, Emilio Genovese





Exhibit Designer, Graphics, Royal Ontario Museum 

Emilio is an experiential graphic designer at the Royal Ontario Museum. He has designedexhibitions of all types presenting, art, culture and nature as well as social issues such as gender, genocide and nature conservancy among others. 

By incorporating human-centred design methodologies he aims to create accessible and meaningful experiences for visitors. Innovation and inclusivity is the heart of this design process.


Advisory Committee Member

Headshot, Pauline Dolovich

Advisory Committee Member

Headshot, Jess Mitchell


Principal, Reich + Petch Design International



Senior Manager, Research + Design, Inclusive Design Research Centre, OCAD University



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Dig Deeper

  • Mobilizing Metaphor: Art, Culture, and Disability Activism in Canada (Kelly and Orsini eds, 2016) (book)
  • Representing Disability: Activism and Agency in the Museum (Sandell, Dodd and Garland-Thomson, eds, 2010) (book)
  • Church, K., Panitch, M., Frazee, C., & Livingstone, P. (2010). ‘Out from under’: A brief history of everything. In R. Sandell, J. Dodd & R. Garland-Thomson (Eds.), Re-presenting disability: Activism and agency in the museum.
  • Exhibiting activist disability history in Canada: Out from under as a case study of social movement learning (Church, Landry, Frazee, Ignani, Mitchell, Panitch, Patterson, Phillips, Terry, Yoshida & Voronka, 2016) (article)
  • Smithshonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design  

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This resource was made possible by the generous support of the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration Partnership Grant Program.