Art & History for All: 4 Wisconsin Museums Prioritizing Accessibility
Are you a curious traveler who loves immersing yourself fully wherever you go? Do you search out unique experiences for you and your crew to soak up while visiting someplace new? If you’re hoping to add something special to your trip to make it extra memorable, exploring a museum is a great way to enrich a vacation or a perfect reason for a fun day trip. Luckily, Wisconsin has over 400 throughout the state, centered on everything from accordions and mustard to famous artists and the state's cultural history.
If you’re part of the 1 in 4 adults in the US who identify as having a disability or know someone who is, a trip to a museum can take some extra planning. Fortunately, many of these institutions are providing more accommodations than ever before, such as rentable wheelchairs, audio tours, large print information cards, hands-on exhibits and more.
While all museums must follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), some in Wisconsin are going above and beyond to ensure every visitor has a fun and memorable experience. Check out the four spots below and you’re guaranteed to have an enjoyable, barrier-free time for your whole group—you’ll probably learn something new, too!
Milwaukee Public Museum – Milwaukee
Wander the turn-of-the-century streets of Milwaukee with friends. Discover one of the largest dinosaur skulls ever found. Feel an exotic butterfly land gently on you as waterfalls flow in the warm tropical air. You can experience all of this and more in the same day with a trip to the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Wheelchair users have easy access to all three floors of exhibits including a new 3D tactile exhibit in the Africa gallery where you can touch exact replicas of real artifacts and get a real feel for history. Large print signs, braille guides, audio tours and assisted listening devices provide many ways to enjoy all exhibits, from mammoth bones to vintage Disney toys to portraits of famous figures.
Plan ahead with the MPM All In app that includes a sensory-friendly map, communication prompts and tips about busy times and quiet areas. Take a break during your visit in the sensory room that has adjustable lights and sounds or grab some noise-reducing headphones from the front desk (child and adult sizes available). And an adult personal care room makes it easy for caregivers to assist their clients or loved ones.
MPM also partners with the Museums for All program, meaning that those receiving SNAP benefits receive reduced admission fees. In addition, every employee at MPM has had communication training in order to offer every guest the best experience possible, so you can be confident you and your group will feel welcome while spending the day exploring fascinating exhibits and soaking up surprising facts about Wisconsin and the world beyond.
Wisconsin Maritime Museum – Manitowoc
What’s up with all the water in and around Wisconsin? We’ve got Great Lakes, powerful rivers, bubbling creeks and waterways that connect all parts of the state. If you’ve ever wondered how shipbuilders, sailors, and traders lived in the olden days, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc is the place to find out and have fun in the process.
Learn about real shipwrecks in Lake Michigan and tour hand-built boats from past decades in the Wisconsin-Built Boat Gallery. Enter the engine room of a 100-year-old steam engine ship that still works. The museum is entirely wheelchair accessible except for a World War 2 submarine, the USS Cobia, which requires stairs and watertight doors to enter. Happily, the museum has replicas of the doors for everyone to try out as well as virtual tours with commentary of the submarine. Commentary is available in English, Spanish or Russian.
Check out a sensory backpack at the front desk beforehand and noise-reducing earmuffs for a visit tailored just for you. For hands-on fun, stop in the Children’s Waterways Room to build your own boat and navigate Wisconsin waters on a small scale. Through their All Hands On Deck initiative, the museum strives to remove physical, cognitive, financial and geographic barriers for all guests, ensuring everyone can dive into the marvelous maritime history of the state.
Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum – Wausau
Nature-lovers will be in paradise at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau. This North Central Wisconsin museum is famous for its Birds in Art exhibition each fall, its visiting exhibitions that change “more often than the seasons,” and it's always free admission.
Wander the sculpture garden with one of the wheelchairs, strollers or portable gallery stools available for check out. All grounds are wheelchair accessible, and artwork and labels are placed at heights designed to be viewed by all visitors, whether standing or seated.
The museum’s collection began with the Birds in Art exhibition in 1976 before growing to include over 14,000 pieces of art that celebrate the natural world. In 2006, the Art Beyond Sight (ABS) program was put in place to provide ways for individuals with blindness or low vision to experience the museum’s many exhibits. Sign up for one of these programs led by museum educators and guest presenters for a multisensory guided tour followed by hands-on art making in one of the museum’s classrooms. Artists in residence, regional experts, and museum staff collaborate to produce ABS programs that educate, engage, and empower visitors with vision impairment.
Audio tours are also available, and the museum is happy to work with teachers and groups to accommodate other requests. But don’t just take it from us. Hunter Kelch, a 25-year-old visitor with Cerebral Palsy who blogs about accessibility issues, gave the museum his first-ever five-wheelchair-star rating for full accessibility and great service.
The Chazen - Madison
Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Henri Matisse, Georgia O’Keeffe—these are just a few of the famous artists whose work is on display at the Chazen Museum of Art in downtown Madison. Roam the fully accessible 176,000 square feet full of approximately 23,000 works of art that cover a wide range of historical periods, cultures, and geographic locations, from ancient Greece, Western Europe and the Soviet Empire to Moghul India, 18th-century Japan and modern Africa. Wheelchairs are available for check out at the front desk.
Admission is always free, so visitors can come back as many times as they want. The full collection is also digitized and available on the museum’s website for easy access no matter where you are, including a program that reads all brochures, exhibit descriptions and other publications out loud. Contact the museum ahead of time and they’ll be happy to provide an American Sign Language interpreter for your visit.
At the Chazen, you and your crew can soak in centuries of culture in two buildings connected by an enclosed bridge gallery, explore ancient and modern art and end your visit with a cup of coffee from the museum café. Cheers!
Want to continue your adventures into the great outdoors? Check out these accessible state parks in Wisconsin.