Are stairway exhibits exclusionary?

I’m finding this project interesting and provocative:

Here is some additional description of the installation from the museum’s YouTube channel:

The Senator John Heinz History Center, “the Smithsonian’s home in Pittsburgh,” and UPMC Health Plan have partnered to encourage museum visitors to climb the stairs and blend health and history with the new SmartSteps exhibition.

Visitors who take the steps to explore the History Center’s six floors of exhibition space will be treated to unique facts about Pittsburgh history and colorful murals with health and wellness tips.

As far as we know, the History Center is the first museum in the nation with an exhibit in its stairwell.

The SmartSteps exhibit is part of the museum’s “Health & Fitness” initiatives, which includes healthier eating options at MixStirs Café, a Health and The Body section inside the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, and the nation’s first curator of food and fitness.

Visitors who climb all 123 steps of the SmartSteps exhibit will be rewarded with a complimentary Heinz pickle pin.

I appreciate that the museum is encouraging visitors to think about fitness, and rewarding them for taking some steps (ha!) toward greater physical activity.  That said, I have one big question about the installation:

How does this exhibit even begin to account for visitors with mobility disabilities?

I see that the “passport” stamps visitors can collect are located on the exhibit floor at each level rather than in the staircase, so I suppose if the museum considered collecting all six stamps to be sufficient participation for the reward of a pin, visitors unable to take the stairs could still participate to some extent by taking the elevator and getting off at each floor.  However, the stairway exhibits themselves seem to be off-limits to people who cannot climb or descend stairs, including people who use wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, crutches, and similar devices–not to mention parents with children in strollers.  And isn’t the learning that takes place in the stairway more important than a pickle pin?

In the video, the Smart Steps exhibit is framed as a promotion for physical fitness, with “smart” referencing, I’m assuming, both the exhibit content (learning can take place inside the stairway) and that it’s “smarter,” from a fitness standpoint, to climb the stairs instead of riding the elevator.  If steps are here set up in opposition to elevators, and steps are “smart,” does that make elevators (and by extension, their users) “dumb”? (The museum claims to be trying to “make elevators history,” which of course is also troubling from an accessibility standpoint.)

Near the end of the video, Scott Lammie, a senior vice president with the UPMC Health plan, says, “UPMC Health Plan is just so proud to be a sponsor of the Heinz History Center, and we’re especially delighted to be able to support this Smart Steps exhibit, an exhibit that encourages our visitors to blend health and history.” Might this museum find ways for all its visitors to blend health and history, and not just those who are able to climb stairs?

Perhaps the museum could provide the same content in alternative formats, such as a brochure or website.  However, even if the museum has created such resources–and it’s not apparent to me it has–a brochure or website is not able to provide quite the same experience as the one accessible to the able-bodied.  After all, the video suggests climbing the stairs is a social experience; at 2:27 in the video, generically attractive white people are shown climbing the stairs, chatting and enjoying the experience available to them.

That said, it’s not at all clear to me that a brochure or website showcasing the content would be considered an acceptable alternative under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  At, a page on museum accessibility states that when elevators are broken and exhibition areas thus made inaccessible to visitors with disabilities, “temporary alternate access to exhibitions and programs may be provided using photographic, video, or computer presentations.”  Note the word temporary in that sentence–it suggests such workarounds are insufficient as permanent accommodations.

This all raises, of course, a point that transcends the Heinz Center’s exhibit: Are stairway exhibits forbidden under the ADA? If not, should museums interpret the ADA more broadly, and ensure that at least a portion of every exhibit is accessible to visitors with disabilities?  If so, what constitutes a reasonable portion? For example, in science centers, some interactives might not be 100% accessible to everyone, yet such interactives are at least viewable by sighted people who might not have the strength, flexibility, balance, or dexterity required by some of the stations.  In addition, I have seen art hung above the landing areas in stairways at art museums, but these are isolated pieces and typically do not constitute an exhibition in themselves. The stairway exhibit at the Heinz Center, however, is not viewable by those with mobility issues that keep them from accessing the stairs.

What are your thoughts? Are there ways to make the Heinz Center’s Smart Steps exhibition sufficiently accessible to visitors with disabilities? If not, does that mean museums shouldn’t invest in stairway exhibits?


  1. I’m glad someone addressed this – the accessibility issues were the first thing that popped in my head when I first heard about this project.
    Most people with disabilities aren’t looking for opportunities for lawsuits, and most will likely be okay with the fact that this exhibition is not available to them. Hopefully the museum is providing it in another format for people unable to use the stairs for whatever reason. I don’t think their goal is to exclude anyone (and thus the reason most people won’t be offended), but I do wonder whether this is a good model to follow.
    Standard caveats aside, it seems they could be sued.

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