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Breaking down barriers: many communities have limited exposure to cultural destinations--ROMCAN aims to bridge that gap at the Museum.

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A woman sits at a microphone in her electric wheelchair. Two hundred members of the ROM and the general public wait expectantly in their seats alongside 100 grade 7 students from D. A. Morrisson Middle School, who fill the ROM's Bronfman Hall with their frenetic energy. It is October 26, 2011. They have gathered for the ROM's monthly Context Lecture to hear the remarkable Judith Snow talk about her exhibition Who's Drawing the Lines. At 60, Snow has lived beyond the health challenges of her lifelong quadriplegia and transcended all limitations projected onto her about her ability to express herself through painting and writing. She is a world leader in inclusiveness issues for people labelled disabled, and her exhibition features more than 20 works that challenge viewers to confront their perceptions of disability. As Snow shares her journey as an artist and social innovator, the audience is transfixed. Her story makes the impossible suddenly feel possible.

One student, Chris, is so moved that he later sends the ROM a letter sharing the impact Snow's story had on him. For the first time, he wrote, he felt he could do anything. Powerful feedback considering that he and the other students in attendance come from a neighbourhood considered at risk. Many children from high-priority areas are too overwhelmed by daily life challenges to consider a brighter future--and Chris's letter shows why ROMCAN, the Museum's access initiative aimed at supporting disadvantaged communities throughout the province, is so important.

Long before the Royal Ontario Museum Community Access Network (ROMCAN) was started in 2008, the Museum had recognized the importance of making its treasures available to everyone. But the reality remained that many communities continued to have a limited history of exposure to the ROM and other cultural destinations. ROMCAN, one of the programs I oversee as assistant vice-president, Visitor Experience and Audience Insight, aims to bridge the gap and reach all Ontarians. Exhibiting Judith Snow's work in Who's Drawing the Lines and inviting at-risk students to attend Snow's lecture are just two small expressions of the ROM's commitment.

The day after Snow's lecture, the Museum announced that it was lowering admission prices by more than a third across the board. In 2011, the ROM conducted research that "demonstrated conclusively that many people--especially families--would attend the ROM more often if general admission prices were reduced," reported Gail Lord, co-president, Lord Cultural Resources, an international consulting practice that conducted the research. "This is a great centennial present for the ROM to give Canadians," she added. "It's a bold, unprecedented move for a Canadian museum."

"Increasing access is a priority for the ROM," confirmed Janet Carding, the ROM's director and CEO. In order to lower prices significantly for all visitors, the ROM discontinued its Wednesday two-hour period of free admission. The research had also shown that most people visiting during this period would pay to visit; the free admission was deflecting from resources supporting individuals and families who cannot afford to visit at any price. The finding was evidence that the ROM needed to work toward identifying and reducing other factors that might be preventing participation.

So the Museum chose to target its efforts directly at inclusion for those most in need by greatly expanding its ROMCAN program. The ROM has now partnered with 56 new community agencies to help put Museum admission into the right hands--a plan that delivers 75,000 free ROM tickets annually to those who could not otherwise visit. Contemplating the needs of full-time students, ROMCAN also began to offer free admission on Tuesdays to students attending a post-secondary institution, to engage and inspire the next generation of Museum supporters and visitors.

The payoffs of greater inclusivity can be significant. Richard Sandell, professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, has suggested that when greater inclusivity is practised by museums it can help society achieve the goal of wider social inclusion and even combat contemporary social problems (Museums as Agents of Social Inclusion). Some museums, says Sandell, are beginning to redefine their role in society to become agents of social inclusion. The ROM now falls within that group--one of its primary goals has become figuring out how to engage all Ontarians who want to participate. The Museum is on a mission to build relationships with communities to reflect the interests of a diverse and continually changing population.

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The best strategy for achieving this goal is opening up community dialogue. As Sandell points out, social exclusion is "the breakdown of the links between an individual and their family, friends, community, and state services and institutions." To counter such exclusion, the ROM is cultivating relationships within diverse communities to discuss their particular barriers and what the Museum can do to help overcome them. We're hoping that this will go a long way toward forging connections with communities that may not otherwise engage with the Museum whether because of lack of awareness, mistrust, or a feeling of being unrepresented.

So far, initiatives have included school programming, lectures, and art installations that reflect accessibility (exhibitions to date include Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember; House Calls with my Camera; and most recently Who's Drawing the Lines: The Journey of Judith Snow) as well as tours and special exhibitions that offer Braille, American sign language (ASL), captioning, touchable objects, and large-print or tactile books. In 2011, the ROM installed a high-tech hearing-loop system that allows visitors with hearing loss to enjoy guided tours and interact seamlessly with front desk staff. In addition, many school visits for children from priority neighbourhoods have been made possible through bursaries.

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When the Museum started ROMCAN in 2008, it had 17 initial partner agencies. The Cultural Access Pass program of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) was one; founded in 2006 by the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson (former Lieutenant Governor) and John Ralston Saul, ICC aims to inspire full citizenship in new Canadians through exposure to Canada's cultural history, historic figures, and significant artworks in their first year as citizens. To that end, the ROM--and other institutions such as the Art Gallery of Ontario and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection--donate annual memberships to be given to new Canadians after their swearing-in ceremonies. The second of ROMCAN's initial partners, The Museum Arts Pass program (MAP), allows patrons of select branches of the Toronto Public Library (TPL) to sign out a pass, much as one would sign out a library book, which allows them to attend one of a variety of cultural venues, including the ROM. The Museum worked with TPL to identify branches closest to some of the city's highest priority communities to increase the likelihood of participation from those facing economic challenges. The other partners, 15 United Way agencies in the GTA, offered monthly allotments of general admission ROM tickets for distribution to families and individuals. Those agencies work to facilitate visits for under-served community members, including aboriginal youth, at-risk youth from marginalized communities, women leading single-parent households because of violence in the home, and seniors on a fixed income.

Since October 2011, through the ROM's new community and charitable partners, tickets are also distributed to families on fixed incomes, children with life-threatening medical conditions, abused women, newcomers to Canada, and Canadians with physical and mental disabilities. (To learn more about participating organizations see the Community Partner Profiles on page 29.)

The benefits of providing tangible improvements, such as Braille or hearing loops, that enable people with disabilities to visit or more fully participate in a visit are obvious--and much appreciated. We often hear back from visitors such as this one who said: "My sister was a wheelchair user and we were treated like gold every time we went there. The ROM is an AWESOME place!!!!!!!!!!!!" But when people hear about the larger scope of community access programming, by far the most frequent question is do these tickets really make a difference? The answer is yes, they do--we know they are popular. Since 2008, the ROM has consistently been one of the top venues visited in the Museum Arts Pass program. There is often a waiting list for ROM MAP passes, and library patrons have been known to queue at participating branches well in advance of the Saturday morning weekly distribution.

Without programming like ROMCAN, children from priority neighbourhoods often lack the resources and consequently the opportunities for enrichment that children from more affluent neighbourhoods enjoy. This can make a significant difference in their lives. Exposure to arts and culture contributes to children's intellectual development in many ways. A 2005 report by the Rand Corporation (a non-profit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis) found that involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill. As the report noted, "experiencing art can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing." Programs such as ROMCAN provide that opportunity, helping to lay a foundation to forge social bonds and community cohesion. Says the ROM's Carding: "The great thing about a Museum visit is that it carries on delivering after you've left. The next time children who've visited go out for a walk, they'll see the world differently."

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As someone who has witnessed the impact of community access programming first-hand, I can attest to the joy it can bring. In 2010, I was invited as a representative of the ROM to participate in a swearing-in ceremony at the St. Clair East citizenship office. As the court clerk introduced us, I can honestly say I was humbled to stand before a room filled with more than 80 women, men, and children, and in many cases entire families, who were less than a few hours away from becoming Canadians.

The emotions of the event were palpable and at times it took everything in me to hold back tears as I witnessed the pride in this crop of new Canadians. That pride was coupled with awe when they were told about the opportunity to apply for free memberships to cultural organizations. Colleagues from sister organizations have shared similar accounts of feeling overwhelmed by witnessing the joy as applications were distributed. The sense of wonder I continue to see as recipients of these memberships arrive for their first Museum visit reminds me of the power of learning about world cultures and the natural world.

New efforts to open up dialogue with ROMCAN members and the broader community are still under way. Our most recent pilot initiative is a youth club for new Canadians that will be much like our popular Saturday Morning Club, but with a focus on learning about Canada and practising English. Through this community work, the ROM is taking further steps toward its goal of belonging to everyone.

ROMCAN: partners in community

The ROM is pleased to welcome its new ROMCAN community partners. They will help the ROM to reach a wider segment of Ontarians, offering the opportunity to experience the Museum's treasures.

Kids Up Front Foundation Toronto is a charitable organization that provides access to arts, culture, sports, and recreation for children in Toronto who otherwise do not have these opportunities. Kids Up Front reaches children and families in need by distributing arts, culture, and sports tickets to 150 charitable partners. Since 2006, Kids Up Front has provided more than 160,000 children in our community with free access to events.

Literature for Life unleashes intellectual potential within young, marginalized mothers who struggle to survive the challenges of living in or near poverty. Through one-of-a-kind reading circles, Literature for Life promotes the benefits of reading and literacy, helping young moms develop their intellectual potential.

Make-A-Wish[R] Canada's mission is to grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions, to enrich the human experience with hope, strength, and joy. Make-A-Wish Canada is a part of the largest wish-granting organization in the world, which can be found in more than 36 countries on five continents.

The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is recognized as one of the world's foremost pediatric health-care institutions and is Canada's leading centre dedicated to advancing children's health through the integration of patient care, research, and education. Founded in 1875 and affiliated with the University of Toronto, SickKids is one of Canada's most research-intensive hospitals and it has generated discoveries that have helped children around the globe.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world's leading research centres in the area of addiction and mental health. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development, and health promotion to help transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues.

The Youth Challenge Fund is an umbrella organization of 21 agencies whose mission is to engage marginalized young people who have not accessed traditional youth programs. YCF has collaborated with youth leaders, the private and public sectors, community-based organizations, and individual donors to support a new approach to community building that puts young people in the driver's seat. The most effective solutions to problems confronting young people in our most under-served neighbourhoods--disengagement, violence, and barriers to accessing education, employment, and safe spaces--are youth-led solutions.

The United Way Toronto is a charity working to advance the common good and create opportunities for a better life for everyone in the city. Working in partnership with others, United Way mobilizes people and resources to address the root causes of social problems and to change community conditions for the better. United Way supports agencies that provide services to strengthen individuals, families, and communities.

VIEWS is a non-profit provincial support and advocacy organization that works with other stakeholders to advocate for and provide opportunities to assist children who are blind or have low vision in reaching their full potential. VIEWS educates policy makers, families, and the public about the abilities and needs of children who are blind or have low vision.

YWCA Toronto is dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls. YWCA helps women and girls flee violence, secure housing, find jobs, establish their voices, enhance their skills, and develop confidence. It offers a range of housing options, employment and training programs, community support programs, girls' programs, and family programs in addition to advocating for women and girls in the system.

The YMCA of Greater Toronto is a charity focused on community support and development. Its aim is to provide every individual in the community with opportunities for personal growth, community involvement, and leadership. By making connections, collaborating, and mirroring the region's diversity, the YMCA believes it can become the network that binds our many neighbourhoods into one city, one country, and one world.
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Author:Blackman, Cheryl
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
Words:2457
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