Meet our members: Cathelijne Denekamp on accessibility and inclusion 

ICOM Netherlands is tightening the association’s membership criteria from 1 July 2023. According to its statutes, ICOM is an international organisation of museums and museum professionals and a network for exchanging knowledge and experience internationally. ICOM NL is of course bound by these statutes. In the elaboration and handling of the membership criteria, however, major differences have emerged over time between the various national committees of other countries. Compared to other committees, ICOM NL is an exception because of its high number of student members.


How can you ensure that your museum is a place where as many people as possible feel welcome? The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has established a special position for this purpose, following the example of the Anglo-Saxon countries in particular, where accessibility and inclusion have long been prioritised within the museum world. Cathelijne Denekamp, Accessibility Manager of the Rijksmuseum, talks about some of the projects they have initiated. The motto: make it manageable.

Foto: Bastiaan van Musscher

Removing physical and figurative barriers

The Netherlands is catching up considerably. In 2016, we were relatively late in ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, says Cathelijne Denekamp. But in the meantime a lot of good things are already being achieved in many museums. The UN convention aims to make the world accessible and inclusive for everyone. Society must therefore remove both physical as well as figurative barriers. Awareness must also be created among museum staff. A sign language course, for example, can do a lot.

Sharing knowledge with colleagues worldwide

Cathelijne is in an app group with the Accessibility Managers of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal Academy in London, and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. They exchange knowledge about accessibility and ask each other for advice. ‘It’s a very valuable network. We all have the same problems, but the rules differ from country to country. The Pushkin Museum is a pioneer in Russia and works very hard on accessibility. It is instructive to think along with our colleague there about how she organises programmes on her own. And the Metropolitan Museum, for example, wants to do much more with scents. So I introduced them to scent historian Caro Verbeek, who has developed many scents for the Rijksmuseum and is now curator at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag.’

The Night Watch on tour

The Rijksmuseum often garners attention from abroad, as was recently the case with the project ‘Night Watch on tour’. A life-size copy of the Night Watch toured around nursing homes and senior citizens’ complexes, so that people who cannot easily visit the museum can (once again) see this iconic work up close. And during the COVID pandemic, the museum set up a project in which letters were written to lonely elderly people – and to anyone else open to receiving them – with a personal story about a work of art from the collection. A project like this shows that doing something special to open up your collection does not always have to be expensive or take up a lot of time. This low-profile letter project appeals to a lot of people.

Foto: Bastiaan van Musscher

You can start very small, for example by making a page on your website that informs visitors as to which rooms are accessible to people in wheelchairs and which are not.

Make it manageable

Cathelijne says that, as a museum, it is good to be aware of the different kinds of accessibility:

  • physical accessibility: is my building accessible for someone in a wheelchair or for someone with poor eyesight?
  • social accessibility: do visitors feel welcome in my museum? How are they received?
  • digital accessibility: is the website also accessible for blind and partially sighted people?
  • content-related accessibility: is the collection accessible for people with disabilities, in the form of guided tours, audio tours, etc.?
  • representative accessibility: do visitors recognise themselves in what and who they see in the museum?
  • financial accessibility: can visitors afford a ticket for themselves or their group?

Every museum can do something in at least one of these areas, and knowing this helps to make it manageable. You can make a modest start, by for instance, making a page on your website that informs visitors which rooms have wheelchair access and which don’t.

Taking a close look at the programme

What the Rijksmuseum also demonstrates is that an existing product, such as a family tour, can be adapted to meet the needs of many more people with relatively minor adjustments. For example, by offering an option for families with a child with autism or a visual impairment.

Foto: Rijksmuseum/Studio Polat


Cathelijne’s starting point is that it is not people, but museums that have limitations. In fact, a disability is a mismatch between the person and, for example, a building or a programme. If the staff is aware of this, then everyone feels more responsible for making the museum more accessible. That is why the Rijksmuseum has ‘disability suits’. By navigating the museum while wearing one of these suits, a visitor can experience what it is like to be restricted by his or her body and what {add: obstacles?} they might encounter in a building. Every month, someone with a disability – a colleague or a guest – talks about the do’s and don’ts of hospitality. Understanding begins with awareness.

That’s what museums do: use the collection to bring social issues to light.

Collection and accessibility

During the Slavery exhibition, the Rijksmuseum organised an evening about the history of the suppression of Dutch Sign Language (NGT), in cooperation with the Dutch Sign Language Centre and Museums in Gestures. Cathelijne explains: ‘In a panel discussion, we talked about recognisable patterns in oppression and discrimination, about power struggles, the power of language, how stories are passed on in Dutch and in NGT, that the past continues to have an effect on the present and how we can learn from this. Signing was forbidden until 1980. We didn’t compare slavery to the history of the deaf, but the stories did provide subjects for discussion that raised the issue of the suppression of language. And that is what museums do, use the collection to bring social issues to light. And always in cooperation with the target group of course.’

For advice and more information, please contact Cathelijne at