My first memory of visiting a museum is from elementary school. I remember trooping onto a bus full of children and the two-hour ride to the museum. When we arrived, I was split off from the rest of the children and placed in the charge of an older gentleman. He gave me a pair of headphones and a cassette player with an audio tour of the museum. The reason for this singular treatment was because I am blind. Though I have some usable vision, it is not enough to appreciate museum exhibits from a purely optical point of view. The kind gentleman spent several hours walking me through the museum, letting me touch things that most visitors weren’t allowed to touch. He found me exhibits with audio, olfactory, or tactile components, and he answered, or tried to answer, every single one of the unending questions that were a hallmark of my childhood. It was one of the few school trips that I’ll never forget.
That trip came sharply to my mind again in May 2012, when I had the pleasure of working with the talented individuals at the Museum of Science, Boston, to create universally designed exhibits. Accessibility experts, computer scientists, informal learning spaces researchers, and others gathered for a highly productive one-week workshop entitled Creating Museum Media for Everyone (CMME). You can read more about my CMME experience here. I was invited due to my doctoral research, which facilitates eyes-free exploration of highly graphical data. In this article, I describe universal design partially from conversations I had at the CMME workshop and afterwards, and partially from my own experiences as a blind museum visitor.
Principles of universal design
In 1997, the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, published seven principles of universal design for buildings, outdoor environments, and products. Each principle inspires me to ask a question that should be considered at the design phase of any digital or physical object with which museum visitors might interact. The seven principles and museum-related questions are:
Can visitors with different functional limitations get a similar, or equitable, experience?
Flexibility in use
Can visitors interact with the information in a variety of different ways?
Simple and intuitive use
Can visitors with different experience or knowledge benefit from the information being presented?
Can visitors access and interact with the information being presented, independent of a sensory disability and disturbances in the environment?
Tolerance for error
Can visitors always return to a consistent, known starting point so that, for example, they don’t cause systems to crash or behave unexpectedly, regardless of the actions they take?
Low physical effort
Can visitors fully appreciate the given information without needing much physical effort or dexterity?
Size and space for approach and use
Can visitors get close to the exhibit; have enough space in which to move around, even with a wheelchair, walker, or crutches; and manipulate it, independent of posture or other physical limitations?
Inclusion and Universal Access
Social inclusion and interaction are among the many benefits of following universal design. While I greatly enjoyed my first museum experience as a child, I wished that I could have interacted more with my classmates, felt part of the group, and been able to participate in the same activities. This element of inclusion should be a central motivating factor when designing an exhibit. Universal design facilitates this social inclusion and interaction among visitors.
Additionally, museum visitors today carry their own mobile phones, tablets, and other gadgets. If information is available in open and standard formats, then visitors can use their familiar devices to enrich their experience. An important added benefit is being able to deliver content and multimedia via the web, in portable apps, and in a variety of other forms.
A successful prototype
Modern computers are inexpensive, and interactive software is widely available. It is now easier than ever to create inclusive and accessible museum experiences for all visitors. Many successful examples of inclusive and accessible designs were embodied in the working prototypes resulting from the CMME workshop.
One of the prototypes was for an exhibit that allowed users to explore data about themselves. For example, various sensors measured body temperature, pupil response, and foot arch index of the person using the prototype exhibit. The prototype had visual, auditory, and tactile components. It presented the data visually on a variety of graphs and had levers for the user to easily manipulate the view of the data. It also employed sonification and speech components so that blind or low vision users could hear the data through different sounds and speech.
The tactile components included a physical grid that allowed the user to feel the spacing of data points on some of the graphs. The levers for manipulating the graphical view had rods coming out from them, and their intersection reflected the X and Y coordinates of a particular data point. Embossed print and raised Braille characters on the levers indicated which lever controlled which axis. The prototype itself was contained within a wooden construct that could be mounted on a height-adjustable table for flexible physical access. Links to videos and additional photos of the prototype are on my CMME post.
This prototype is only one example of the myriad ways to create an exhibit following the principles of universal design using readily available materials. It could be easily assembled and professionally produced. I believe that the secret for successfully creating efficient, economical, and accessible museum exhibits lies in considering the principles of universal design from the start. I encourage museum professionals to adopt this powerful approach.
Reflecting upon my museum experience as a young child, I am reminded of the words of American author and poet Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Exhibits following universal design principles will facilitate a powerful feeling of inspiration, awe, wonder, and excitement for all visitors, not just those with functional limitations.
The above 7 principles are, in my opinion, just a baseline for discussing universal design, not only in the context of informal learning spaces such as museums but for a variety of other presentation formats. What are your thoughts on these principles, museum specific or otherwise? I’d love to hear more in the comments below.