Creating Museum Multimedia for Everyone

by Sina on December 2, 2012

Sina touching the puck prototype

Sina checking out a puck that can move in all four directions in a box – the puck vibrates when it is over the data point of interest.


I had forgotten my love for museums and informal learning spaces. Don’t get me wrong: classrooms are awesome places to learn a variety of topics. Few things are as fun as doing projects with friends and strangers soon to become friends in the hallways of a computer science department or in the basement of an engineering building until well after dark. And, let’s not forget about the friendships and camaraderie formed in a research lab with colleagues each working on their research projects, last minute publications, or just engaged in an extremely serious and thought provoking debate about a trivial piece of science fiction arcana. However, there’s something about the energy and excitement about a museum. At least for me, there’s just a thrill knowing that I’m in a building dedicated to awesomeness! Whether it be the classical Egyptology and paleontology exhibits or the cool hands-on math/science exhibits, I’m hooked and amused for hours.

The Problem

Unfortunately, for individuals with disabilities such as perceptual ones like blindness/low vision and deafness, mobility impairments such as using a wheelchair and other aids, or functional limitations involving attention, memory, and cognition, sometimes museums can be inaccessible, overwhelming, and not the amazing experience that everybody should know them to be. I was really honored that Dimensions magazine asked me for my thoughts on how to apply universal design principles to help address this problem. If you are interested in what museums can do to better serve patrons with varying abilities, I have posted a copy of the Dimensions article onn this blog under 7 Principles of Accessible Inclusive Exhibits. I’d really love to know your thoughts and welcome any feedback on it.

Sina and Keith Hacking Away

Sina Bahram and Keith Simmons collaborating over laptops at CMME

CMME Workshop

Fortunately, there are some unbelievably amazing and highly talented people in this world who are incredibly passionate about museums and opening them up to everyone. Christine Reich, Anna Lindgren-Streicher, and Keith Simmons, are just some of the folks who worked so hard putting together the CMME workshop. I had the incredible opportunity to meet Christine Reich at the White House Champion of Change event. We immediately hit it off. Two weeks later, through Christine’s herculean efforts, as well as many others (Anna Lindgren-Streicher) at the Boston Museum of Science, I found myself at one of the most fun and productive workshops I’ve ever attended. The workshop was called Creating Museum Multimedia for Everyone (CMME). We all pronounce it “simmi.” A variety of researchers, museum professionals, educators, and technologists were brought together for a week at the Boston Museum of Science. For the first two and a half days, we broadly reviewed various research solutions to accessibility problems, discussed a myriad of approaches to particular problems that come up in informal learning spaces when trying to ensure universally designed exhibits, and learned a great deal from each other’s experience given that each group had such a great mix of backgrounds. After all the learning, sharing, and brainstorming, some of us stayed for the next half of the workshop, which involved designing an exhibit that follows universal design principles. Because the Hall of Human Life exhibit was one that the Museum of Science was currently working on, the various groups that formed up took different approaches to solving the problems that can arise in this exhibit.

Sina demonstrating a prototype for data visualization

Sina demonstrating a prototype for data visualization

Hall of Human Life

The Hall of Human Life will engage the public through an array of permanent and changing exhibit components; live presentations; stories of real researchers, practitioners, and patients; interactive programs; and media. Both exhibits and programming will foster a view of human biology that takes into account the interrelated roles of genetics, environment and behavior.

What that meant for us is that we’d have the data from various sensors like a palm temperature sensor that uses the Peltier effect, weight sensor, etc. With all this data, the patrons are able to see their data graphed on the screen, interact with their data, and even compare their data point to the last few dozen folks who have gone through the exhibit. So, we used sonification (shout out to the talented Benjamin Davison who now works for Google), some awesome on-the-spot shop skills, wood, computer mice, hot glue, and other odds and ends to put together a prototype. There’s some links below showing the prototype, a live demo (be kind, demos never work as planned, *grin*), and more.

Pictures, Videos, and Workshop Links

Closing Thoughts

I encourage everyone to check out your local museum. There are usually some awesome folks working there who are excited and enthusiastic about the topics being presented, the exhibits being shown, and making sure everyone has an informative and enjoyable experience. If you come across any exhibits that do a good job following universal design, or those you wish that did, let’s chat about them in the comments below. Also, feel free to point out your favorite museums around the world. I’d love to hear about them.

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