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exhibits

Revisiting Touch in Pandemic Year Two

As I write this post, we are in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and maybe we are through the worst of it. People are getting vaccinated. The number of corona infections is falling, and public places, including museums, are re-opening.

As of April 2021, advice from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that fully-vaccinated people can “go to an uncrowded, indoor shopping center or museum”.

Now is a good time to revisit considerations about tactile experiences in museums. In this post, I will comment on the scientific understanding of viral transmission of Covid-19 as primarily airborne, and not from particles on surfaces. Then I will summarize recommendations about touch objects and make some observations for best practices in the present and near future.

An article published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases described a study in which the authors sampled surfaces in hospital rooms to see if they could detect Covid-19 particles. They could not find virus particles on most surfaces. This suggests that “environmental contamination leading to SARS-CoV-2 (Corona virus) transmission is unlikely to occur in real-life conditions, provided that standard cleaning procedures and precautions are enforced.”

Guidance issued by the Centers for Disease control continues to recommend cleaning and other preventative measures for reducing viral transmission. This includes the now-familiar advice to wear a mask, maintain at least six feet of physical distance from others, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and practice good hand hygiene.

Another standard piece of advice for public places is to clean high-touch surfaces at least once a day. Some examples of high-touch surfaces include pens, counters, shopping carts, tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, stair rails, elevator buttons, desks, keyboards, and phones. The precautions that museums adopt for high touch surfaces can be applied to touch objects in exhibits.

Last year, I had conversations with tactile artists about ways to adapt to new norms in the Covid-19 era. Collectively, we came up with several solutions that might allow people to safely handle objects in an exhibit:

– Proper hand hygiene can be encouraged by providing hand sanitizer or wipes in a standard location within the physical exhibit space.

– Materials that are easily clean can be chosen as touchable objects.

– Museum visitors could be provided with tactile handouts that they can touch and then take them when they leave the exhibit.

Here is a summary of our presentation on accessible touch objects. This article explains how to make tactile handouts.

I think these recommendations continue to be useful for allowing tactile explorations at museums that follow common preventative measures like avoiding crowding, requiring mask wearing, supporting good hand hygiene, and cleaning high touch surfaces. I hope that we can move beyond a fear of touching objects, follow best practices, and regain opportunities to have tactile and multi-sensory experiences.

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exhibits

A Presidential Project

On this inauguration day, January 20, 2021, I am highlighting an important project documenting a historical president. Franklin D. Roosevelt (known by his initials FDR, was the 32nd President of the United States from 1933-1945. He was the architect of the New Deal and the Commander-in-Chief during World War II.

FDR also had a physical disability. In 1921, he contracted polio at age 39 and he became a wheelchair user.

FDR visited wounded veterans while remaining in his wheelchair, but he wore steel leg braces that allowed him to stand at public events.

The FDR Memorial commemorates his leadership during the Great Depression and World War II. However, when it opened in 1997, it did not accurately represent his physical disability.

More than 50 disability organizations from across the country supported the FDR Wheelchair Statue Campaign. Sixteen Roosevelt grandchildren agreed that FDR should be shown as a person with a disability. The FDR Wheelchair Statue was dedicated in 2001.

The FDR Memorial Legacy Committee is a project of the National Council on Independent Living that documents this campaign through an archive of oral histories and media clips.

The announcement of this archive states that:

“The FDR Memorial Legacy Committee (FDR Committee), as part of the DC Community Heritage Project (DCCHP), proudly unveiled the initial archives chronicling the history of the fight for disability representation” that “was led by people with disabilities from 1995-2001.”

Please visit the archive to learn about this important campaign for disability representation.

“During the unveiling event, disability rights advocates Judy Heumann and Dr. I King Jordan reflected on the impact of the campaign to represent FDR as a disabled president and the collective work that still needs to be accomplished to ensure equitable disability representation. Dr. I King Jordan exclaimed, “Disability is not talked about. People talk about diversity, equity, inclusion and disability needs to be included in those conversations. This archive is a visual way to do that.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Jordan’s statement. It was my honor to evaluate the archives for their accessibility, and my privilege to learn about this overlooked aspect of presidential history.

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about exhibits publications

2020 in review

In December 2020, as I reflect on the year, I am struck by how completely the closure of physical spaces pushed activity online. My work was no exception. Meetings became conference calls, physical exhibits moved to websites, and in-person conferences were transformed into online presentations.

collaboration was another theme for this year. I am thankful for the contributions of my smart and talented colleagues who contributed to the work that I produced in 2020.

The Unintended Consequences of Current Events

I found myself reflecting on how responses to the coronavirus pandemic affected people with disabilities. Here are essays that I wrote with colleagues for an online exhibit called

Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility

The Interconnectedness of Covid-19 to Discrimination Against The Disabled

Bearing Witness to The Ableism Embedded Within The Pandemic

Covid-19 and Museums

A major theme of 2020 as finding ways to safeguard access to touch objects.

In this post written for the American Alliance of Museums, colleagues and I strongly recommend that museums produce re-usable tactile handouts so that individuals can borrow their own touch objects.

Staying In Touch Addressing Concerns to Allow Tactile Exploration at Museums

This post summarizes a presentation about accessible touch objects.

MCN-2020 Presentation Accessible Touch Objects

Here is another essay that I wrote for the Redefine/ABLE exhibit about tactile art before and during a pandemic.

Please Do Touch The Art

Documenting the Museum Experiences of people who are blind

Early in 2020, I presented work about museum exhibits before the pandemic. As far off as that seems now, there are still valuable data for making improvements when physical museums re-open.

Assessing Attitudes of Blind Adults About Museums

Bring Your Own Device BYOD Programming Facilitates Accessibility For People Who Are Blind Or Have Low Vision

Here is an article that Jo Morrison wrote summarizing the papers included in our MuseWeb 2020 conference panel.

Voice User Interfaces And Multi-modal Accessibility

Finally, 2020 saw the release of one of our papers that was delayed in the publication process.

Designing a portable museum display of Native American stone projectile points (arrowheads) to ensure accessibility and tactile quality.

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3D-printing accessibility exhibits research

MCN 2020 Presentation, Accessible Touch Objects

Last week, I gave a presentation on accessible touch objects in partnership with my colleague Lauren Race from the NYU Ability Project. Our talk was part of the MCN2020 virtual conference. Here are the highlights and links for further reading.

Defining the problem

Most information at museums and historic sites is presented visually, but some people learn through tactile exploration. For accessibility, we need to be considering all senses when presenting information at museums.

Yet, tactile access has faced looming threats, notably the lack of expertise and funding, before Covid-19, and the current pandemic is accelerated these issues.

Some museums have responded to Covid-19 by closing hands-on exhibits with tactile components. For example, the Please Touch Museum extended its closure into 2021.

Knowing that touch objects are threatened, it is important to determine which are worth saving in the future.

Summarizing the research

Lauren described interviews that she conducted with 15 museum access specialists from art museums and historic sites across the United States. Then she considered common themes from their responses in conversations with 6 accessibility experts who are blind or have lo vision.

There are 4 findings.

•            1. Tactile experiences must be preserved

•            2. They should be consistently created

•            3. They read as infantile when poorly-crafted

•            4. They cannot be replaced by audio (verbal description) or digital-only solutions. People who are blind receive touchless experiences secondhand, filtered through the observations of a sighted person.

Recommendations

We made the following recommendations.

•Tactile experiences must be preserved

•Digital fabrication over poorly-designed techniques

•Provide tactually accurate reproductions

•Choose materials that can withstand frequent cleaning

•Establish tactile design guidelines

For my section of the presentation, I discussed ways to preserve tactile access despite Covid-19. I described my other projects that complimented Lauren’s interview findings.

People are problem solving in the moment. When the pandemic began, I had ongoing conversations with tactile artists about ways to safeguard tactile access.

Two colleagues, Ann Cunningham, and Matt Gesualdi and I identified specific examples drawn from our work that we proposed as models for safe practices during the Covid-19 pandemic. We described this work in a blog post for the American Alliance of Museums.

Staying in touch: addressing concerns to allow tactile exploration at museums

 I will summarize with this quote.

“We imagine a scenario where visitors could borrow tactile handouts, use them for reference as they tour an exhibit, and then return them to the museum for treatment and later re-use.”

That blog post included photos of small- and large-scale examples of tactile handouts. At small scale, the 3D-printed replica of a stone spear point can be manipulated with one hand. The attached wooden coin is a QR code that when scanned directs a smartphone to read more information about it such as might be found on an exhibit label.

At larger scale, people can be encouraged to maintain physical distance as they explore separate tactile panels. This idea is loosely based on an interactive art installation titled “Mission to Nocterra,” created by Matt Gesualdi. He incorporated use of antibacterial wipes into the exhibit with a story line that the puzzles were alien artifacts that must be protected from human germs.

Highly-skilled tactile artists can create accurate tactile reproductions using hand-crafted techniques. These individuals plan and construct their work very carefully and they account for scale and accuracy. With questions of high-fidelity in mind, we ranked different techniques by their cost in the same blog post.

Returning to Lauren’s interview findings, we recommend digital fabrication methods such as 3D printing over poorly-designed, hand-crafted techniques. In our opinion, digital fabrications are preferred for the accuracy of tactile reproductions. This is contrasted with the analog nature of most poorly-designed tactile objects that her interview findings indicated were produced by interns or volunteers with no training in tactile design.

Due to Covid-19 and safety concerns, we recommend fabricating touch objects from materials that can withstand frequent cleaning. This would favor plastic or acrylic resin commonly used to fabricate 3D-printed replicas.

We mentioned other work that supports accessible touch objects. Fortunately, we are not the only people seeking ways to safely conduct tactile exploration. Here is an international example.

Tactile Studio posted their proposed solutions including the development of a tactile sanitation station for touch objects.

I am encouraged by these proposed solutions because the work to preserve access to tactile objects in museum exhibits is ongoing and it will require sustained efforts in the Covid-19 era and beyond.

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3D-printing accessibility exhibits publications research

Designing an Exhibit of 3D-Printed Replicas

I’m pleased to announce the publication of Designing a portable museum display of Native American stone projectile points (arrowheads) to ensure accessibility and tactile quality written with Joe Nicoli and Donald Winiecki  in the Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research.

We describe making 3D-printed replicas of artifacts found in the collections of the Maryland Archaeological and Conservation Laboratory. Then we prototyped a design that attached QR codes to the replicas by a lanyard.

Scanning these QR codes with a smartphone prompted the user to access a webpage with more information about each artifact. Participants at a Tactile graphics conference were successful in scanning the QR code with their smartphones and following the link to the associated webpage.

I also included this project in another paper about using smartphones to access information about exhibits. Start by reading this blog post from April 2020 to learn more.

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accessibility exhibits publications

Please Do Touch The Art

My second essay written for the Redefine/ABLE exhibit is titled Please Do Touch the Art

The essay is a discussion of tactile art. When I wrote the first draft in February 2020, it was about the need for more tactile objects in museums.

Then the coronavirus pandemic started, touching objects became taboo, and that essay required significant revisions. Now, it includes recommendations about safely touching objects in museum exhibits, and it links to a few resources. I offer this essay as a conversation-starter because I plan to revisit this topic in the near future.

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accessibility exhibits publications

Redefine/ABLE

Redefine/ABLE

During the 2019-2020 academic year, I consulted with the 2020 University of Maryland, College Park graphic design cohort that researched and created an exhibit about disability, ableism, and the benefits of universal design. Ableism is the discrimination against those with disabilities. Universal design counteracts ableism. Universal design is an approach to creating systems, spaces and objects that meet the needs of all people.

Originally designed as a multi-site, cross-platform exhibition, due to the COVID-19 pandemic Redefine/ABLE: Challenging Inaccessibility is now an online experience that addresses diversity, inclusion and ableism. It seeks to engage audiences about the successes and challenges of persons with disabilities in Maryland and beyond.

The Covid-19 pandemic became a discussion topic for this exhibit. The project director and I wrote this essay examining the effects of post-pandemic responses on people with disabilities.

We also submitted this Q&A to another University of Maryland blog.

Additional content will be added to the Redefine/ABLE project website during July and August 2020. It will remain online after that date. I would like to thank the project team for their dedication to this project and their determination to display it virtually.

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3D-printing accessibility exhibits publications

Creating Re-Usable Tactile Handouts

I’m pleased to announce publication of a guest post on the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) blog about creating tactile handouts. Special thanks go out to my co-authors, Ann Cunningham and Matt Gesualdi, for their contributions.

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating new norms that discourage touching all manner of objects to curtail the spread of the virus. However, when public spaces reopen, understandable concern about disease transmission may lead museums to prohibit tactile exploration of objects, creating an unintended access barrier for people who are blind. We imagine a scenario where visitors could borrow tactile handouts, use them for reference as they tour an exhibit, and then return them to the museum for treatment and later re-use.

Read more on the AAM website.

Categories
3D-printing accessibility exhibits publications research

museum information on cell phones

The smartphones that many of us use daily have the ability to receive content about museum exhibits. People who are blind or have low vision can use their preferred accessibility settings on their personal devices to access content in museum exhibits. I presented work on this topic at the MW20 conference. Here is the link to my paper.