Challenge And Opportunity

This post is the written version of a short presentation on a panel about access to the Arts, History, and Culture. The other presenters are an audio describer for live theater and a braille transcriber. Details about the panel are on the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland 2022 Annual Convention AGENDA

Good morning, everyone. Thanks for the invitation to speak about my work to create multisensory, and accessible experiences in museums.

My fellow panelists talked about Braille and audio description. These are important, but they are produced after the main program is planned. I am going to talk about accessibility in design when the same experience can be designed for everyone—blind people and sighted people.

First let’s start with some facts.

There are more than 35,000 active museums in the United States—everything from art museums to zoos. Before the pandemic, we conducted a survey about the museum experiences of adults who are blind. Thanks to anyone here who completed it. The results won’t surprise you.

Survey participants reported their inability to access exhibit content (behind glass), label text (small print), and wayfinding (lack of tactile maps or signs in Braille or large print).

From these facts, we can state that most Americans are likely to live in a community that has at least one museum, but most museum exhibits are not accessible to blind Americans.

Museum exhibits are designed by sighted people, and by default, the sense of vision is the primary mode for presenting information. Explaining concepts in a tactile or auditory way is a learned skill that many sighted people do not have the opportunity to develop.

I founded MuseumSenses to create multisensory experiences for everyone. Tactile models can be visually appealing, and audio can be engaging.

Multisensory experiences can be enjoyed by mixed groups of blind and sighted people. We can have the same experience as our sighted friends and family members.

Tactile models can be made of durable materials like metal. The models that the National Park Service installed at the FDR Memorial in D.C. are metal. Some of you may have read recent news coverage that featured my evaluation of the exhibits at the FDR Memorial.

Other durable materials for tactile models are wood and 3D printed replicas that are usually made of plastic. I would pass around a tactile model if I were talking to a smaller group.

An audio sample is easier to share with a large group. The clip that I will play for you is an example of sonification where data is represented with sound.

This sonification is an image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Each instrument represents a wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum. The low frequencies are for the infrared wavelengths. The mid-range pitches are light visible to the human eye. The higher-pitched chimes are x-ray wavelengths that are only detectable with a telescope.

If you want to hear more sonification, go online to the Chandra photo album.

You can play and download audio or video files. The videos show animations made from the images and the sonification is the audio track.

As I said earlier, sighted people do not learn how to explain concepts in a tactile or auditory way. I’ve been gathering resources and educating some of them. It’s slow work, one exhibit at a time. I have several projects planned so check here for updates.