Recently, I attended a webinar series about creating museum exhibits. During this series, the presenter repeated a key phrase that got me thinking.
“Descriptions are boring.” Then the presenter would remind his audience that people wanted interactive content—something to do.
The first time I heard this phrase, I laughed out loud because descriptions are the only way that blind people can access exhibit content at many museums.
Knowledgeable museum staff and volunteers can describe exhibits well, but that does not let blind people interact with the exhibits themselves. Descriptions are received secondhand, filtered through the observations of a sighted person.
I have published results of a survey documenting the inaccessibility of museums to blind people.
For details, read our paper titled Assessing Attitudes of Blind Adults About Museums.
Survey participants commented on the inaccessible nature of exhibits using words such as “boring,” “depressing,” and “frustrating.”
One participant asked, “how many sighted visitors would go to a museum if all of the exhibits were covered with sheets and they were only allowed to read the captions?”
I haven’t polled sighted people on this question, but I am sure the answer would be 0.
I know sighted people who enjoy looking at objects inside glass display cases or gazing at paintings that are surrounded by ropes suspended from metal posts.
On rare occasions, I have found tactile models mounted to display cases in museums. I know of a few art galleries that feature tactile reproductions of paintings, but I haven’t encountered them.
And this returns me to the theme of this post. Descriptions are boring. Yet descriptions are the only means that blind people have to access exhibits at many museums. This is not equitable.
I founded MuseumSenses to develop multi-sensory exhibits for everyone, regardless of their visual acuity. I believe that creating exhibit content with tactile components can engage blind people with the arts and sciences. Furthermore, exposing sighted people to tactile content creates an integrated experience for all visitors.
Exhibits that contain both tactile and visual content have potential to interest visitors. When exhibits are multisensory, fewer people will have to rely on descriptions to access content. Fewer people would be bored.