Museums and Accessibility

As a part of recent efforts to think about diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusivity, there have been increased conversations about who visits museums, galleries, and heritage sites. While museums want new visitors, and more guests, this requires asking different questions, such as who has the ability to be in the museum? Instead of just thinking about whether or not one lives close enough to go to a museum, the conversation revolves around impediments to accessing spaces, works of art, and exhibitions by individuals with mobility impairments, low vision, sensory sensitivities, and other needs that must be accommodated to give visitors the best experience. 

Responding to these questions requires considering accessibility and inclusive design, as well as recognizing that every visitor has distinct needs. Accessibility is a way to use specific, technical solutions to address the needs of various audiences: Braille texts for low-vision visitors; sign language interpretation for hearing-impaired visitors; easy to read texts in terms of content, language, font, and size, etc. Accessibility initiatives can be integrated through an approach called inclusive design, which takes into account the holistic experience, including chairs, easy wayfinding, and more. Inclusive design emphasizes finding a new paradigm, or a new way of building bridges between the public and art, history, and culture. This assumes it is possible to create solutions that everyone can use. Inclusive design and comfort of use is a way to welcome everyone while acknowledging the diversity of humans, their lived experiences, and their abilities. Creating an inclusive and accessible space welcomes new audiences, improves visitor experience, is more socially engaged, and breaks down isolation by making the museum a place where all publics can meet and share together. Everything can be improved through accessible design features.

Though many potential barriers exist within museums, one company chooses to respond to this problem by helping visitors with visual impairments engage with the museum., Tactile Studio works to make art and culture more accessible and inclusive for all as a part of their vision to see museums as a place for shared experience regardless of ability, prior knowledge, or familiarity. They began offering creative solutions to designing a more inclusive museum experience. In a mainly visual world, Tactile Studio utilizes other sensory modes to broaden access through the principles of inclusive design. Adhering to inclusive design means taking into account and responding to the needs of all visitors. There are a number of different approaches to this, such as multi-sensory devices and trails engaging tactile, auditory, olfactory, and interactive gallery elements. For instance, building a ramp helps people that utilize mobility devices, like wheelchairs or walkers, as well as families with children in strollers, or individuals with mobility issues that make stairs challenging. Another example might be technical solutions dedicated to a specific need, like an induction loop for hearing-impaired visitors, or sign language videos. For visually impaired visitors, there might be tactile stations with works of art in relief, three-dimensional architectural elements, or sculptural reproductions, all of which are accessible via touch, and equipped with accessible forms of reading.

Since 2009, Tactile Studio, which has studios in Pantin, Berlin, and Montreal, has run over 350 collaborations with various museums, art galleries, and heritage sites to improve access and create more inclusive environments. These projects offer a model for museums to think about accessibility and inclusive design. At the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Tactile Studio established fourteen tactile stations in Braille, Arabic, English, and French to interpret objects in the Louvre’s permanent collection. Each tactile station includes a short, easily understood introduction to the topic, its historical and cultural context, as well as a tactile interpretation of the object or artwork. A tactile transcription is a three-dimensional relief with stylised details that can be intuitively “read” with the fingers, as well as additional details within the object to be explored in greater depth. An adapted audio-guide using appropriate descriptors complements the overall experience. For example, for the tactile reproduction of George Washington’s portrait, Tactile Studio worked on the superposition of several relief levels to point out the perspective and the different plans within the painting to highlight the important iconographic elements of the painting.

Woman dressed in wooly garment
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tactile Studio - Design & Production by Tactile Studio

Tactile Studio practices user centered design; they work with users at different steps of a project to ensure that the work they do benefits the intended audiences. An important step in this process is prototyping. They work with different facilitators and curatorial teams to select objects they plan to include in the exhibit, present them to the user group to gather their feedback, provide answers or context, assess choices, and recommend improvements. Using their own developed methodology, grids, and tests, Tactile Studio prototypes all year long on a wide range of topics with various user audiences, such as children, the elderly, as well as blind and visually impaired individuals in order to gain constructive feedback that allows for the ongoing realization of high-quality models and tactile objects.

Tactile Studio also worked with the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France, on the exhibition “Please Touch”, which was dedicated entirely to visually impaired visitors. For this exhibit, a sensory approach was used to allow people to interact with the sculpture gallery, as well as emphasize the sense of touch and its role in the creation of sculpture. This exhibit took place in the dark to de-emphasise the visual experience, prompting people to understand the details of the shapes usually seen through touch. Tactile Studio re-created the objects, such as a masterpiece by Houdon, by 3D scanning the masterpieces, then moulding them in bronze or resin to create a faithful reproduction, and therefore, an authentic encounter.

Re-created sculptures designed to be touched
PHOTOGRAPH BY Tactile Studio

The future of inclusive design and the inclusion of inclusive elements with galleries is becoming the standard for museum galleries. Through the development of new technology, inclusive design elements have the capability to become more seamless and customizable, as well as a hybrid between physical and digital. At the Jones Beach Energy and Nature Center – New York, Tactile Studio designed a truly inclusive experience. An audio guide offers three languages, as well as American Sign Language, and audio description guides for the visitor around the building with both graphic and tactile panels, including 3D reliefs and braille. Interactive screens with the same accessible features as the audio guide work alongside textual graphics, and interpretation is provided via games in order to showcase the movement of the tides, and how to create an artificial reef. The visit can conclude with an outing to a physically accessible garden, including a tactile map, as well as graphic and tactile interpretation panels.

Tactile interpretation panels
PHOTOGRAPH BY Kulturfolger Productions / Tactile Studio - Design & Production by Tactile Studio

Inclusive design is design that works for everyone. Though not everyone identifies as having a disability, or sees barriers in everyday events, inclusive design creates multiple, intuitive vehicles to access information and experiences. This includes people who don’t like reading long text panels, or people who may generally struggle with reading for different reasons. Inclusive design is about opening up museums for everyone, and organizations such as Tactile Studio have paved the way to create meaningful change in museums, and make the wonderful world of museums much more enjoyable and open to everyone.

This article was produced in collaboration by Rachel Winter, Emily Friesen, and Tactile Studio.

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Rachel Winter

Rachel Winter is a Ph.D. candidate, emerging curator, and museum educator. Rachel’s specialization is contemporary artists from Southwest Asia and North Africa, or the Middle East. Her dissertation examines the relatively unknown history of curating and collecting contemporary art from the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey before 9/11 in both the US and the UK, as well as how collecting and curatorial practices were informed by earlier fairs and festivals.