Museum accessibility perspectives

Most museums lack quite a bit in accessibility. Everyone has their specific interests in the accessibility world, and I don’t always notice the wheelchair user accessibility issues since I’m not a wheelchair user… I just notice what I see, might see and what I don’t.

Most museums are pretty boring if you only have o rely on your sight or some sighted people to access the exhibits. Basically all the museums are made for people who look at things. Look, don’t touch… oh, and here is this giant wall of text that tells about what you are looking at. Follow the route with visual cues. I try to look at things, take a few shots with the iPhone to later show how I would improve the accessibility, then move on and get frustrated in a short time.

I’m pretty open about the museum themes. So it doesn’t matter if I’m visiting a Spam museum, an old prison, a science museum, something aviation related or something else. There is always something interesting to learn, and I’d love to learn more about other places, times, cultures etc. Airplane museums are usually great. Big planes, often outdoors. Enjoy what you see (if with any sight). With those, the easiest accessibility modifications I would make would be making small models of the exhibits to also touch. So you could explore the details of the planes with hands. Make them accessible, not only for the blind but also for children etc. Another few ideas: audio tours. These would be great. In a few places I’ve been handed those old fashioned phone headsets. They sort of work, but I rather use my own phone. I would make an app or something that would allow exploring in location. Have a QR code somewhere, or a beep, or the app recognize (maybe with the phone camera) what you are looking at, and listen to as little or much as you want with your phone and own headphones. This would be so awesome. No dirty headsets, empty batteries, or slow speech (because I would provide the exhibit both as a person-read version and in text, so with both or either, read as fast as you want). Also no walls of text.

Walls of text is one of my big complaints in museums. If I can see something, I want to focus on what I am supposed to see, not in trying to decipher a wall of text. I can see some things very close, so it would mean blocking the whole wall of text from other readers. And there is no way of changing the font size, or to deal with the glares, or to overcome things like dyslexia (1 in 5 English speakers have that, and contrary to popular belief, it’s not just about eyes. You can read braille and be dyslexic). Or color contrasts, or just tilting your eyes. Dear museum designers: please never use walls of text.

This is how I would LOVE to explore a museum:

A tactile map. An exhibit that has a marked path that I can follow without cues. Then, for each exhibit item, add whatever text you want, but also alternatives. A QR code so you can use your phone to read it (most visually impaired people are fluent in using their smart phones!), whether it’s to read it with Magnifier, a browser, or to listen to it with VoiceOver or Talkback or whatever you want or happen to be using. I would love to have options to decide what I want to know more of and what less of. So e.g. in an art museum I could use the app to find out more in my pace, discovering first that I’m looking at an oil painting, then finding the name of the painting and the artist, a short description of the picture (“an oil painting from 18th century Holland. There is a group of people enjoying picnic. Women are sitting on the ground in front of the picture, and there are dogs playing with children”), then I might decide if I want to know more about the particular history or importance of this item, or maybe even save the detail;s for reading them later, then move on to the next items.

Another example would be a plane museum. Follow the paths, have those small scale models to touch that I already mentioned earlier. I love planes and history, so it would be great to know about when this model was made, what the pictures about this particular plane show and tell and show on. Recently I visited a museum that had some planes, and it would be so easy to add something the QR code and app I mentioned earlier. Here is a photo of a plane and its info text. It would be so much nicer to just use the phone to find all the details about the plane I can’t read on that text board.

Over the years there have been a few museums that have been positive surprises for their acessibility. The most recent gem I’ve visited was Minnesota Science Museum. Nearly everything was wheelchair accessible, including tables where to do your science experiments. Oh, and there was braille and those phone pieces that would describe what you have in front of you, and how to use it. Many things you could touch to explore. That is so much nicer than pretending to look at paintings or inaccessible walls of text.

Another great one was Cork City Gaol. The old jail of Cork city, where everyone gets a headset. You can listen to the story, room by room, and it describes the scenes as you could have seen them a hundred years ago, with the people and why they were there. Many rooms of the gaol have scenes from the past, with dolls showing typical prisoners and other details. But so much is described in audio, it doesn’t matter if you don’t see. You will also be described what kind of wall writings are in the room, or what kind of materials the clothes were made of, or what the prisoners ate. They have the headset tours available in several languages so the visitors can listen to them in whatever language they are comfortable with.

That is a start. Then add the deaf accessibility (captions in videos, text and transcripts), mobility accessibility and so on. Cognitive accessibility is much more difficult to design for, but if you make it to work for people of all ages it can go a long way.

Did I miss something? Comment..,


2 thoughts on “Museum accessibility perspectives”

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on museum accessibility. I majored in history so I love going to museums. My biggest complaint about museums is the lighting. They are always so dark! I’m deafblind (hard of hearing and legally blind but still have good central vision) and my vision diminishes significantly when I don’t have ample lighting. I ALWAYS have a sight guide when I’m at a museum. Usually, by the end of my visit I have a headache from trying to read and see everything.

    I can see your frustration with the text on the wall and appreciate that you think that the text should be available in another format via technology. I just wonder how the deaf would like to read about exhibit items – on the wall or through technology…? I personally like the text on the wall because I can still read them. But down the road, I may need another way to access such information. Good post!


    1. Often the walls of text are giant, and fixed in a spot. So when trying to follow the text line after line gets too much of an eye strain, or the text is in an impossible angle or still too far, alternative formats would really be good.
      For the low vision maybe a print out of the same text, in larger text size. I guess that could also be comfortable if someone happens to be the only deaf person in a crowded exhibit (when trying to see the text wall, or asking for people to move would be a hassle). (But since not deaf, I’m just trying to imagine)
      The same would also work if there are a lot of visitors with a specific language. Say, doing an exhibit about something Chinese culture related – it’d be cool to offer the same info in Chinese print outs too, as maybe there just isn’t enough demand or wall space to create the same info walls in several languages.

      But the more options for getting the same info from the exhibits, the better. 🙂

      Getting the amount of lights correctly is probably also more complex than it sounds. :-/

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s