The following publication was written in 2007 as part of a graduate research project at The George Washington University.
The Smithsonian’s policy on accessibility for people with disabilities states that the Institution is “committed to providing full and dignified access for people with disabilities to all programs, structures, and sites in its care.”1 In 1996, the Smithsonian Accessibility Program published “Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design” which have been widely adopted within the Institution as well as adapted and implemented by other institutions around the world. In 2000, the Institution issued “Guidelines for Universal Design of Exhibits” for the National Museum of American History, which emphasizes our responsibility for “being the leading advocate for a universal approach to exhibit programming and design so that our product, the exhibit, can reach a very diverse audience.”
As interactive and multi-media experiences in museum exhibitions increasingly are implemented as digital experiences, the Institution’s goal of providing full and dignified access using a universal approach to design needs to be revisited. Computer-based interactives offer museums many new opportunities but also may create new challenges for our diverse visitors. Museums—and the professionals who serve them—need guidelines that address the design of computer-based interactives that are “usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”2
An online survey was distributed by the Smithsonian Accessibility Program in June 2007 as a first step towards creating a set of guidelines for computer-based interactives. These guidelines will be designed to supplement the “Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design,” which do not adequately address the content and design of computer-based exhibition components.
- Smithsonian Directive 215, Accessibility for People with Disabilities Policy, May 9, 1994.
- From the definition of universal design by Ron Mace, Center for Universal Design.
Summary of Results
The purpose of the survey was to gather information about the extent to which museums and cultural institutions, accessibility and universal design professionals, and multimedia and exhibition designers working for cultural institutions have embraced the principles of accessibility and universal design in creating computer-based interactives. While many museums and cultural institutions have begun to meet accessibility requirements and/or to follow the principles of universal design in exhibition development, our assumption was that this practice has not been fully extended to the development of computer-based interactives.
Our assumptions were confirmed by the survey results. The data show that a vast majority of museums and cultural institutions feature computer-based interactives in their exhibitions, although most have not adopted mobile digital interactives. The majority of respondents do not use guidelines for accessible exhibitions, generally, and an overwhelming majority do not use guidelines for computer-based interactives, specifically. 90% of respondents who are practitioners at museums and cultural institutions reported that 1 or more of the exhibitions in their institutions feature computer-based interactives. Yet, out of 145 museum practitioners, only 15 (10%) have implemented guidelines for computer-based interactives. A slightly more promising 17% (12 out of 70) of exhibition or multimedia designers that serve cultural institutions reported having adopted such guidelines.
The survey results offer readers insights into the reasons why cultural institutions and those who serve them have not yet adopted guidelines for computer-based interactives. The data show that half of those who do not currently use formal guidelines still try to stay current on best practices. The top concern among all respondents is that guidelines relating to technology quickly become outdated.
For those that have created and implemented guidelines, the survey results illuminate what is covered by such guidelines and what has been left out. Half of the museums that report using guidelines for computer-based interactives are science museums. A majority of those using guidelines created them based on published sources and professional experience. For those who have implemented guidelines, a majority have not established priorities. And while kiosks are almost always covered, mobile devices, cell phone tours, and other types of interactives are usually not addressed.
The survey findings provide a glimpse into the landscape of universal design for computer-based interactives—it is a landscape that has yet to be fully explored. While guidelines are not widely implemented, much of this has to do with a lack of resources to create them and a lack of knowledge about what information may already exist. The Smithsonian Accessibility Program, working with the wider museum community, is faced with a great opportunity to create and share best practices and examples and taking the lead on creating guidelines that will encourage practitioners to create experiences with a universal approach to design.
This survey has yielded twelve sets of existing guidelines for the Smithsonian Institution to analyze as models. It has also gathered contact information for a population of nearly 100 knowledgeable respondents who are willing to be interviewed further about the challenges and opportunities presented to museums and other cultural institutions by computer-based interactives.
This survey is the first step in a process towards development of guidelines for accessible computer-based interactives in museums. The Smithsonian Institution will continue to solicit advice and feedback from museum practitioners, designers, and universal design experts through more in-depth interviews. The Accessibility program will also continue its literature review of existing resources and tested guidelines.
A few specific areas have emerged from the survey data as places where further investigation is need. More research on what science museums and technology centers are doing to tackle universal design of computer-based interactives should be undertaken, as they are clearly leading the pack in implementing such experiences. More research should also be done into what Australian and European museums are doing. And the unique challenges of mobile technologies should be considered.
The thoughts of one survey respondent should be kept in mind as the Institution embarks upon writing guidelines for computer-based interactives: “These guidelines should aim to both set standards for accessibility, and inspire creativity in curators, developers, and media designers.” In order to create guidelines that will be used—rather than sitting on a shelf or on a hard drive—we must strive to put them in a format that is extremely sharable, searchable, and updatable. If possible, the Institution should take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies such as photo-sharing, wikis, and blogging to create a dynamic set of guidelines that may be added to and changed. Research findings produced in the wider museum and interactive communities should be incorporated, as should newly developing technologies. The guidelines should be promoted and shared widely, with ongoing feedback from the field welcome and encouraged.
It will be a challenge to balance updatability with simplicity. We know that museums have limited resources and that guidelines that are simple to decipher and provide examples of inexpensive solutions will be most useful. With so many outputs available to museums and a dizzying array of technologies, it will also be a challenge to create guidelines that balance specifics with flexibility. With such a great need and an equally great interest, creating guidelines to share with the museum field will be a challenge, but also hopefully the next great success for museums in improving the museum experience for all of our diverse visitors.
Download the full 26-page report for details on findings and methodology.