Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts by Lemelson Fellow Aimi Hamraie. At the time of writing, Hamraie was a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Their dissertation examined Universal Design and disability. Their blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History. As of 2021, Hamraie is Associate Professor of Medicine, Health, & Society and American Studies at Vanderbilt University, director of the Critical Design Lab, author of Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), and host of the Contra* podcast on disability, design justice, and the lifeworld.
In my last blog post, I discussed different Universal Design strategies used in the America on the Move exhibit at National Museum of American History. Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. Because museums have so many visitors and have to represent information to a range of people—of all ranges of ability, ages, and cultural backgrounds—they have adopted some very innovative Universal Design strategies.
In this post, I am going to discuss some of the design features of museum exhibits that incorporate sensory information appealing to sight, touch, sound, and even smell! Providing information through different senses is one way of doing Universal Design, because it takes into account all of the different ways that people perceive and learn.
This image from America on the Move shows a cast iron of food with a sign that says “sniff” on the lid. You can turn the handle on the pot to smell the food inside. This provides information about the food, as well as the vessel in which it would have been cooked.
One of the most important ways of designing for multiple senses is to provide haptic information—information that you can touch. Touch can help us understand how something feels, how it is shaped, and how its parts relate to one another. If a person has low vision, but can touch something, they will be able to get a more complex understanding of the object that is being seen. Throughout the Smithsonian, there are a number of objects that ask you to touch them in order to get more information. These are usable by anyone, and, for many of us, provide information that the text of the exhibit does not.
Here is a map that you can touch from America on the Move. It shows the layout of a house, with raised walls. If you touch more than one part of the map at once, you can think about how the rooms are spatially related to one another. At the bottom, there are railroad tracks that are also raised. Inside of each room, there is text that tells you what the room is. This text is unfortunately not raised. If you have low vision or your eyes are closed, you may be able to feel the words but you will not be able to read them necessarily. Even though some aspects of the design are accessible, others may not be necessarily.
The sign to the right from the National Museum of American History exhibit, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, shows a haptic map of the exhibit with a block of Braille text to the left. A person wanting to know what is in the exhibit can look at the map, touch it, read the Braille, or do all of the above! To understand how to move through the space, there are raised tactile arrows leading from one area into another. The text inside of each space is also larger than in the previous map, so that it can be touched and read. Haptic maps such as this one make the layout of the exhibit clearer and establish better wayfinding.
This image shows a red plastic model of a house in the Within These Walls exhibition at the American History museum. By touching the model, you can get a sense of the dimensions of the house and where the windows and doors are. You may not be able to read the placard below or get information about what happens inside the house, however.
The image at left of a haptic model from the Wright Brothers exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum shows how a tactile map can display different kinds of information that are useful to people with different abilities. The bronze map has raised text and Braille text. It shows the details of a journey, complete with land, mountains, and a railroad. When I visited this exhibit on several occasions, the space around the map was the most crowded part of the exhibit. Adults and children were both touching the various parts of the map to get different kinds of information.
Here is a model of the Big Bang from Explore the Universe at the Air and Space museum. It is the most interesting of all of the models I have seen because it not only represents an image in three dimensional form, as the others do, but it also conveys a sense of time. On the side of the image furthest from the viewer in this image, the Big Bang begins and the bronze on the panel is relatively smooth, with small dimples and bubbles. As it moves to the left, the bubbles grow larger and more complex, demonstrating the way that matter in the universe became more complex over time. By feeling the contours of the model, as well as looking at its appearance, we get a very interesting story about how matter changed over time as the universe expanded.
Have you ever been to an exhibit where there was a lot of text that was hard to see? Maybe there was low light, or the font was too small? This image, also from the Air and Space museum, shows a high contrast display. This means that the image background and text contrast with each other so much that the text is clear. In this case, the white text on black background makes it easier to see if you have low vision, or if you have been inside of a dark exhibit for a few minutes and you are straining to see. The images of various space rocks are also backlit to make them easier to see.
As you go through the Air and Space or American History museums, you may notice that the videos have captions on them that describe the sounds being made and also tell you what words are being said. This serves many purposes. For people who are hard of hearing, it provides the information visually. It also is helpful for people who have hearing but may be in the exhibit at a time that is very busy.
These are only a few examples of sensory-based accessibility at the Smithsonian. As you can tell, these features are useful for everyone—not only people with particular disabilities, but also people who benefit from having information displayed in multiple ways. Visiting these exhibits and imagining what they would be like without these features helps us understand that accessibility is not an issue about individual people needing accommodations to help them get into the space, but a collective issue that benefits a broader range of people.