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Student Perspective: Accessibility in Museum Exhibit Design

Museum Cultures class members with museum staff discussing exhibit design in the Africa gallery at the Cantor Center, Stanford University.

Museum Cultures class members with museum staff discussing exhibit design in the Africa gallery at the Cantor Center, Stanford University.

May 1 2015

On Wednesday, April 29th 2015, the student participants of the Daggett Collection Project went on another private tour of Stanford’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts, led by Catherine Hale (Curator of the Arts of Africa and the Americas) and Ashley McGrew (Preparator). While visiting the Native American and Arts of Africa exhibitions, Hale and McGrew discussed design considerations from both a curatorial and a preparatory perspective. This allowed us to consider how some of the theoretical design notions brought up in our class readings were able (or not able) to operate in a museum space. One of the issues discussed was how to design a museum exhibit so that it is accessible to a wide audience – including visitors of different ages, socio-economic class, and background, and visitors who may be differently abled.

When thinking about accessibility, some elements of design may be more intuitive than others. Ideally, exhibit spaces should be accessible to people in wheelchairs, and adequate seating for visitors who may need to stop and rest. Even this however, involves a museum-wide conversation: should the seats be individually designed to match each exhibit, or should they be uniform across the museum as a whole? In addition to these considerations however, designing an accessible exhibit space involves all aspects of design, including labels, display arrangement, pedagogical tools, and exhibit structure.

As Hale and McGrew pointed out, there are no arbitrary decisions in exhibit design. Although a seemingly minor detail, typography and label design has a lot to do with accessibility in a museum space.The American Disabilities Association (ADA) has released a number of guidelines regarding issues like font size, but even the font style can have unseen impacts onMuseum Cultures class members with museum staff discussing exhibit design in the North America gallery at the Cantor Center, Stanford University. various visitors. While not mentioned during our tour, this issue reminded me about the recent release of typefaces designed specifically for people with dyslexia. While some typefaces are designed solely for aesthetic considerations, dyslexia fonts combine aesthetics with utility, featuring increased varieties in letter shapes. This makes it more difficult to confuse similarly shaped letters. Even text layout can impact people with dyslexia – some tips for creating dyslexic-friendly texts are to divide texts into several paragraphs; limit text columns to six to nine words; ensure that text columns are separated by plenty of space; and, especially important for loquacious academics, avoid long sentences! In class we read articles about writing labels that are accessible to audiences of varying backgrounds, ages, and education. Hale added to this discussion by highlighting the problem of using alienating “able-bodied” language in labels. This means that instead of instructing the reader to “walk around the sculpture” to see extra details, the label should feature more user-friendly language, like “move around the sculpture.”

Our guides noted that the coordination and the structure of exhibit spaces should function at multiple levels for a wide audience. While structure can provide balance and aesthetic value, it can make it difficult for a wide audience to follow. An exhibit space that is too unstructured, however, may not provide enough guidance for visitors. Ideally, exhibits should achieve a balance between structure and facilitating individual experiences. The use of structure is also important for considering the pedagogical role of museums. While traditionally, museum curators had a lot of control over the flow of information, museums are now beginning to allow other voices to enter the exhibit space. The increasing use of multimedia platforms for education purposes (including audio tours, handouts, websites, etc.) can facilitate the inclusion of multiple voices, but this too entails its own considerations in accessibility. For example, relying too much on technology like smartphones to access exhibit website may alienate people who cannot afford smart phones or the technologically disinclined.

Future site of the Daggett Collection exhibit at the Stanford Archaeology Center, case 4 of 4.While we have limited control over the exhibition space for the Daggett Collection Project and will likely have a narrower audience than the Cantor Arts Center enjoys, I hope that as we continue to design our exhibit we can think about how to make it an aesthetic, functional, and easily accessible space.

Adeana McNicholl