Museum as Teaching Lab: Experiments in Inclusive Design


Where do art, tech and accessibility meet? Increasingly, in the museum. Recently, the Harvard Art Museum hosted “Museum as Teaching Lab: Experiments in Inclusive Design” – a discussion addressing how art museums can expand ideas of inclusive design and access as part of HUBweek 2016.

The panel featured Sara Hendren (Assistant Professor of Design, Olin College of Engineering), Jim Olson (Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum), Katherine Moriwaki (Assistant Professor of Media Design at Parsons School of Design), Rebecca McGinnis (Senior Managing Educator, Metropolitan Museum of Art), and Carmen Papalia (Artist).

Each of the speakers carried a unique perspective that came from the variety of interests they are exploring within the museum context in order to help generate dialogue and conversation about what it means to engage with visitors in a greater capacity.

Stagnation of thought pertaining to the improvement of museum access was and is a very real problem with little resolution, up until now. With the introduction of technology, many museums are feeling the pressure to improve their services through the utilization of these tools. Design has always played a critical and central role in the museum. From the labels on the wall, to the way we use a map to navigate around a museum, the visualization of information is essential to the clarity of the educational aspect of these institutions.

Implemented in partnership with technology, design has the opportunity to revolutionize our museum experience.

Physical Accessibility

First off, how do we begin to tackle the multi-faceted issue of accessibility? Sara Hendren approaches this from a physical aspect, with her interests focused on mobilizing the experience of the disabled. Working in tandem with socially engaged design philosophy and technology, she uses this methodology and implementation to create adaptive and assistive solutions to address these issues of inclusivity. While many think that the answer to this is simply providing ramps and elevators,


Henderson’s work goes well above this standard by creating portable and foldable podiums and as well as space efficient platform ramp kits. Going further, she also considers the social impact of iconography. Her reimagined image of the International Symbol of Access, has generated many conversations about the role and stigma of disability and was recently acquired by MoMA. In the spirit of true accessibility, the icon is available for free download here.

Carmen Papalia, an artist deeply engaged in social practices, raises questions and promotes conversation about access in relation to the physical space. He does so in form of participatory public projects, ranging from replacing his cane with a marching band, or creating a 15 ft long mobility cane as a way to reclaim space. For him, accessibility is one’s potential to hold agency in a given context and one way of communicating this into reality is through his work.


Community Accessibility

For Jim Olsen, accessibility meant understanding the medium that their visitors prefer to receive content. Partnered with IMA Lab, Smithsonian, Plymouth Plantation, Kennedy Center, and Museum of Science, Olsen and his team received a grant from IMLS to help answer that important question. The ambitious project, named Digita11y, works to provide a free, open-source solution that applies universal design principles in order enrich the museum experience for visitors. The platform helps to shape digital and design standards, as well as guiding the best practices for mobile content and interfaces in order to create a community of access.

Rebecca McGinnis always has accessibility on her mind. As highest rated museum in the world, The Met strives to create community rooted access culture. But with so many tourists, how does the museum localize it’s access? An initiative they took was working in collaboration with the Parson School of Design to reconsider how people experience art. Through this partnership, the students and The Met faculty worked together to create multi-sensory art experiences


One of the groups made a raised painting which was responsive to touch and gave audio information about the work depending on where you interacted with it. Three members of the student group continued working for The Met, and McGinnis reiterated the value of having young people within the rank of museum employees.

In 2013, Katherine Moriwaki taught a Museum Accessibility course at Parsons, in which she partnered with The Met to explore new technologies that enhance the experience of the museum goer. For her, accessibility is an integral part of the design process. One of the ambitious outcomes? A personalized wayfinding map of The Met, designed to consider factors of a space such as the acoustic quality, marking the exits, where the stairs are, seating and light quality.


From that, came a rough paper prototype pad based navigational tool was created to allow visitors to customize their pathway through the museum in order to access the art and exhibits they want to see. As well, part of the course focused on web accessibility geared towards low vision readers. Ultimately through their findings, they realized there was a lack of resources for inclusive design pertaining to online visibility. As a solution, they developed two guidebooks for how to design and write better image descriptions and create more accessible code - targeting front end developers.

Much of her teaching philosophy stems from three core principals:

  • Empathy
  • Awareness
  • Inclusion

If her students can be better informed about the reality of the world, and operate from this crucial perspective, when they go design our world, they can do a better job at it.

The old, traditional perspective was that museums are to be these quiet contemplative places, devoid of multi-sensory experiences, but in this new era, many institutions are leading the way to produce an accessible, inclusive, multi-modal experience.

Cuseum has a commitment to both accessibility and innovation in the museum space. Dialogues such as these help us stay informed about the progress being made, and help us keep our ear to the ground as we continue to move forward in our mission; to help museums engage their visitors, all visitors.

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