Establishing Sound Practice: Ensuring Inclusivity with Media Based Exhibitions

Corey Timpson, Canada, Jutta Trevira, Canada

Keywords: inclusive design digital media accessibility exhibition

Scheduled to open in 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is Canada’s first national museum project in over 40 years. The first of Canada’s national museums to be located outside the nation’s capital of Ottawa, the CMHR’s uniqueness among its peers goes far beyond geography. The new museum, being constructed in Winnipeg, Manitoba is building itself within a context of no institutional legacy, unimaginable opportunity, and a mandate of presenting a subject matter that is intangible – human rights.

The CMHR recognizes its opportunity, has many ambitions, and is attempting to realize them as efficiently and practically as possible. Nowhere is this more obvious than the CMHR’s emphasis on building an inclusive design practice across all of its business streams – exhibits, public programs, facilities, visitor services, policy and process development, staff resourcing, collections, digital media presentation for on-site and remote audiences, and corporate operations.

1. The CMHR Context

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is engaged in numerous concurrent activities of significantly large scope – constructing the building, developing content, designing and building the exhibits, producing the media, building the collections, establishing and developing the public and educational programs, hiring and training staff, establishing processes and protocols, crafting policy, and so on. While the concurrency of these tasks creates an enormous concordance effort, the greenfield nature of the entire project is what provides the CMHR with the unique opportunity to establish a strong, efficient, and effective museological practice.

The CMHR’s subject matter, human rights, is a broad concept that can vary in interpretation when measured across geography, culture, and innumerable other applied variables. The intangibility of the subject matter lends itself to an interpretation that benefits from storytelling, while the nature of the subject insists on a highly reflective and interactive approach to experience design. This is referenced in the museum’s mandate to “encourage reflection and dialogue”. As such, the exhibits and overall interpretive framework of the museum employ a large amount of media and technology in order to both deliver stories and facilitate a dialogic interaction model (reciprocal, social, conversational).

Building a museum that will rely heavily on media and technology, scalability and changeability have been chief concerns of the concept, design, and build processes. A strict separation of content and presentation, a complex data architecture design, the creation of an enterprise content management system, strong semantic markup, strict metadata and controlled vocabulary standards, and a methodology of modularity and future proofing in implementation have been fundamental prerequisites to content development, exhibit design, information management, and implementation of technology.

These prerequisites, while helping ensure cost effective changeability in perpetuity, also assist the museum in delivering personalization and accessibility across many facets of its programming for opening and for the future as well.

One of the core principles the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has adopted is that of inclusive design. Rather than building a product and then determining how to make it accessible, the CMHR has established the methodology of considering inclusivity at the outset of all its initiatives.

2. Museum Practice

In early 2010, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights held a meeting with invitees from the Council of Canadian with Disabilities (CCD). The CMHR, with its exhibit designers, gave a presentation of the schematic designs and design intents of the exhibition, and received a healthy amount of criticism. The museum embraced this criticism as crucial feedback to help inform the design process. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, with the help of the CCD, then invited people from across the country to form the CMHR’s Inclusive Design Advisory Council (IDAC). The members of this assembly, working with CMHR staff, composed terms of reference for the council, and IDAC was formed of 8 people with various abilities, expertise, language profiles, and living in different cities across the country. IDAC meets approximately every quarter, in person with museum staff, and their role is to help the CMHR make informed decisions on many aspects of the museums development. IDAC is also engaged through remote means on an as-needed basis. To date, IDAC has helped inform the CMHR on access to the building, the finishing of ramps in between galleries, the physical design of the hard/built exhibits, the accommodations of digital media presentation, the graphic design for exhibits, the crafting of policies, and much more.

Along with the establishment of IDAC, the museum established the IDAC Working Group (IDAC-WG). This is an inter-departmental working group that meets monthly, establishes the IDAC meeting agendas, brings forward issues, discusses research and innovation in the domain of inclusive design, works on policy, and ensures inter-departmental communication and efficiencies.  It includes members from every department at the CMHR. While the practical implications of having a member from some departments (for example, the Finance Department of the museum) engaged in IDAC-WG might not seem obvious, an important aspect to establishing the inclusive design practice museum-wide, is to have 100% departmental participation in discussions and discourse. Members of IDAC-WG are tasked with bringing forward items for monthly agenda, and reporting back to their home departments. Minutes are taken and distributed, file sharing and document repositories are created, an institutional memory now exists, and an understanding of the inclusive design practice is blooming. Be it in the crafting of a human resources policy or the creation of an electromechanical exhibit element, inclusive design methodology is CMHR practice.

The National Test Group (NTG) is an initiative the Canadian Museum for Human Rights established in late 2009. This group consists of 30 members of varying ability and expertise, who use various adaptive technologies to browse Web content, who are located across the country, and who are linguistically and culturally diverse. Prior to the launch of any Web products, the CMHR circulates the products for criticism, review, and testing. There is a very structured format to receiving this feedback so that outcomes can be easily synthesized, actioned, and implemented. This process allows the museum to ensure Web products don’t just meet WGAC (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 – ) but that they are practically usable as well as being accessible.

One of the challenges the CMHR has faced is the solicitation of constructive criticism and feedback. A unique feature of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is the extremely complex architecture of the building. In order to facilitate an understanding of the spaces being worked with, the museum has had to undertake the creation of a tool set. This tool set includes, among other things, a 3D print of the museum and tactile gallery maps. These two tools in particular have helped blind visitors understand the context in which some critical discussions have taken place, and thereby provide more specific and useful feedback.

Figure 1 - Tactile Model of Museum

Fig. 1 – tactile model of the museum (3D print) allows people with vision impairments to perceive the unique shape of the building. The model opens so some of the main architectural elements inside the museum can be felt as well.

Figure 2 - tactile gallery map

Fig. 2 – tactile map of one of the CMHR galleries allows people with vision impairments to perceive the shape of the gallery space and the location of main elements within the galleries.

From hiring and policy development, to exhibit design, media production, facilities management, visitor services, public programming, staff training, wayfinding, prototyping and testing methodologies, and more – in developing and maintaining an inclusive design practice across the institution, the CMHR has initiated the creation of an Inclusive Design Policy which will apply to all aspects the museum practice.

Realizations – Hard Exhibits

In executing an inclusive design approach the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has begun realizing practical applications. Nowhere is this more clearly evident than with the design and development of the museum’s exhibitions. The CMHR and its master exhibit designer, Ralph Applebaum Associates (RAA), have approached exhibit design from a perspective of ensuring, to the greatest extent possible, inclusive and accessible experiences, not just accessible delivery of content. In most cases, this means ensuring redundancy of cues, content delivery in multiple forms and formats, and the creation of multisensory and mixed-media installations.

In regards to the hard exhibits (those elements which are not digital – print, built, object-based, furniture, physically constructed, etc.), the exhibition design team performed analysis, testing, and prototyping of typefaces, colour contrasts, colour combinations, reading distances, hierarchy and anatomy of information presentation across vertical space, tactility, orientation and identification of exhibit elements within 3D space, and more. The starting point for these exercises was standards and use cases from other institutions (when and where they existed), followed by mock-ups and prototyping, and presentation to the CMHR’s IDAC.  Testing will continue through the fabrication process which also has several rounds of prototyping and user testing built into the schedule.

One of the elements that will be featured within the exhibit design is the Universal Access Point (UAP). The UAP contains 3 main components – the tactile floor marker, the tactile wall marker, and the mobile device. The CMHR will make use of the mobile device in gallery for several functions. Besides integration of the exhibits with social and mobile media, the mobile device will provide supplemental content and interpretation, additional interaction opportunities, and accessibility to static content and experience such as printed/screened text, photographs, and objects.

A high-contrast, tactile floor marker that can be perceived by cane designates the Universal Access Point’s location. The UAP marker contains a tactile (raised) number, braille identifier, and a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip. The visitor is able to either enter the number into the mobile device, or the NFC chip will send a signal to the mobile device asking the visitor if they’d like to have the content described (in either of Canada’s two official languages). If the visitor chooses, the static content (text, photograph, graphic, object, etc.) will then be described to the visitor.

Figure 3 - Universal Access Point (Marker)

Fig 3 – Universal Access Point Tactile Marker schematic

Realization – Digital Exhibits

Some of the earliest design challenges faced, from an inclusive design perspective, are in regards to the storytelling aspect of the exhibit design. It was apparent early in the design development of the exhibits that a large amount of media would be presented and that this media would need to be both accessibly produced and served through accessible means.

Conceptual design work began by determining practical, usable, and cost-effective approaches to digital kiosk design. The conceptual design focused on the direction of a physical component that would accompany touchscreen kiosks. This component is called the Universal Keypad (UKP). The rationale leading to the realization of the UKP concept is that it will allow visitors who can’t see a touchscreen to tab and select menu items (which will be read out by screen-reader), is easily learnable, does not require additional or supplemental hardware on the part of the visitor, and is a fit with the museum’s standardized approach to content development and production.

In order to prove, evolve, and detail the concept, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights sought the expertise of OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Research Centre (IDRC). The IDRC has since critiqued, vetted, iterated, and is nearing completion of a solution that the CMHR will then put into fabrication.

Features of the UKP include tactile buttons (unique shapes matching functions), a jack for headsets, volume control, wrist support, and a general form factor that requires limited mobility. The UKP is identifiable by a high-contrast, tactile floor marker (of different tactile pattern to the UAP), and works in collaboration with a local speaker as well as the audio jack.

Figure 4 - Universal Access Keypad

Fig. 4 – the Universal Keypad allows visitors, through tab and select, to navigate a digital interface. Menu selections are read aloud; volume control and wrist support are also provided. (author’s note: this is an earlier rendering, design has evolved)

The Universal Keypad is only the first instance of collaboration between IDRC and the CMHR. The institutions recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The next scopes of collaboration include mobile devices and gesture based installations.

Related to the digital kiosks, the CMHR’s exhibit designers, RAA, have ensured tested standards exist for height of kiosks/touchscreens, reach areas across digital interfaces on all hardware, high contrast graphic design standards for digital interfaces, and more.

As discussed earlier, CMHR standards specify strict separation of content from presentation, so content and interfaces will be adaptable and changeable in the future as the museum’s approach to inclusive design, access, and personalization evolves.

The touchscreen kiosk, and digital interface, was one of the early design challenges when considering the presentation of digital media. Another challenge was in the production of the media itself. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is a national museum and is therefore subject to Canada’s Official Languages Act. As such, all content and services must be presented in both of Canada’s official languages – English and French. In terms of media production, this means either having 2 versions or completely bilingual productions. However, since the CMHR is approaching media production from an inclusive design perspective, accessible versioning, in both languages, has been included in all design and production workflows. As a result, the CMHR’s media will be produced in English and French, with transcriptions in both languages, with video description (in English and French), with American Sign Language (ASL) and Langue des signes québécoise (LSQ), and with open captioning in both languages. This has led to the design of media players and media presentation that facilitate ASL/LSQ interpreters on-screen and provide sufficient space and contrast for open captioning.

Figure 5 - digital media accessibility accommodations

Fig. 5 – mock-up of digital media presentation, showing layout for open captioning and ASL/LSQ interpretation.  (author’s note: this is an earlier mock-up, design has evolved. Both ASL/LSQ and captioning will be “open”.)

3. Next Steps

Prototyping and testing are key activities over the next year, as the CMHR completes final design and moves into fabrication and production of all its components (exhibits, software, building construction, and programming). Plans are in place for several iterations of testing and prototyping to ensure the design solutions serve their intended purpose. Concurrently, work continues along the museum’s design and technology path. The mobile device holds great potential for further inclusive design and access solutions and these are being worked-on now, even if they’ll only be launched in the years after opening.

A primary focus over the coming year will be the training of staff. Museum staff in the galleries, providing visitor services, and running public programs will be important facilitators to the visitor’s overall experience and engagement at the CMHR, irrespective of ability.

This paper has described some of the realizations that the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has achieved through the early establishment of an inclusive design methodology. It’s important to note that the CMHR fully expects to make mistakes. But it expects to learn from these mistakes and to continually involve the community, partners, and various experts and stakeholders in helping determine appropriate design solutions, so that there are no barriers to the experience any visitors might have in engaging with the museum and with the subject of human rights.

Cite as:
C. Timpson and J. Trevira, Establishing Sound Practice: Ensuring Inclusivity with Media Based Exhibitions. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 11, 2013. Consulted .

Leave a Reply