Archive for the ‘Museums & disabilities’ Category

Freer Collection, Washington, DC

April 5, 2014


The Freer Collection is one of the smaller, quieter museums in the Smithsonian complex. The galleries are refreshingly uncluttered.


Freer gallery with seatingq

 Some have seating.


Freer no seating 

Many do not.


Freer courtyard

The museum is built around a graceful courtyard, which offers eye relief as well as a tranquil outdoor space in good weather.


 Freer bench with arm rest

A few galleries have benches with arm rests — a feature that enables visitors to stand up and sit down more easily.


Freer wall label

Wall labels are adequate, for the most part, although the body text size should be larger for true accessibility. The labels should be more brightly lit too.


Freer bad label

One gallery had labels that were designed and hung in a truly maladroit manner — small type, low contrast, poorly lit, and well below eye level for most visitors.


 Sackler label

Meanwhile, an exhibition in the adjoining Sackler Gallery had well-lit, high-contrast labels at a good height. There is no reason the Freer could not do the same. 


Calif. Academy of Sciences Aquarium: Second-Rate Monterey

October 11, 2011

The Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences tries very hard to be another Monterey Bay Aquarium – going for that immersive, “wow” experience that MBA does so well:

The problem is, the aquarium at the Academy is basically an afterthought, stuffed into the basement, with nowhere near the square footage of its southerly rival.

It’s disturbingly dark (as opposed to serenely dark), with no straight lines – which makes for a rather disorienting visitor experience. Not to mention difficult to navigate for anyone with mobility issues.

Low lighting often makes for signs and labels that are difficult to read.

Unlike Monterey Bay Aquarium, entire wings of which are bathed in natural light, the new downstairs Steinhart Aquarium is lit only by ceiling lights. Exhibits like the Tidepool, which ideally should attempt to reproduce or at least realistically represent the experience of a real tidepool at the open ocean, instead become something you might see next to a craps table in the eternal twilight of a Las Vegas casino.

For anyone who remembers the old Steinhart Aquarium, pre-Renzo Piano rebuild, the new aquarium is a sad experience. The old Steinhart was spacious, contemplative, and actually had far more tanks with a lot more sea life. It was, and felt like, an integral part of the Academy of Sciences – and its exhibitry related a lot more to the local environment of northern California. It was successful on its own terms without trying to be something it wasn’t.


Visitor comfort in San Diego: Video Part 2

December 9, 2009

Video documentation continues of our visitor comfort workshop in October at the Western Museums Association. In this chapter, workshop participants recount their first visits to the Museum of Photographic Arts in their roles as people with either learning differences or physical disabilities. Participants were given brief profile cards on the morning of the workshop. They had not seen their profiles before and had about 20 minutes to familiarize themselves with the important characteristics of the roles they would be playing. 

The dedication and consistency with which they inhabit their characters and interact with the museum in those roles, is striking. I think this demonstrates the viability of role-playing as a method for testing visitor comfort and accessibility among staff and consultants. It also demonstrates Paul Gabriel’s point that people with learning differences and disabilities do not have “different” comfort and accessibility needs; they are simply more sensitive to those needs than some other visitors and thus can help to identify problem areas quickly and efficiently.

Getting comfortable in San Diego

September 21, 2009

The annual meeting of the Western Museums Association will take place in San Diego on October 24-30, and visitor comfort is on the agenda.

Beth and I are working with Stephanie Weaver of Experienceology, educational consultant Paul Gabriel, and Vivian Haga of the Museum of Photographic Arts to present a pre-conference workshop and a conference session:

Pre-Conference Workshop

Increasing Visitor Comfort to Encourage Return Visits

Sunday, October 25, 1-5:30 PM


In this tough economy, we need to do everything we can to welcome visitors and encourage them to return, become members, and support the museum financially. Visitor comfort is known to aid learning, promote mental and emotional receptivity, and increase the likelihood of a return visit; yet in many museums, comfort is not a priority. In this pre-conference workshop at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego’s Balboa Park, participants will explore practical, economical, and simple ways that museums can help make visitors comfortable by accommodating their physical, psychological, neurological, and social needs. Participants will work together to assess public areas of the host museum in terms of comfort and accommodation and suggest potential improvements. Most critically, they will collaborate with the host museum staff to examine potential barriers to making those improvements and create strategies to address and overcome those barriers. Findings will be presented in a session at the conference.



Getting Comfortable with Visitor Comfort

Wednesday, October 28, 9:55-11:15 AM


This session offers practical and simple visitor comfort tools to apply at your museum, using the results from our pre-conference workshop at the Museum of Photographic Arts as a starting point. Experts in design, visitor experience, and physical and learning disabilities will deconstruct what we learned from our host museum and how it might be more broadly applied to museums in general, while museum staff weigh in on the workshop results and share what they learned. Panelists and attendees will suggest and critique practical, economical, and simple ways in which all museums might increase visitor comfort-physically, psychologically, neurologically, and socially.


If you’re attending WMA in San Diego this October, we’d love to see you there. 

The Disabling Museum, Part 3: Restrooms

May 26, 2009

Slide 33

Museum restrooms are great places to get a sense of how well not just so-called disabled visitors are accommodated, but anyone who might need space or privacy in a restroom. This might include larger visitors, people with ostomies, visitors with small children, etc. 


Slide 34

Here’s an “accessible” restroom that can be cruel to the user. Notice that immediately after you enter, you have to make an immediate sharp right turn and open another door — outward — with barely enough room to maneuver. And if someone comes out the door you’re trying to enter … trouble, potentially.  This could also be awkward for someone with a bag, or an overweight/obese visitor, or someone who maneuvers their wheelchair with difficulty.


Slide 35

Here’s another so-called disabled accessible restroom in another museum. It features a door that opens outward in a narrow corridor. This photo is foreshortened and does not convey just how narrow. On top of that, this restroom is located in a dark, creepy space in an out-of-the-way location. And this is in a major museum that has been renovated in the last couple of years. 


met restroomBy contrast, here’s a restroom in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. A wide door and then a straight shot, with plenty of maneuvering room. And the stalls are adequate for most visitors’ needs. The downside is that because of the straight access, you can see right into it when the door is open — but that could be taken care of with a privacy wall or privacy screen in front of the door. 


The next time you visit a museum, notice the number and location of the restrooms. Are there enough? And are they conveniently located? This will tell you a lot about how thoughtful the museum is of visitors’ basic physical comfort.