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Accessible Practices Behind the Scenes Gretchen Jennings
Gretchen Jennings: Invention at Play

At the time of this interview in late 2003, Gretchen Jennings was project director for the Invention at Play exhibition developed by the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. The Center is located in the National Museum of American History (NMAH), a Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. The popular exhibition closed in December 2002, then began an ASTC-managed tour. It received an Excellence in Exhibition Award at the 2003 meeting of the American Association of Museums.


Describe the exhibition.
Invention at Play tells the stories of more than thirty inventors and offers visitors opportunities to play inventively and creatively themselves. It links the ways that children play with the ways that inventors and other creative people approach their work. The exhibition, its related programs and materials, and its national tour are supported by The Lemelson Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

How did you approach the issue of accessibility for this project?
We wanted the exhibition to be as inclusive as possible, to appeal overall to people of diverse backgrounds and ages and, in particular, to be readily accessible to people with various disabilities.

I have directed other large projects, so when it came to making this highly interactive exhibition accessible, I relied on my own experience as well as that of others. The result was a collaboration between people with different perspectives and areas of expertise that I believe strengthened the exhibition.

My recent experience as an advisor for the exhibition Secrets of Aging, an exhibition developed by staff at the Museum of Science (MOS), Boston, convinced me of the need to work closely with accessibility advisors. MOS staff hired Sara Smith, who has low vision, as a consultant. From the start, Sara noticed things that the rest of us overlooked. For example, she pointed out how integrating sound and tactile elements within a particular interactive would create the opportunity for multi-sensory experiences for everyone while insuring that visitors who are blind or have low vision had a real opportunity to participate.

That experience convinced me that elements I might once have considered "add-ons" often make exhibits more accessible for everyone. Working with Sara also made me realize how important it is to involve advisors with disabilities throughout the entire exhibition design process.

Was accessibility a goal from the start?
Robert Garfinkle ably managed the design and fabrication of the exhibition for the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM). In one of our very early discussions, Robert and I agreed that we wanted Invention at Play to appeal to, and be accessible to, a very broad audience. On a practical note, we agreed that early attention to accessibility would help us avoid the usual high cost of retrofitting.

Fortunately, we didn't have to start from scratch or feel we were on our own. The NMAH, like other Smithsonian museums, requires a sequence of accessibility reviews during the design phase of an exhibition. Accessibility Program staff Jan Majewski and, later, Beth Ziebarth, conducted these reviews. Additionally, at our request, Jan and Beth recommended individuals with disabilities to work with us at different stages of the process, including the several days when we prototyped four exhibits on the floor of NMAH.

What's more, our evaluator for this project, Randi Korn and Associates, worked with us to develop a way to assess accessibility issues during prototyping.

What role did prototyping play in the development process?
Prototyping is a way to learn in the early stages of the design process how actual visitors respond to labels, audio components, and other features of exhibits. Although prototyping was taking place at SMM, I insisted on testing at NMAH as well.

The consensus on interactives at the Museum is that they are often unsuccessful because of the sheer volume of visitors: with millions of visitors a year, high rates of breakage, theft, and vandalism are inevitable. We wanted to test these assumptions during a period of high visitation. So it was as much to prove a point as it was to get feedback that four table-top interactives and several panels showing various inventors were shipped to Washington and installed in one of the hallways at NMAH.

We opened to the public on two busy spring days in 2001. While several hundred visitors played, Randi and her team observed, took notes, and interviewed visitors selected at random. This was also an opportunity to look more closely at accessibility. So with Beth's help, two focus groups composed of four to six people with disabilities were invited to explore the exhibits for one half hour on their own and then share their reactions with Randi. One group consisted of adults who are blind or have low vision and the other of adults with mobility impairments. The reactions of each group were recorded and were incorporated into the formative evaluation report to us.

What did you learn from prototyping?
We learned that some components were appealing as well as accessible to members of both groups while other components worked for just a few people or for no one at all. These conversations as well as interviews with the general public prompted Randi and the SMM team to make some changes on the spot, and then to observe further.

At the end of the two days, Randi reported her preliminary findings to an audience that included not only Center and SMM staff, but curators, exhibit designers, and educators from other SI museums. The exhibits had made it through the two days in very good condition, perhaps proving to any skeptics how much visitors enjoy and value real exploration.

Whirl gigHow did you use what you learned?
Learning the preferences of individuals with disabilities was helpful. We followed their advice as much as we could, making changes in the final product, but for other preferences offered by focus group members, we struck a compromise. For example, we decided that the exhibits in the Invention Playhouse, a very popular space for young children, should be at child height. As a consequence, an adult wheelchair user would have to make a side approach and would not be able to roll inside. In a few instances, we decided to include an exhibit or component that was inaccessible to a particular disability group. The Sailboard Simulator, a device to teach windsurfing on land, is an example. Advisors with mobility impairments whom we spoke with told us they appreciated its value to the exhibition as a whole even though it was inaccessible to them.

How did you budget for accessibility?
"We had estimated the cost of prototyping and included this in our original proposals for funding. In the end, it represented only small portion of the overall budget, but it was a critical item to include from the start. What was new for me was intentionally including individuals with disabilities in the process. To make that happen, honoraria and transportation for accessibility advisors were also in our budget."

Describe how you used audio to enhance visitors' experiences.
Following the Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design when it comes to aisle widths, turn-around spaces, counter heights, and reach now seems to be part of a designer's tool kit. What was once new has become standard and visitors with and without disabilities have benefited from these changes. But making exhibits work for people with sensory disabilities remains a challenge. I think we made some head way by incorporating audio technologies into Invention at Play.

Robert and I explored various kinds of sound systems during sessions on accessibility at past ASTC Annual Conferences. In the end, we chose SoundStik ™, an audio technology that SMM has used successfully in other exhibitions.

SoundStiks™ are positioned throughout the exhibition, usually on the left side of an exhibit. The Stik, which operates like a telephone with audio only, is attached by cable to an Akman control unit, which contains the recorded label. The entire assemblage is attached unobtrusively to the side of an exhibit component. The SoundStik™ at the entrance to the exhibition provides an overview while others provide thumbnail descriptions of anything behind glass. Still others give visitors instructions for the interactive aspects of an interactive exhibit.

Having a suitable technology was only part of the answer. We still had to answer the question of content. For guidance, we turned to Laurie Gregorio, one of our accessibility advisors with low vision. Laurie listened to each script and worked with label writers to make the text as concise and clear as possible before it was recorded.

While we included SoundStiks™ primarily to aid people who are blind or have low vision, they work well for sighted people who can hear. People with good vision who have difficulty reading for other reasons appreciate the audio recordings, and visitors told us the directions were helpful and they found the information interesting.

What conclusions can you share with others?
We learned that good guidelines, ongoing input from accessibility consultants, accessibility reviews at each stage of the process, and the feedback of educated consumers during prototyping help make for a more inclusive exhibition. Looking back on our efforts to make Invention at Play fully accessible, we still see things that might be improved. Overall, however, the exhibition seems to work well for a wide range of visitors—and that was our goal.

                                                Invention at Play Exhibit
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