Three adventures: the Science Sense tour at American Museum of Natural History (2/3)

This is the second in a series of three “adventures in universal design,” a design research experiment carried out by Rachel Sakai and Katie Shelly. For an introduction to the project, see our earlier post, here.

The entrance to the American Museum of Natural History. Clear blue sky, pedestrians walking up the stairs, banners hanging on the facade, and taxicabs in the foreground. Architecture is stately, four tall columns and ornate inscriptions and statues near the roofline.

The American Museum of Natural History. Photo by Flickr user vagueonthehow.

COMPETITIVE PRODUCT SURVEY:
SCIENCE SENSE TOUR AT AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
AUGUST 15 2013

About once a month, AMNH offers a special tour for the blind, a program called Science Sense. Many museums in New York City have similar monthly tours for the blind. (The Jewish Museum’s Touch Tours, The Whitney Museum’s Touch Tours, MoMA’s Art inSight, the Met Museum’s Picture This! Workshop, and many more).

We chose to go on Science Sense because it worked with our schedule. Our tour was in the iconic Hall of North American Mammals.

Screenshot of the AMNH site. The page reads: Science Sense Tours  Visitors who are blind or partially sighted are invited to attend this program, held monthly in the Museum galleries. Specially trained Museum tour guides highlight specific themes and exhibition halls, engaging participants through extensive verbal descriptions and touchable objects.  Science Sense is free with Museum admission.  Thursday, August 15th, 2:30 PM North American Mammals Discover the dioramas in the stunningly restored Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, which offers a snapshot of North America’s rich environmental heritage.

The AMNH website’s info page about access for the blind and partially sighted

Here are some highlights and observations from our tour:

– We gathered in the lobby of the planetarium. The tour’s organizer, Jess, explained that the tour meets in the planetarium entrance and not the main NMAH entrance because it is a more accessible entrance. (Ramp, no stairs, large doorways with push-button opening, etc)

– It was a summer Thursday at 2:30, so we were a small group. Many of our fellow tour-goers appeared to be about retirement-age, which makes sense given the time of day. There was one teenaged boy, who was with his mom who has partial vision.

– The group had a chatty and friendly vibe. About 10 guests total. People were chatting with each other and having getting-to-know-you type conversations during our walk to the Hall of Mammals.

– Only 2 out of the 10 attendees appeared to be blind or low-vision. Each of the blind/low-vision guests had a sighted companion with them. The other 6 attendees appeared to be fully sighted.

– Irene, our tour guide, wore a small amplifier around her waist and a head-mounted microphone (something like this). The hall wasn’t terribly loud, but the amplifier made for more comfortable listening (and probably more comfortable speaking, too).

In a very dimly lit gallery, Irene stands with a group of attentively listening museumgoers on her left, and a brighly lit diorama of taxidemy bison on her right. She wears a blue employee badge and microphone headset.

Our guide Irene describing the bison diorama for the group.

– Once we arrived in the darkened Hall, Irene began our tour the same way most tours begin: an explanation of historical context. (When and why the dioramas were originally created, when and why they were restored… etc.)

– Irene described the first diorama thoroughly, element by element. (Backdrop, foreground elements, taxidermy animals.) One guest asked about how big the diorama is. Good question. Irene suggested that a second guide take the blind guests for a walk from one edge of the diorama to the other to get a sense of scale. This was a suggestion I wouldn’t have thought of; seems more fun than just stating a measurement.

Irene is holding an approximately two foot by one foot swatch of bison fur in both hands, grinning as she holds it out for others to feel.

Irene delights in sharing the touch sample (bison fur) with the group.

– Irene had a number of touch samples on a rolling cart. Some plastic animal skulls and a sample swatch of bison fur. At the end of our time in front of the bison diorama, she gave everyone a chance to feel the musky, matted fur.

– Naturally, as Irene was explaining the diorama and the touch samples were sitting behind her on the cart, many other visitors to the Hall (not part of the tour) took the opportunity to touch the fun stuff as it sat unattended on the cart.

– We went around to four more stunning dioramas, where Irene and a second guide (who was in training) took turns describing and contextualizing the displays.

– I noticed that sometimes the sighted companion of one of the attendees would quietly add on his own description to what the tour guide was saying. Once I saw him lift his blind partner’s arm, and sweep it through the space to explain where different objects in the diorama were positioned. (We would later chat with these folks, Linda & Dave, who ended up going on a trip with us to the Met, which we’ll talk about in the next section.)

Takeaways:

– Rachel & I both happen to be big radio/podcast listeners. During the tour, I realized that a blind person’s experience is a lot like listening to radio. They are relying only on the guide’s words to “see” what’s there.

What if museum tour guides were trained to think and speak like radio hosts? What if each stop on the tour opened with a detailed, theatrically delivered, visual description? Listening to a luscious, mood-setting, masterfully crafted description of anything on display— be it a Bison diorama or a Dyson Vacuum Cleaner or a Van Gogh painting would be a delight for sighted and blind visitors alike.

A photo of Ira Glass smiling and looking into the distance. There is a microphone in front of him.

What if your tour guide could describe works as viscerally and virtuosically as Ira Glass could?

-There was some confusion about the basic size and shape of the dioramas. What if there was a tiny model of each diorama that visitors could feel? Blind visitors could understand scale and shape right away, and sighted visitors might enjoy a touchable model, too. Imagine touchable mini-models of paintings, sculptures, and other museum stuff, too.

Check out our third and last adventure in universal design research, observing a blind person’s museum visit.

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About Katie Shelly

Katie was Media Technologist from 2011-2015 as part of the inaugural Labs team under Seb Chan. She's since left museumzone to pursue a Master's in Digital Experience Design at Hyper Island in Manchester, England. You can always catch her latest doings on Twitter as @interkatie.

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