Wednesday, 17 August 2011

museum accessibility

Tiffany Jenkins has just reviewed the redevelopment of the Museum of Scotland. I found it fascinating that the kids she went with noticed that the museum had been dumbed down, and that she had great difficulty finding out where a large spider-crab that was on display came from and how big it was - simple facts that you would expect to appear in its caption. Also, the museum has introduced those awful audio-guides, which I personally dislike intensely.

This reminded me of another issue with museums that I identified about five years ago, and even wrote to curators' mailing lists about.

Museum displays frequently have poor usability and accessibility, namely the way they label their exhibits. Frequently there is a number next to the object, and this refers to a panel with explanatory text. This is OK for small objects where there is no room to add captions next to the objects, but frequently it is employed for large objects, where the aesthetic value of the object is often seen as more important than its meaning.

Unfortunately this makes it very difficult for people with dyslexia to enjoy the exhibition, because by the time they have transferred their gaze from the exhibit to the interpretation panel, they have forgotten the number, and have to go back again. I myself am not dyslexic but frequently have this problem anyway! In one museum we visited, there was a costume exhibition, and the distance between the numbers and the explanatory text was so great that a lady who was both short- and long-sighted had to change her glasses each time.

The solution is simply to place a short explanatory caption next to the object (e.g. 14th C English spoon), and a longer piece giving the context below or beside the display case.