We have been fortunate to get a grant from the University of Oxford’s IT Innovation Fund for a project to look at developing new digital tools to improve access, especially to visual arts, for blind and partially sighted visitors to the museums. We’ll be running an 18 month R&D project starting now (September 2016) and working in partneship with the Oxford eResearch Centre.
Our side of the project will mostly be undertaken by our community outreach team, who have significant expertise from working on a project with RNIB to improve access for blind and partically sighted users, developing very practical solutions around audio introductions, touch tours, and training all front line staff to provide basic audio description.
This project will be much more experimental as we try to develop some more ambitious resources. We’ll be starting my looking at existing tools used to assist blind and partially sighted users to engage with visual arts, and see if there are ways that they can be improved using technology. The first thing we will be looking at will be raised images that allow users to ‘see’ the art work through their finger, improving the texture of the images to better ‘translate’ the art. These do not work in isolation as needs guidance on how to interpret what they are touching, usually provided audibly by a trained member of staff, which significantly reduces the availability of this kind of access to specially organised tours and visits. We’ll looking at how we can use technology to make these standalone experience that can always we available in the gallery.
We’ll also be looking closely at some of the other great work being pioneered by museums both here in the UK and internationally. At the moment I am particularly interested in:
- Linespace – uses a 3D printer head, navigated by voice command and gesture control, to draw plastic lines on a drawing board that can be explored with the finger, allowing users (among other things) to enlarge section of the art work.
- Haptic Interactive – developed at Manchester Museum it consists of a touch enabled computer system that allows the user to investigate and ecplore the topography of an artefact with in a 3D digital enviroment through a feedback stylus. It uses touch and motion feedback and can stimulate physical properties, such as the weight of an object, and the user can feel friction, texture and resistance.
- Digital Replicas – again piloted at Manchester Museum, they worked with Loughborough University to develop digital touch replicas. They have made a digital replica of an Ancient Egyptian Stela printed on nylon and with strategically places sensors to trigger sound and image files related to the area of the objects examined that appear on an adjacent sceen.
- Talking Tactile Tablet – working with Herefordshire Museums this US product developed for educational purposes has been used in the museum. It is overlaid by swirl paper and the tablet is programmed to deliver audio based on the user pressing on the image, and can deliver deeper content based on multiple of the weight of the touch.
Linked with this strand of activity at the museums, we partnered with the Jodi Mattes Trust to put on an event about digital access to culture earlier this month. I could not stay for the whole event, but the talks I did see really opened my eyes. The keynote by Ross Parry from the University of Leicester focussed on how, while some cultural organisations are doing great things, universal access is the exception rather than the rule in the cultural sector, and to really transform ourselves that mentality and approach needs to change. I know that is a challenge, it is often hard to imagine the access issues faced me others when they are removed from your own experience. This was highlighted by a talk by Signly, who has developed an app to provide sign language interpretation mobile guides for the deaf. Most people they speak to for the first time ask why they should provide sign language, when they could just provide text, but many deaf people struggle with text because of the way it is taught, and the way it relates to the spoken English language, rather than the sign language that is their ‘native tongue’.
The biggest shocker for me was a talk from Matthew Cock from VocalEyes, a charity that focusses on accessibility for the blind and partially sighted. They recently conducted a review of websites of hundreds of museums across the country looking at their accessibility information on their website. This is very important as more than any other type of visitor, disabled visitors will check the website to see if you have the right facilities for them. It also seems like it would be a relatively straightforward thing to do well, as it is just providing information rather than doing something fancy. But I was shocked by how badly most cultural organisation provide this information. More museums welcome guide dogs to their venues than welcome people. Accessibility information is hard to find, often burried and in illogical locations on the website, and when you do find it it is often very limited, simply saying things like ‘our venue is accessible’, without providing details about wheelchair access routes, audio descriptions guides, etc. Following the workshop I had a look at the information on some of our own websites and saw definitive room for improvement, something else we’ll be focussing in for the next few months. VocalEyes also gave some advice on improving these sections of the site and will be publishing a full report soon, but in the meantime:
Focussing on accessibility is a new area of work for me, and something I don’t yet know much about. Already the little I’ve learnt has really shifted my perspective, so I’m looking forward to what the next 18 months brings.