The Barcelona Design Museum shows us that by making exhibitions accessible to people with visual impairment, we enrich the experience of all audiences.
Most museums are accessible for people with reduced mobility. However, this adaptation is limited to physical access, excluding the “sensory access” to exhibitions, thus not allowing people with other functional disabilities enjoy the works exhibited.
SEEING THOUGH DIFFERENT SENSES
In this sense, The Barcelona Design Museum is committed to the participation of all audiences. This is the case of the exhibition Distinction. A Century of Fashion Photography, which features a selection of 160 photographs representative of different ways of understanding fashion photography over the years.
The Museum wanted to make these photographs accessible for people with functional visual impairment and, for this purpose, tactile reproductions of images accompanied by audio descriptions of the most representative images are available for all visitors.
To know more about this exhibition, I interviewed Carme Planas, responsible for the accessibility of the Museum’s collections and exhibitions. Carme explained that the challenge of this exhibition was to transmit images that are not descriptive, but intuitive and metaphorical stories that seek to touch and play with ambiguity.
Therefore, their goal wasn’t only to describe the photographs, but also convey the impact. To do this, they have resorted to the use of different languages:
- Physical language, through sensations (reliefs and textures).
- The story, through audio descriptions that not only describe the image, but make a synthesis of the time, the author and the context.
- Guided tours to create a special atmosphere.
AN ENRICHING EXPERIENCE FOR ALL AUDIENCES
Doing this interview, my interest was in knowing the reaction of the general audience to these elements of accessibility.
According Carme Planas, in fact, the general audience without visual impairment is also using these resources as they add information that otherwise would go unnoticed. The audio descriptions, for example, allow delving into the meaning of the photographs by giving information that only appears in catalogs and describing details that people usually don’t perceive. On the other hand, tactile reproductions, especially those of small-format photographs, also help bringing out details.
By making the exhibition accessible to a diverse audience, the experience has been enriched for everyone.
This interview and my own visit to the exhibition have made me realize that not only museums but also designers tend to perceive users as a pair of eyes. People, however, interact with their environment through multiple senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch …).
Reducing the users’ relationship with their environment to a one dimension limits their access and impoverishes their experience. By ignoring the diversity of ways in which people experience the world, we are treating people without functional disabilities as if they were blind, deaf or mute.
Just imagine a silent room of white walls with a photograph of a landscape. Now imagine that in addition to the picture, we can hear the birds, smell the pines and feel the breeze. The experience has risen from 10% to 70%.
“IT HAS TO OFFER SOMETHING ELSE”
To get a broader view of how accessibility for people with disabilities can enrich the experience of all users, I visited the exhibition accompanied by a person without functional impairment.
After the visit, one of her comments was revealing: “I can find these photographs and the information on the internet. The exhibition has to offer me something else”. The tactile reproductions, audio descriptions and other elements that have yet to be invented will improve the user experience in Museums and other services.
It was also very interesting her opinion about which tactile reproductions had offered an enriching experience: those with texture. Tactile reproductions that only highlighted lines and shapes were somehow redundant as she could see this elements. She especially enjoyed the reproduction of “Gala” by Txema Yeste (woman in red dress in the video).
I edited a short video (1 min) of the visit where you can see some photographs and tactile reproductions of images.