Betty Davidson: Making Exhibits Accessible
When interviewed for this profile in 1997, Davidson was in
her seventh year as an exhibition planner for the Museum of Science
in Boston, Massachusetts. With a Ph.D. and 15 years of research
experience in biochemistry, Davidson, who uses a scooter, brings
to her work in informal science education not only the perspective
of a scientist, but also that of a person with a disability. As
a forerunner in the museum accessibility field, Davidson has been
committed to developing inclusive and interactive science exhibits
for more than a decade.
I am an exhibit planner at the Museum of Science in Boston. I am also a parent, a scientist, and a person who has grown up with a mobility impairment. I had been doing biochemical research for many years, but came to the museum when I realized that it would be the place to pursue three things that had really come together for me: my continuing love for science; an interest in how people, especially children, learn; and a commitment to developing exciting science exhibits that everyone, including people with disabilities, can enjoy.
Exhibit development is a team process at the Museum of Science. As an exhibit planner, I am the "science content person" on a team that includes a designer, a technical designer, and representatives from the exhibit construction, exhibit maintenance, and educational programs divisions. I also wear another hat in my department: resource person and advocate for issues of exhibit accessibility.
Developing Accessible Exhibits
Over the years, we at the Museum of Science have moved toward greater exhibit interactivity and away from great lumps of text on the wall. In the process, we have learned a lot about ways to invite visitor participation. For example, any interactive exhibition now offers visitors choices of things to do in its exhibits, including things to smell and touch. Choices open an exhibition to visitors of all ages, abilities, and levels of interest. The result is that it appeals to many more people families, for example, and people with all kinds of disabilities.
In thinking about what works and what does not work for visitors, we believe that the most important thing is to test ideas and prototypes with all categories of potential users, particularly people we previously have not had much success in accommodating or attracting. For me, right now, that means people who are blind or have substantial vision loss.
Why test? What can you get by going straight to the source that you cannot get from good intentions, zeal, and reading the regulations? Here is a short story with a recurring theme:
We are preparing touchable scale models of our solar system for an astronomy exhibit currently in development. Each planet will be identified by a label with raised letters, its astrological symbol, and its name in braille. Assuming that the braille should be scaled up, we prepared a prototype label using a thermoform process to match the scale of the symbol and the lettering. Then we ran it by one of our advisors, a man who is blind and who reads braille. (Note: Only about 10% of people who are blind read braille. That is a different lesson, learned at an earlier time).
Our advisor had difficulty with the label for two reasons: (1) Braille cells should not be scaled up; readers expect them to be a standard size. And (2) we had chosen Grade I (beginner's) braille; Grade II, which uses letter contractions, is the standard braille used by readers. Then there was the lettering issue: Several people with low vision found the original (raised) typeface difficult to read. At their recommendation, we switched to block type. It would have been a pity to have (literally) cast those errors in bronze. That did not happen, simply because we checked the prototype with a few consumers.
Developing informal relationships with individuals and groups people of all ages and with all kinds of disabilities is the most effective way to develop universally accessible exhibits that work for everyone. We work with local schools for students who are deaf, blind, and mobility-impaired, parents' groups connected with a local children's hospital, a rehabilitation hospital with a recreation department, centers for independent living, and a variety of individuals who are generous with their time and advice. There are resources everywhere ready to help. A good starting place is a public (state, city, or national) or private agency that serves your area. They are repositories of all kinds of information and referrals.
Adapting an Existing Exhibition Hall
In the late 1980s, we worked with advisors with disabilities and prototyped exhibit components to inform the changes we made to the museum's New England Habitats exhibition. My book New Dimensions for Traditional Dioramas (1991) describes the development of this multisensory exhibit and the resulting changes in visitor behavior and learning, including longer lengths of stay in the exhibit hall and increased knowledge of exhibit themes. The picture at the right shows me listening to the environmental narrative accompanying the beaver diorama. Behind me, a visitor smells the beaver castoreum in a smell box.
In the process, we learned some things about universal access:
- Everyone loves to smell things and pet an animal.
- Audio labels benefit more than just visitors who are blind: Young children and, in fact, most people prefer to hear labels rather than read them.
- If the exhibit is touchable, it needs an audio label in order to be accessible to someone who cannot see.
- While consistency is necessary for visitors with visual or cognitive impairments, everyone benefits from it. For example, we routinely use square one-inch buttons to activate audio labels.
- Finally, we have learned to make informed, considered decisions as we develop an exhibit. This means that, in some cases, we choose to sacrifice a degree of one kind of accessibility to accommodate other needs for example, lowering an exhibit component for very young children, or addressing a maintenance problem.
The learning process is ongoing. A workshop on wayfinding to and through an interactive exhibit, for example, would help me figure out ways to get blind and visually impaired visitors to an exhibit and, once there, guide them to the accessible exhibit elements. I would also like to discuss possible ways to give these visitors pertinent information about the entire exhibit. Workshop participants could be museum exhibit developers and expert advisors primarily people who have little or no vision, but also mobility instructors and possibly parents of blind children.
Museum professionals have come a long way from defining accessibility as ramps and restrooms. Intellectual access to exhibits is also a goal. Certainly, disability accommodations are a prerequisite for intellectual access. We just have to keep working at it and learning.
Betty Davidson's book New Dimensions for Traditional
Dioramas: Multisensory Additions for Access, Interest, and Learning
was published by the Museum of Science, Boston, in 1991.
Click on the links below for more information on
Accessible Exhibits, Programs, and Facilities
Working with Access Advisors