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How Can We Make Museum Labels More Accessible?

Phil Jones, Head of Digital Innovation at the Cornwall Museums Partnership, shares how they’re making museum labels more accessibility. In a world of flashy, face-paced, AI-driven tech, Phil and his team engaged with specific audiences to create a solution whose genius lies in its simplicity.

With more than 15 years in the EdTech sector under his belt, Phil Jones has worked on a wide variety of innovative digital projects, including a 1:1 iPad to student scheme and sending a teddy bear into space. As part of the Cornwall Museums Partnership, Phil has been focused on exploring and testing key digital solutions and applications.

A charitable organisation, the Cornwall Museums Partnership exists to help people learn about and be inspired by Cornwall’s museum collections, and as such, accessibility is vital to its success. This is where the R.E.A.D. project comes in.

Making More Accessible Museum Labels

The Responsive EPaper Adaptive Displays – or R.E.A.D. – project updates traditional museum labels using ePaper screens and contactless cards, allowing a single label to cater to different languages, larger fonts, age-appropriate texts and more. Phil explains,

“Curators spend a lot of time thinking critically about museums, but we rarely think as much about the labels. Museum labels are iconic, but they haven’t changed in hundreds of years. In the past, museums have tackled accessibility by simply putting more labels down – perhaps a children’s label, or a second language option – but this can be limiting. You could end up with ten labels to suit every possible viewer, and the museum becomes more label than artefact.

“Labels can be such a blocker for people with accessibility issues, to the point there they may be put off the whole museum experience. If you know you’re not going to be able to read the labels, a museum just becomes a place with a lot of objects and very little context. You’re not able to experience it in full.

”So, we started to explore ways to solve these problems. We looked at screens, but visitors don’t always want to be looking at screens in a museum, which led us to ePaper.”

Looking Beyond Screens

Screens were the team’s first instinct when looking to modernise museum labels, but early feedback led them to try a less flashy route.

“Post-pandemic, we all want to get out and be in spaces,” says Jones. “We want the feeling, the smell of being in a museum. The moment you’re on a screen, you think ‘I could be on a screen at home’. We didn’t want to detract from that in-person experience. If you’re looking at a screen rather than the actual piece, it stops complementing that experience and actually draws away from it.

“The role of a museum label is to not stand out.”

When ePaper was considered, the team knew they were onto something.

“We wanted it to look like a label as much as possible. EPaper isn’t big and flashy and showy. Our ePaper labels work without a backlight, so they’re easier to read, low power, and sustainable. They only use power when they change, meaning they aren’t a constant source of energy. They can even be battery charged, which means you don’t have to rig up thousands of wires. This gives it a little bit more flexibility.”

From an infrastructure perspective, this was a big asset. Nobody wants to be ripping up floorboards to feed through cables, especially in some of Cornwall’s older museums. As Jones explains, battery power means labels can be “reused in different exhibitions or locations. You can move them around with ease.”

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Sustainability, Sustainability, Sustainability

Using battery power also made the labels far less energy intensive than LED screens. As Phil explains, “A label takes around three days to use the energy a screen uses in an hour.”

Sustainability was a priority from the outset on the R.E.A.D project. As well as making use of ePaper’s low energy usage, they also took inspiration from a Croatia-based company that repurposed old, discarded Amazon Kindles and e-readers. Phil notes,

“It was a case of reusing old devices, then adding on NFC contactless card readers, batteries, and buzzers. We 3D-printed a case to fit all these elements out of recycled materials, including local fishing nets. Every aspect is designed to be sustainable.”

Applying Accessibility To Museums

Alongside sustainability, accessibility was a key priority for Jones and team. They spent time with charities supporting neurodivergent people and people with vision impairment, and came up with the ingeniously simple solution of using a contactless card reader to change R.E.A.D. labels to fit their reader’s needs.

“Marrying up the ePaper and contactless tech was a new thing for us. We’ve seen e-readers used as signage, but by including an NFC contactless reader, you simply tap your card, and the signage updates.”

This is groundbreaking in terms of accessibility, as the labels can provide a variety of changes to suit the reader’s specific requirements.

“Each label could read anything. You can change it to larger text. It could be any language or it could be language for children, or neurodiverse people. Or it could even be the same information told from a different perspective. You could do a tour based on the local perspective, or for a person that’s travelled from far away, or people with really niche interests.

“All of a sudden, you’re not limited by what text you can provide.”

Sharing Responsive EPaper Adaptive Displays

One of the biggest challenges facing the team was getting people excited about a product whose role was to fade into the background. As Phil explains:

“Museum labels aren’t something we want to stand out. We want them to be as seamless as possible. When it comes to tech, we’re often taken in by the ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ moments, but we had to push a device that simply does what it was intended to do very well. It screams subtlety, which is important.”

This made it hard to push the product on the fast-paced, consumer-driven social media platforms modern products typically rely on.

“Things that deal with accessibility in that subtle, functional way are difficult to market. You have to be a bit clever. But we’ve had a lot of success in network meetings and similar settings. Once you’ve got two slides and two minutes of someone’s time you can say: this is a label that changes and it can be anything you want it to be. When they understand it, people universally love the concept.”

Accessibility Advice For Museums? Stay Flexible

R.E.A.D. is an Open Source Project – an initiative that allows others to use, copy, modify, and contribute back to a project without repercussions. This helped the team create something special in a limited time frame.

Phil says, “We only had six months to start something from scratch, both the hardware and software, so we knew we’d need support. By throwing it out there as Open Source, people can take our efforts and build on them.”

This also helped the team maintain a versatile mindset, which he says was key to the success of the labels themselves.

“I would definitely recommend Open Source. Not every project will be suitable for every museum. We have enough differences between even the small towns in Cornwall that museums ten miles down the road are completely different to their neighbouring museums. Open Sourcing means someone else can build the next stage to make it work for them.”

Sadly, the team will require more funding before being able to take the R.E.A.D. label project further. But Phil explains that this versatility will be vital to the project’s continued success:

“We’ve created that first building block. One day, we – or someone else – can return to it and build off it. Every museum is different, so keeping your projects plain and flexible – at least initially – works wonders.”

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