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Nothing about us without us: Improving digital accessibility for museum visitors

Ryan Dodge outlines how a headline exhibition at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum gained a new lease on life. The exhibition was also made more accessible through a digitally immersive experience that was tested with disability communities. 

As the Chief Digital Officer of Ingenium – Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation, Ryan Dodge is responsible for the corporation’s public-facing digital presence across the spectrum of onsite and online experiences at three national museums: the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum in Ottawa is the world’s only working farm in the heart of a capital city — where visitors have been able to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of a working farm for more than 40 years. Historically, one of the most popular attractions at the museum was a real-life tractor cab, which enabled visitors to climb aboard an impressive piece of farmyard hardware for many years. However, in 2019 the tractor required maintenance work, which provided the perfect opportunity to reassess whether the attraction was fit for purpose and truly meeting the needs of museum visitors.

Rather than dismantling a crowd-favourite, the museum partnered with the Ingenium’s Digital Innovation Lab to give this much-loved experience a complete digital and accessibility makeover.

“The tractor had always been something of a showstopper at the museum,” Ryan explains. “Kids have always loved climbing into the cab, moving the steering wheel, pressing the buttons and pulling the lever; it gave them the chance to pretend they were actual farmers working in their fields. To get into the tractor cab, children would climb up a few steps. It was almost like a play structure for kids, really.

“As popular as the tractor was, it presented the museum with a number of accessibility challenges that we wanted to remedy — both for those with physical disabilities and also for those who were visually impaired and unable to read the interpretation panel.

“We opted to build a digital game that utilised a digital screen behind the windshield inside the tractor cab and then replicated this at ground level with a similar cab environment, but with a number of important differences. In the ground-level installation, there’s a lot more space and plenty of room for those with mobility issues to enjoy.”

According to Ryan, the digital game, called Farming Adventure, now incorporates a range of accessibility features to engage those who are visually or hearing impaired. The new, ground-level installation opens officially in May 2023.

Engineering accessibility through collaboration

In order to ensure that both the tractor and its ground-level alternative met the needs of the accessibility community, the Lab entered into a consultation and collaboration phase. This involved bringing together people with a variety of accessibility requirements and gaining their input through a rapid prototyping phase.

Ryan says, “We really lean into the idea of ‘nothing about us without us,’ and the belief that we can’t design exhibitions for people with access needs in the absence of their input. Establishing sessions and workshops with people from different communities has been invaluable in developing this project.

“Off the back of the initial consultation phase, we worked up low-fi cardboard prototypes based on our findings. This allowed us to invite our collaborators to perform user testing, then provide us with their initial feedback. We found it to be an inclusive and engaging experience.”

Lessons learned and future planning

Asked what the Farming Adventure project has taught the Ingenium team, Ryan says, “Many of the features we’ve incorporated into this experience were informed by the feedback we received in our workshops and accessibility sessions — from haptic feedback steering wheels to the rumbling seat. I can certainly see us using some of these elements in the development of other exhibitions and installations across our three museums in the future. In fact, that’s one of the key areas of focus for our Digital Innovation Lab going forward.

“We also learned a lot about the best ways to develop a digital game to maximise accessibility. This included the provision of voice commands and the incorporation of various audio cues and narration messaging. The digital screens also features high-contrast visuals to help those who are visually impaired, and full captions to aid those who might be hearing impaired.

“As a trio of national institutions in Canada, we must develop exhibitions and interactives that are fully bilingual in French and English, so visitors can learn and play in the language of their choice.”

Ryan emphasizes the importance of not entering into any form of accessibility project with too firm an idea of what things should look like — both in terms of the digital experience and the physical.

“The end product in this instance was probably quite different to what our team had initially envisioned,” he admits. “But that’s a good thing and we’re much happier to see that the immersive experiences — both in the cab and at ground level — are really giving our visitors what they want and need.”

Find out more about how museums are utilising the latest strategies, technologies and tools to enhance the work they are doing for their audiences and communities at MuseumNext’s virtual conference series.

 

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