“It’s like being inside a drawing”: improving exhibition accessibility

“All humans are different, so being conscientious of visitors’ needs helps us to pre-empt our designs,” Pentagram’s Marina Willer says of exhibition design. “Being aware of what can restrict people helps inform design decisions along the way.”

This year, Willer designed the Design Museum’s most popular exhibition to date, a retrospective of film director Stanley Kubrick, covering his career from Full Metal Jacket to A Clockwork Orange. The exhibition content — a mix of props, visual media and audio content — spanned several decades, and was evocatively spread out with colours and graphics, contributing to a “filmic quality”.

The entrance to the Stanley Kubrick exhibition

Among access considerations, Willer lists the width and turning circles of wheelchairs, the optimum height for content to be legible and lighting to aid legibility. Among the feedback for the exhibition was a comment from a wheelchair user who suffers from anxiety and agoraphobia — the fear of open or crowded spaces — saying how accessible and enjoyable she found the exhibition, according to Willer.

“Knowing that the small details we deliberate over make a difference was a really proud moment for the team,” she adds.

“Visual bias”

These small details might not be noticeable to able-bodied people, and one of the most common assumptions about exhibitions is that visually-impaired people have no reason to visit exhibitions.

Anna Fineman is the museums, galleries and heritage programme manager at VocalEyes, a charity that supports blind and partially sighted people access arts and heritage across the country. She says: “Sighted people tend to experience them in a visually biased way, but when you take a moment to tune in, there are a number of cues within a physical environment.

“You can sense changes in flooring under foot or in atmosphere as you move through different floors, and particular scents are given off by particular objects and artwork.”

The charity provides consultancy to exhibition sites, with a user-focused approach. Some of the exhibition design they recommend could include audio description — “notably different from standard audio content”, Fineman says — and consideration of any tactile opportunities.

Cannon Street bridge, part of the Illuminated River exhibition. Photo courtesy of James Newton

It’s different for each exhibition though, and some aren’t confined to indoor spaces. The organisation has recently worked on a public commission which involves lighting up 15 bridges over the River Thames. Illuminated River lights up at dusk every day, drawing attention to the social and engineering history of each bridge, while “evoking the atmospheres of the dynamic artwork”.

VocalEyes used compositions from Guildhall School of Music and Drama in an attempt to “enhance the listening experience” for those who use audio description.

Moving beyond aesthetics

Sally Booth is a practising artist who is visually impaired, and consults with VocalEyes on projects. She says that it can be frustrating when exhibitions are laid out in a way which might look good but has not been thought out in terms of user needs. “It may look great but can be difficult for the viewer. How does that make it work for me trying to tell what’s going on?”

Some recurring challenges for Booth include portholes that are difficult to reach, bad lighting, and display cases that make viewing difficult. Even simple exhibition design — like sloping shelves so that visitors can view displays from a raised angle — makes a difference.

Perhaps surprising is the opportunity that 3D installations offer visually-impaired people. Booth recently attended the Antony Gormley exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, and one of the highlights was that there wasn’t too much written information to wade through. “It spoke for itself,” according to Booth.

London Transport Museum’s Hidden London exhibition

“You were able to walk in and around the work,” Booth says. “There was one room that was like being inside a big scribble drawing.” That room is entitled Clearing, and Booth highlights how the dark wires against the brightly lit room allowed for heightened visibility. Immediately after this room, the “frenetic” pace changes as visitors enter a smaller room with only one statue in. “The way the exhibition has been designed has a significant effect on you,” she adds.

Booth lists London Transport Museum’s Hidden London exhibition as another recent highlight. The exhibition, which recreates the subterranean world of the capital’s abandoned Tube stations, relies heavily on sound. It also features wide-screens of imaginatively displayed video recordings of Charing Cross underground station, some of which you view from above. This not only makes viewing easier but also contributes to the atmosphere — as if visitors are watching platforms from above.

“If it’s well-designed, it makes the experience more seamless for me,” Booth says. “If you’re less conscious of how inaccessible it is, it’s much more enjoyable.”

Access in exhibition design is not black and white. While Clearing provided an interactive experience for Booth, it wouldn’t be as friendly to someone with mobility issues — highlighting the complexity of putting on an exhibition that is truly accessible to everyone.

Where art meets access

Art evolves. And with that evolution comes new opportunities for accessibility. Marcus Dickey Horley, curator of public programmes at Tate, believes that contemporary art could present much more varied opportunities for people with disabilities. The gallery offers ‘Touch Tours’ for people with visual impairment, which allows them to handle works of art restricted to sighted people.

In finding new ways to diversify audiences, Tate works to a series of guidelines. An artist is never asked to change a piece of art to make it accessible, for example. Where Dickey Horley comes in is with the discussion with artists who have been commissioned to work out if there is a way to make these more accessible.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus at Tate Modern

The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern often features large-scale installations and Dickey Horley says that the gallery tries to work with artists to at least make this an exhibit that visitors can touch. This also kills two birds with one stone; it means that there is no need for constant invigilation in the hall.

The current exhibit, Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus — a huge sculpture of a fountain that comments on Britain’s slave-trade past — allows visitors to sit on the edge, for example.

Dickey Horley says that in the future he would like to work with artists more closely. Most artists, he says, work with lots of different materials in their studios which can provide an experience for people with access challenges. For example, Anish Kapoor gave the gallery leftover rubberised fabric from the Marsyas installation that was on show in the Turbine Hall in 2003. This created the opportunity for visually-impaired people to experience the exhibit differently.

Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall

Tactile technology

Technological advances also allow for new interactions. The Tate has a machine which turns 2D linear drawings into tactile raised images. It works in a similar way to Braille, but with artwork instead of text.

Heat is blasted on swell paper by the printer — made by Zychem (specialists in ‘tactile technology’) — which creates raised line versions of the artwork. Contemporary artists like Antony Gormley have produced artwork especially for this process but the gallery is able to take any graphic image and process it. “We’ve done it with Warhols and Frida Kahlos,” Dickey Horley says. “It’s almost like a colouring book.” Its impact could be great – and Dickey Horley says other London galleries have contacted him with an SOS to use the machine.

The Zychem printer points to a multi-faceted approach to accessibility, though the spectrum of disabilities means that it’s unlikely to be a one size fits all solution. And while exhibitions present differently-abled people with challenges, break-throughs in technology and careful design can provide new opportunities — some of these provide a more intimate experience with the artwork than simply looking at it.

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