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The inclusive museum

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Every design decision has the potential to include or exclude someone. This becomes more apparent in museums trying to become places of belonging.

Inclusive design is a process that can help institutions become more welcoming to every member of the communities they intend to serve. It stresses the impact of user diversity on informing design decisions and outcomes, and it seeks to include as many people as possible in its development. As a holistic process, inclusive design considers all vectors of human diversity such as age, gender, race, religion, culture and experience. This process respects and acknowledges that there is a wide spectrum of individual abilities, needs and aspirations within a given population. Inclusive design principles and methods are applied across all design disciplines including communication, products, services and the built environment.

Sina Bahram is an inclusive design consultant, researcher, speaker and entrepreneur. He describes how, as a blind person, a school trip to a museum is engraved in his memory. He was able to experience the exhibitions with the help of a worker who – as much as he was able to – tailored the tour to his needs. He reminds us that most museums believe they have met their accessibility requirements by ensuring that persons with disabilities can enter the museum space. Yet, this leaves persons with disabilities disappointed with the quality of their visits. Bahram explains how his work consists of helping museums to make their digital interactives accessible to the widest possible audience through the use of inclusive design.

Bahram believes it is important to distinguish between universal design and inclusive design. He explains:

Universal design is the act of considering all audiences, or as many as we can, at the beginning of a project, and iterating upon this consideration until we arrive at a solution that is usable by far more people than if we had not taken such a design tack. Inclusive design is a newer term, used by many contemporary designers and advocates. While “universal” implies a potentially unattainable burden for designers and developers, “inclusive” is an invitation. It’s warm, and it aligns with the basic values of most people. We include our friends, our loved ones, and so on. Inclusive design recognizes that people have multiple forms of identity and difference, including age, ability, language fluency, socioeconomic status, cultural background, and so on. Accounting for those differences doesn’t mean making everyone the same.

Universal design can be used not only in museums but also in all kinds of settings. The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University coined seven principles of universal design in 1997. According to Bahram, this is how those principles might be interpreted when applied to the museum sector:

  1. Equitable use: This means that visitors with different functional limitations should get a similar or equitable experience when going through the museum. Different experiences for the same type of content should be delivered to meet the needs of several audiences.
  2. Flexibility in use: Visitors should be able to interact with the information provided in exhibitions and other museum programs in a variety of different ways. For instance, works of art can also be experienced through tactile devices or by audio description.
  3. Simple and intuitive use: Visitors with different experiences or knowledge must benefit from the information being presented. Redundancy by displaying the same information in many different ways is helpful to a wide variety of visitors.
  4. Perceptible information: Visitors should be able to access and interact with the information being presented, independent of a sensory disability or disturbances in the environment. “Giving the user a choice and control over the way they wish to consume the information being presented massively elevates their experience.”
  5. Tolerance for error: Visitors can always return to a consistent, known starting point so that, for example, they don’t cause systems to crash or behave unexpectedly, regardless of the actions they take.
  6. Low physical effort: Visitors should be able to fully appreciate the given information without needing much physical effort or dexterity.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Visitors should be able to get close to the exhibit; have enough space in which to move around, even with a wheelchair, walker, or crutches; and manipulate it, independent of posture or other physical limitations.

In the comment section, please discuss how applying any of these principles could benefit your work.

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Creating Meaningful and Inclusive Museum Practices

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