What expectations do people with disabilities have when they visit museums? How are museums adapting new technologies to better serve our visitors, whatever their abilities and interests? How can the Met take a leadership role in introducing standards for inclusivity to the next generation of museum technologists? These are some of the questions we asked ourselves when embarking on the Met + Parsons Museum Accessibility Collaboration Workshop.
Access at the Met
The Met has a long-standing history of making art accessible to people with disabilities, one that spans over one hundred years, and even today, the Museum's Access programs have received many accolades—most recently, the American Foundation for the Blind's 2014 Access Award. Rebecca McGinnis oversees Access and Community programs in Education, which, in addition to offering education programs, also works across the Museum on accommodations, services, and other access issues to ensure a rewarding visitor experience for people with disabilities. We are keen to enhance the museum experience for audiences with and without disabilities through technologies that facilitate communication and engagement with art and other visitors.
The Met's Media Lab is a small team, managed by Don Undeen, whose job is to explore the impact that new technologies can have on the museum experience. The Media Lab does this by partnering with interns, volunteers, and collegiate programs to develop experimental prototypes and demos in collaboration with Museum staff and visitors.
The Parsons MFA in Design and Technology Program
The MFA in Design and Technology (MFA DT) at Parsons The New School for Design provides students with a lively and dynamic environment for using design research, process, applied theory, and writing to address the challenges of the expanding influence of design within society, as well as the growing role of technology within design. Students push their experimentation beyond the visual: Design is seen as a mechanism for developing strategies, knowledge organization, business structures, and social consciousness.
How the Collaboration Began
The idea for the class originated in a series of conversations in 2012 between Don, Rebecca, and Katherine Moriwaki, the director of MFA DT at Parsons. Media Lab and Access programs were interested in exploring technology that could improve the museum experience for visitors with disabilities. Simultaneously, Don brainstormed with Katherine to determine ways that the Met could further partner with Parsons. With its large, diverse audience, encyclopedic collection, and massive, labyrinthine floor plan, the Met provides ample opportunities for students who want to tackle complex accessibility challenges. Conversely, the intelligence, creativity, and enthusiasm of Parsons students is a resource the Media Lab was eager to tap. Because accessibility is a complex topic, Katherine, Don, and Rebecca agreed that the best type of collaboration would involve an entire class diving into the issues over the course of a full semester, with extensive cooperation from a variety of stakeholders in the field. Thus, the Met + Parson Access Collaboration Workshop was born!
The magic ingredient in this collaboration was the enthusiastic participation of a group of advisors and access-industry professionals, who met with the students throughout the semester. The advisors were museum enthusiasts with disabilities who agreed to talk about their experience and give real-world feedback on the projects. The access-industry professionals contributed their collective decades of knowledge in the field, so students didn't need to re-invent the wheel, but, rather, build on pre-existing concepts.
The class encompassed several distinct but overlapping fields—museums, accessibility, technology, and design—and the resulting projects exemplify the intersection of these. We therefore needed to spend time grounding the class in the basics of disability awareness, universal design, and assistive technology, through a series of presentations by our advisors, industry experts, and Museum staff.
The major topics of these lectures included:
• how no two people with a disability are the same;
• discussing the ways improving the usability of technology for people with disabilities improves it for
• an exploration of people's different abilities, different interests, and different reasons for going to
• how new technologies bring about new opportunities for interaction with the Museum, as well as
new challenges to make those opportunities accessible to everyone; and
• the ways user testing can be heartbreaking, but necessary—especially when designing solutions
for people with different perspectives and needs from your own.
The Collaboration Model
• Students were tasked with research in the early phase of the course.
• After initial research was complete, students were divided into four groups based on interests and
• Each team developed a concept and prototype to address an access challenge specific to the
museum experience, either in the galleries or online.
• Throughout the process, teams consulted with advisors and Met staff.
• In-class activities ranged from demo sessions to critiques.
• Final prototypes were refined and presented in a public expo at the Met.
The semester concluded with a public presentation of all class projects at the inaugural Met + Parsons Access Expo. Each student team gave a brief presentation on their work to about fifty Met visitors and staff. After the presentation, they spent two hours at tables giving hands-on demonstrations, receiving feedback, and getting everyone excited about what the future might hold for accessibility in museums.
In the coming weeks, Digital Underground readers can look forward to a blog post dedicated to each project. Please let us know what you think of this work, and share your own experience with accessibility in museums, in the comments section below.
Veronica Black, MFADT
Melanie Bossert, MFADT
Rachel Darmody, BFACD
Anthony Driscoll, MFADT
Meagan Durlak, MFA Trans-D
Danielle Gorodenzik, BFACD
Ye Han, MFADT
Jacob P. Hernandez, BFACD
Kamilla Stefania Kielbowska, MFADT
Min Sung Kwak, MFADT
Joori Lee, MFADT
Seungkyun Lee, MFADT
Decho Pitukcharoen, MFADT
Carmelle Rubinstein, BFACD
Jacqueline Simon, MFADT
Sarah E. Wever, MFADT
Emmanuel von Schack
Alba and Anastasia Somoza
Lin and Manny Jacobson
Constance Van Rolleghem
The Industry Professionals
Richard Ellenson, CEO, Cerebral Palsy International Research Foundation
Alan Brightman, Vice President & Research Fellow at Yahoo Labs
Steve Landau, Research Director, Touch Graphics Inc.
Mark Surabian, Access Technology Professional, Cognitech Cafe
Adam Krass, Assistive Technology Consultant, Adam Krass Consulting
Sean O'Shea, Faculty Instructor and Advisor, Bank Street College of Education
Katherine Moriwaki, Director, MFA Design + Technology, Assistant Professor of Media Design, School of Art, Media and Technology, Parsons The New School for Design
Apon Palanuwech, teaching assistant, MFA in Design and Technology, second-year graduate student, Parsons The New School for Design
Rebecca McGinnis, Senior Museum Educator, Access and Community Programs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Don Undeen, Senior Manager, Media Lab, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Zoe Mercer-Golden, Intern, Access and Community Programs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Danielle Linzer, Manager of Access and Community Programs, Whitney Museum of American Art
Marie Clapot, Program Director, Lab for Learning, Art Beyond Sight
Met + Parsons: Museum Accessibility website
Met + Parsons: Museum Accessibility Vimeo channel
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Programs for Visitors with Disabilities
Digital Underground: Media Lab Intern Spotlight: Yuliya Parshina-Kottas's Accessible Wayfinding