Here are some of the approaches we used in the exhibition to bring intellectual access to those with visual impairment. The main aim was to keep the exhibits intellectually accessible regardless of a visitor’s level of sight.
Black on white and black on yellow was the colour scheme chosen for the exhibition identity because they are regarded as the clearest combination, for partially sighted people. These colours were used to distinguish the walls, floors, and plinths from each other, resulting in the floor colour contrasting with the walls and plinths. Matt and non-reflective finishes were also used. Visitors with a severe visual impairment found it difficult to identify a white plinth if it was too close to the white gallery wall, but the contrast between the plinth and the dark grey floor helped.
The wall panels with a white background on the white gallery walls were also difficult to locate for these visitors too. After testing with a sight loss visitor, we found placing a black thin line around the edge of the wall panel helped make the wall clearer. A contrasting background colour to the the white gallery wall was much easier for a visitor to identify as a wall.
A way-finding path to each multi-sensory desks was laid in the gallery using two types (blister and horizontal tactile) of yellow ground surface mounted tactile indicator paving (350 x 263mm). This paving is similar to those used to at a road crossing, which use bumps to suggest a visually impaired person should stop. This path led exhibition visitors around the gallery and to each multi-sensory desk. The yellow paving contrasted with the dark grey concrete floor aiming to produce a delineated route.
Blind visitors, especially those under the age of twenty-five years, found using the path a liberating experience because they felt confident to follow the path unaided for sections of the route. Sighted visitors identified what the textured tiles were and understood what this design was trying to achieve.
Nevertheless, a notable number of blind visitors (all over the age of 65 years old) were confused by the layout. Elderly visitors also found the path painful. surface to walk on due to arthritic feet.
A multi-sensory desk (containing handling objects, exhibit label, and magnifiers) accompanied each exhibit (on a plinth or freestanding), so the visitor could relate the desk’s content to the exhibit. The aim was to provide intellectual access to each exhibit for all visitors. A trim phone (containing the audio descriptions of particular exhibits and wall text readings) was added to seven of the 12 desks.
The desks were 700mm high because a wide range of visitors can reach over to handle an object at this height, including wheelchair visitors. Three MDF disks were designed to show whether an exhibit could be handled or not and if there was audio.
A trim phone (coloured in yellow to contrast the desk) was used as the handset curly lead provided flexibility, so visitors in wheelchairs or who are tall could comfortably listen to the audio.
The tactile objects on each desk were selected to give an explanation of each exhibit. A demonstration desk was placed near the gallery assistant so they could explain the concept.
The multi-sensory desk concept was deemed a successful innovation by visitors and the curatorial team as they provided enhanced intellectual access for all visitors. Further research into how to effectively assist sight loss visitors to understand the exhibits through handling objects and audio is required.
Audio support was a must-have in this exhibition. Audio descriptions for key exhibits were written to match common practice, but with contextual detail added to widen the information and appeal. Speakers wouldn’t work because of the small space, as there would be interference between the different speakers. Instead, old-fashioned trim-phones were adapted to play back digital files, which meant could be placed in close proximity with no danger of interference.
Finding the best sound level for the audio was difficult as the level had to accommodate visitors with a hearing impairment but within safe levels for children. This particular issue requires further research and testing.
The selection or commissioning of exhibits that created a sound was not considered by the curators and feedback suggests this would be a positive addition to sight loss visitors. However, on the recommendation of the participants, the exhibition did have demonstration 3D printers. Visitors could use to hear and feel the resulting vibrations by placing their hands on the table and printer.
Exhibits on plinths
The plinths were arranged in the gallery to allow the exhibits to be viewed close up from at least three sides. Exhibits were also arranged to avoid visual clutter and not placed against complex backgrounds, as some sight loss people have issues with foreground-background discrimination. Enlarged images of small and detailed exhibits were displayed on the gallery walls and could be viewed close up. It was decided the height of the plinth would be 880mm.
The curators persuaded approximately a third of exhibitors and lenders to allow their exhibits to be touched in the exhibition. Exhibitors worries included additional insurance costs and concerns over work being damaged. However, after visiting the exhibition exhibitors often then provided permission for their exhibits to be touched by sight loss visitors. The blind participants and visitors were usually annoyed they could not handle exhibits.
The wall panels and object labels were designed to have a simple layout for sight loss visitors, with well-spaced aligned left paragraphs, a clear order of title and main message, and consistent line spacing. This increases the effectiveness of the contrast between the text and background. Futura font body text for the panels was 36pt and object labels were 16pt throughout the exhibition.
The most positive feedback on the exhibition was how easy it was for visitors to read the wall panels and object labels. It was suggested the object labels should be mounted at 45-degree angle to the top of the plinth so they are easier to read by visitors in wheelchairs.
Consistent lighting levels that illumination objects and labels are particularly important, as well as avoiding shadows falling on objects. There were no conservation requirements, so low light levels were not required. Light reflecting on exhibit cases was also reduced by using new matt Perspex (no scratches), but this was still difficult for a small number of visitors.
The gallery assistants grew confident to host sight loss visitors thanks to training and discussing collectively their approaches and concerns. Their presence in the gallery and providing responsive tours was really useful for all visitors, but especially those with sight loss. The assistants became adept at overcoming any communication shortcoming for sight loss visitors in the exhibition design and curation. A record of these matters was kept and opened up to the participating team.