Audio Guides as Visual Aides

In my Museum Education class this week, we discussed museum accessibility and what institutions are, or are not, doing in order to provide experiences for people of all abilities. Our class discussion was focused mainly on what the Capitol Building Visitor Center does in order to accommodate in a building that cannot be drastically altered because of its historical significance. What we learned was that there are two different tours, one for able visitors and another for disabled, that don’t necessarily see the same parts of the building. This is problematic in its own right, and well worth its own post but that isn’t my focus this week. While this was a truly enlightening conversation, it got me thinking about how museums are using technology to facilitate positive visitor experiences for disabled visitors.

Naturally, I went to Twitter with the hashtag #musetech so see what the museum community was talking about and came across a tweet from The Andy Warhol Museum located in Pittsburgh, PA. The tweet was a link to their latest blog post publicizing the launch of their new audio guide The Warhol: Out Loud. You’re probably aware that just about every museum offers an audio guide and if you’ve used one recently it probably wasn’t very exciting. So what makes this audio guide different? Well, it was designed specifically for blind and other visually impaired visitors.

The blog post explains that the production of this app was “truly the result of working directly with users, employing user-centered design and agile development processes to shape the final product.” As discussed in the post, as well as the video accompanying this post, the team in charge of creating Out Loud went straight to their visitorship to gain their perspective on what can strengthen a visitor experience. Once there was a prototype, or an idea, it was run by visually impaired visitors again and the feedback was taken into direct consideration on whether to continue with the idea, or scrap it all together. It was through this process, as well as testing the app at an Accessibility Meetup and the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference.

The Andy Warhol Museum’s commitment to being an inclusive and accessible space is evident in the creation of Out Loud because while it was created with the visually impaired in mind, its an app that can enhance any visitor experience. After reading this blog post, I immediately went and downloaded the app to see just what it had to offer. My first impressions have been positive ones. The app has the ability to pinpoint your location within the museum and bring the audio guides up for the works near you. Considering I am writing this from DC, not Pittsburgh, I can’t test the accuracy of this technology but if it works it’s an incredible way to personalize the audio guide. One of the downsides to the traditional audio guide is that it has either a set course for your visit or you have to constantly keep pressing buttons to listen. What this GPS tracking within the museum allows is the fluidity of movement through the gallery however you chose.

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Setting up the Near Me function on The Warhol: Out Loud

Out Loud has organized the audio guide into Stories, done thematically rather than chronologically. Within each Story are multiple audio files, and once you click on the Story all of the audio files will play automatically. From what I can tell, each Story is told by a different person, either with a connection to the museum or Andy Warhol himself. By using a variety of voices, Out Loud is able to give multiple perspectives on Warhol’s life and work in a way that can connect to the widest audience.

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The Stories on The Warhol: Out Loud

In addition to traditional background information, Out Loud includes descriptions of the Tactile Reproductions in the museum. These Reproductions are meant for the visually impaired so they can feel Warhol’s work, another wonderful use of technology to make the museum more accessible. The Out Loud Stories for the Reproductions offer a guided experience as the visitor is invited to move their hand across the Reproduction as well as a visual description of the primary work. The guided experience plays first and then it is followed by the visual description, allowing the visitor to feel what the visual description later describes. This method allows the visitor to connect more deeply with the work because they have felt the lines of the male figure in Reclining Male Torso even if they cannot see them. Within each Story are the transcriptions of the audio files, offering another way to experience the information available in the app.

The Warhol: Out Loud app has taken into consideration the needs and desires of often overlooked museum visitors without segregating them into a separate group. This app, available on iPhones and for rent at the museum, enables visually impaired visitors to have “a full and independent experience at the museum” without pointing them out as separate or different. I cannot wait to make a trip to Pittsburgh and test out The Warhol: Out Loud app on site. Even though it’s only in its early stages, I can see this having very positive effects on the museum’s visitor experience.

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When is Right to Say No to Photos?

Respecting the Reverence of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Yesterday, for the very first time, I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Memorial Museum had been on my list of museums to visit since my first trip to DC in 7th Grade, and I am embarrassed it took me this long to visit such an important Museum. I have to believe that anyone you talk to, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background, who has been to this Museum will tell you that from the moment you step inside it is a powerful experience which leave you in awe of the strength of the Jewish people in the face of imminent death just as I did after I left Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam.

Being a young Jewish woman with a family member who fled Austria and then Europe during World War II, this Museum has a deeply personal meaning to me. I arrived at the Museum knowing my visit would be a difficult experience and was ready to leave emotionally exhausted at the end of my visit. As the website recommends, I came prepared to spend over two hours inside the permanent exhibition and as it turns out that was an accurate recommendation as I spent just about 2.5 hours walking through the three floors of permanent exhibition space.

What I was not prepared for, however, was being able to take photos inside the Museum. While waiting for the elevator to take me, and the many other people waiting to see the exhibition, upstairs to the fourth floor to begin the self-guided tour, the Museum worker informed us that we were allowed to take pictures throughout the exhibition without flash. This really bothered me and came as quite a surprise. For some Museum visitors, myself included, this is a very solemn, and personal, visiting experience. The Memorial Museum is not like going and seeing your favorite painting at the National Gallery of Art. This space is about commemorating the millions of lives lost and forever altered by the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s and their followers. As the Museum’s mission states, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum “serves as this country’s memorial to the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust.”  For me, this means that the Memorial Museum is a place meant for quiet contemplation and reverence for the artifacts on display not a place to take pictures at will.  Even though photography was allowed in the Museum, and I knew I would be writing about my experience there for this blog, I couldn’t bring myself to take photographs inside. Any photographs on this post are taken directly from the Museum’s website.

While the Museum’s policy on photography initially put me off, I have to admit that I was extremely impressed with the permanent exhibition as well as the respect of the Museum visitors. After taking my ID card, which lent me the identity of a real person affected by the Holocaust, I arrived at the fourth floor to begin viewing the exhibition. Immediately in front of me was footage of a concentration camp the day it was liberated, a startling first image that shocked everyone around me into immediate silence. The rest of the fourth floor was dedicated to the rise of Nazism in Germany, and then the onslaught of war in Europe. As I moved down a relatively narrow hallway that had display cases on either side, I noticed that one woman next to me kept leaning to either side to take pictures of the artifacts on display such as a Nazi State Police uniform or a pile of books that would have been burned. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of taking those photos was. Maybe she wanted a reminder of what she saw, or maybe she took them in order to look at them more closely later since we were being moved like a pack down the hallway because of the sheer number of visitors? Either way, I was slightly annoyed that she kept getting in my way to take pictures of things that made me sick to my stomach.

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Fourth Floor of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

As I moved through the rest of the floor, and the gallery spaces opened up more, I didn’t notice people taking pictures, but to be honest I was too focused on the destroyed Jewish artifacts around me to care what others around me were doing. In this aspect, the Memorial Museum does a phenomenal job in engaging its visitorship. I became so engrossed at looking at artifacts and reading about growing anti-Semitism that I hardly took into account what my fellow museum goers were doing. I do feel, however, that people were taking fewer photographs as we moved through the exhibition spaces.

This became blatantly obvious on the third floor entitled “The Final Solution.” This floor discussed the Nazi’s planned extermination of the Jewish race as well as other “unwanted” people in Nazi Europe. It was on this floor that I encountered what I see as the most moving artifacts in the exhibition.

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Third Floor of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

About midway through the third floor, in galleries discussing the mass killing and gassing of Jews at concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, there is a cattle car on tracks. This car is a replica of the type of car the Jews were crammed into and transported to their inhumane end. The placard just outside the car notes the train tracks are a section of those taken from Treblinka, one of the main extermination camps in Poland. Visitors are invited to walk through the car before continuing on to learn more about extermination camps. I chose to walk through the train car, but I could not bring myself to stand inside it for very long. It physically made me uncomfortable, which I am sure was the point. As I moved through this space, I cannot imagine someone stopping to take pictures of such an object. While such an object is worth remembering and experiencing, it seems inappropriate to take a picture of what was the cause of millions of people’s suffering and death and besides a photograph was unnecessary because the image will remain in my mind indefinitely.

 

Even more powerful than the train car was a room not too far way. This room was filled with hundreds, if not thousands, of pairs of shoes found at an extermination camp. As soon as I entered this room I broke into tears. The shoes were one of the few artifacts that were not behind glass casing and I could smell the must and old leather. It was such a familiar smell to me and to see such a vast mix of shoes covering the floor was too much for me after having been in the Museum 1.5 hours already. I stood in the middle of the room with tears running down my face as I tried to comprehend what I was seeing meant about humanity when a little boy came in with his parents and said with sheer amazement “Look at all of the shoes!” There was such a sense of innocence about this statement that brought my emotional heartbreak to another level and I realized I needed to keep moving through the Museum. As I moved into the next room, I noticed a man with a large camera hanging by his side. It was this moment that really brought home my discomfort with the Museum’s photography policy. Here I am, emotionally vulnerable with tears in my eyes and someone is able to take a picture of the room and capture my grief without my consent, even if I am not the intended subject.

I know I am not the only person who has cried their way through this space and I know I will not be the last. I would like to believe that most people recognize the reverence this Museum demands and make the conscious choice not to take photographs while inside, but the fact that it is even an option is troubling for me. I would be very interested to know the reasoning behind allowing photography inside the Museum when other Holocaust sites, such as the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, do not allow photography. Upon entering the Anne Frank House you are told in a compassionate way that out of respect for the visitors who will have an emotional reaction to their visit, it would be disrespectful to capture their grief in a photograph and it would diminish everyone’s experience.  I hope there is an ideological reasoning that the Museum permit photography rather than a practical one. Just because it is easier on the Museum staff to allow photographs inside the Museum, does not mean it is right.

 

Arts and the New York Times

 

I’ll admit, I slacked in my museum visiting duties this week. I haven’t made it to a museum or a gallery because of a variety of reasons, but that’s my fault. So today I want to talk about the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times. Now I’m not talking about the online newspaper, which I love looking at on an almost daily basis. I’m talking about the hard copy of the Sunday paper, what I grew up flipping through in hopes of finding the comic section while my parents read the real news.

In much the same way that I love reading from a real book and flipping physical pages, there is something in me that loves a news print and the way that the ink stains your fingers a little. That’s why when my friend picked up a copy of the New York Times today I instantly tore into the arts and leisure section. What I found, however, frustrated me as a former Art History major.
This Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section was a whopping 22 pages long, five full pages of which were ads for TV programs, theater shows, and music performances. That’s not including all of the ads that take up the extra space on a page with short articles. More frustrating for me was the actual lack of discussion on art. Of the remaining 17 pages, only one full page and a small column article focused on the fine arts. Every other article discusses theater, television shows, and music.

The full page article on art was about Anthony Hernandez, a photographer based in LA who recently became the subject of a retrospective at the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art. While much of the article discusses Hernandez’s art (as it should), what I found most interesting was SFMoMA’s decision to faze out their Photography specific galleries and begin to incorporate that media with painting and sculpture. This is a bold move within the art history (and perhaps even museum world) because photography has always been seen as an art form not quite on the same level as painters and sculptors. Photography was always so drastically different from painting and sculpture that it was never seen as appropriate to combine the medium.

I have never visited SFMoMA but I would absolutely love to see how their collection and display techniques change as they begin to blend photography into the rest of their collection. If done right, this decision could really enhance the art discussion that photography tends to capture the world as it actually is. It offers another dimension to the dialog of art at any given time and will be a huge asset in the understanding of modern art.

But back to the original purpose of this blog post, as interesting as this article was and it’s implications. I was highly disappointed by NYT’s lack of discussion on visual art. I had to flip to the last page of the section to find the article on Hernandez. I understand there is so much more offered online, and maybe this was just an odd week, but I want at least a slightly more equal use of print among the arts. The NYT discusses art all over the country (and there are definitely more than just two artists worth noting this week), so why is there really only one page devoted to such a discussion? Maybe next week will be different, but I, like so many millennials, will probably just look online.

The Downside to Admitting to Being a Museum Studies Student

Since moving to DC I’ve made it my goal to see as many museums as possible. Generally speaking, I’ve seen around 1 museum a week which isn’t too bad because it keeps me in touch with the museum culture here without burning out. What I have begun to notice, however, is that many of the museums I’ve visited recently have been a “typical” museum. They look like a classical building, meaning Greco-Roman influence, and inside the galleries are what you would find in any museum anywhere in the world. This isn’t a jab at DC museums, at least the Smithsonian’s, because these are 19th century structures and it’s always difficult to break with what has become the museum standard (especially in the nation’s capital city). But I have started to crave something innovative and different from that “typical” museum visit.

This is why I was so excited when I got the opportunity to visit Forced From Home this past Wednesday for my class on Museum History and Theory. This visit was entirely unexpected and in many ways that made it all the more exciting. The original plan was to see a few exhibitions inside the National Museum of American History and dissect what museum practices and innovations we had just read about were taking place. Instead of heading inside to the museum, my professor mentioned that she had heard of this exhibition being put on by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and had snagged 10 tickets for noon that day. Unfortunately this meant that about five students in the class wouldn’t be able to see Forced From Home that day and would have to stick to the original plan. I had heard about Forced From Home from one of my classmates in my Digital Technology class and instantly jumped at the chance to see how it played out on the National Mall.

Forced From Home follows the path that refugees, internally displaced people, and those seeking asylum must travel to reach a MSF facility. It’s an exhibition that is traveling to five cities over the course of 2016 and definitely worth checking out if it’s in your area. Unlike most traveling exhibitions, this one is outside and, for the most part, uncovered. I was lucky that it was a beautiful day when I had my experience there, but our tour guide did say that they still give tours when the weather isn’t so great. I can only imagine how drastically different that visit must be from my own.

How does it work? Well first you get your entry “ticket” which is really an ID card with a country of origin and your status. I was a Refugee from Burundi. Next we sat down and were given some of the basic information about what MSF does all around the world. Our guide for this experience was a registered nurse from Canada who had been stationed over seas three times with MSF and was using her vacation time to work this exhibition. She asked our class what brought us in today, and I almost wish she hadn’t. We told her we were museum studies students and she said she would try to cater her tour to our interests. I was looking for a truly authentic experience on this visit, so having her alter her normal tour for us didn’t sound too appealing to me. And it turns out, my experience seemed largely shaped by that one admission.

After our initial discussion we moved into this 360 degree video room. The video truly brought to life what it would feel like in a variety of refugee camps around the world as well as meet people living in those camps. It was definitely a great use of technology and had the capacity to hold many more than our 11 person group. The video was about 5 minutes long and was the only video or technology piece in the entire fifty minute tour.

Once we were outside again we were asked to stand in front of pillars that had the names of the countries on our ID cards. We were then asked to go behind the pillar and grab 5 cards that represented the 5 items we would take with us. I grabbed water, clothes, shoes, blankets, and my passport. We were then told to get into a boat and hand over one of our items. This would become a theme at each of the stops on our tour.

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Plastic cards with items commonly taken by people fleeing their homes

At each stop we were told that most of the items around us were actually taken from the field and in many ways that made the experience more visceral. We saw things like life vests that weren’t suitable for open sea travel, abandoned toys, water containment systems, and a camp bathroom. The objects used throughout the exhibition were powerful because they were worn and clearly had a history beyond their placement in the exhibition.

I learned so much information about what MSF did for people, but in many ways I didn’t learn exactly what it was like for the people I was meant to identify with. I think this is because our tour guide knew we were museum studies students. Instead of treating us like normal visitors our tour guide would say “for our average visitor I like to…” and would explain how the experience would typically go rather than allowing us to participate like any other visitor. I think I felt this way because of the tour guide behind us with another group. They running around and the guide was shouting at them to hurry and hand something other whereas everything we did was calm and collected. I wanted to be experiencing a tour like that, something fully immersive.

I appreciated that our guide spoke to us as equals and tried to give us insight into how MSF thought about their tour process, but sometimes, the best way to learn about something is to just jump in head first. To spend less time explaining and more time experiencing.

One Touch Screen Too Many

 

This past Thursday my friend and I decided to visit the National Museum of the American Indian  (NMAI) with the goal of playing with as much in-gallery technology as possible. Neither of us had been to NMAI before so we weren’t sure what to expect, or even what technology would be available to us. Luckily for us, the museum was relatively empty on Thursday, perhaps due to the all-day rain or because it was the middle of the day on Thursday, but whatever the cause it meant my friend and I could take as much time with our finds as we wanted.

 

For those who haven’t visited the NMAI at all, or it’s been a while, let me refresh your memory on the layout. The visit actually begins on the fourth floor and you slowly work your way down to the final galleries on the second floor. On the fourth floor, before you even enter the first official gallery space, you encounter a massive glass case that is filled with a variety of objects, each depicting an animal in some way. In front of the cabinets are small kiosks that allow visitors to click on the picture of an object in the cabinet, learn its origin, date of creation, and material as well as zoom in on the object to see it up close.  I was immediately excited about this, hoping to gain some insight into what exactly the object meant to its perspective culture, and also to have the ability to play the first touch screen I found.

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A close up of Animal Artifact Kiosk

I have to admit, however, I was a little disappointed by these animal kiosks. More often than not, there was no explanation of the objects cultural importance. So basically all the kiosks allowed us to do was zoom in and see details. While that is valuable in its own right since some of the objects were very small, I instantly craved more information. In addition, where there were opportunities to rotate an image, I found I had a difficult time getting the touch screen to rotate the image.

 

More frustrating than the temperamental touch screen were the automated drawers in those glass cabinets. Above the drawers was a sign that read “Pull Gently to Open, Push Gently to Close.” Sounds simple enough, right? Well turns out, it was not so simple. The drawers opened easily enough, allowing my friend and I to look at some carved pipes, but after about ten seconds the drawer would automatically close, without even the slightest nudge from us. It was incredibly frustrating to have to keep reopening drawers only to get a quick look before the drawer closed itself again. I understand that from a practical standpoint, the automatically closing drawers make sense. It alleviates the problem of people continually leaving drawers open after looking at their contents, but the timing definitely needs an adjustment. In addition, not all drawers functioned like they should have. That was actually a blessing for my friend and I, but consistency is important too. If a museum is going to insist on motorized drawers, make sure all of them going work correctly.

 

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Motorized Drawer at National Museum of the American Indian

Once we finally moved into the galleries, drawers and stand alone kiosks made way for giant touch screens. The first gallery space Our Universes actually did not contain any touch screens which made the space, at least for me, a little boring. I was fascinated by the different cultures and their understanding of their worlds, but moving offshoot to offshoot eventually got a little monotonous. It was in many ways more of a traditional gallery viewing experience, but because of that first taste of technology I was desiring something similar throughout the rest of the museum.

 

Much to my happiness, there were touch screens in the Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations gallery. This screen was different from the kiosks; it was a lot larger for one, and it was pushed up against a wall rather than standing free in the middle of the gallery. Instead of just presenting information like a wall text, as the kiosk did, this screen presented its information like a game. The goal of the game was to decide which culture practiced what ritual during a treaty, such as smoking a pipe, singing your name, or sharing a meal. Each ritual had a little medallion that you dragged to the right culture (American Indian, American, or Both). My friend and I had a great time deciding where each ritual went and then when we matched them all correctly, we read the details for each.

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The Rules and Rituals Touch Screen

The next in gallery technology that we encountered in the Nation to Nation gallery was another touch screen which focused on the relocation of American Indians throughout the United States. This touch screen allowed visitors to select a historical person and read their story. The stories were told through drawings like a story book and I was able to scroll across the screen to continue the story. This touch screen worked so well that my friend and I spent at least 15 minutes looking at the various stories and swiping left and right to scroll across the screen. As frustrating as the automatic drawers were, this screen was extremely user friendly and responsive which enhanced our learning experience.

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Home Screen of the Relocation Touch Screen
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The Relocation Story of John Ridge

 

 

The last gallery my friend and I explored was on the third floor and was a special exhibition titled The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.  As I came to expect, there were two different touch screens in the exhibition. One was a game where we were supposed to run messengers along the Inka roads by drawing paths between two cities. The premise was easy enough, but I found it rather difficult to trace the path in order to send the messenger. No matter how many times I ran my finger across the roads, the screen wouldn’t recognize the path I drew. My friend, on the other hand, had no problem with the screen. For whatever reason, the screen did not seem to recognize my finger long enough to work.

 

The final screen we encountered was the largest, by far.  It was a table sized screen that displayed the ancient city of Cuzco. It was immediately enticing to play with as it’s purpose was not entirely clear, and I wanted to find out what it did. Turns out, the screen allowed me to click on different parts of the city as well as different land marks, and gain more information about them while also looking at their relationship to the rest of the city.

 

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Ancient Cuzco Touch Screen

 

While this was fun for the first few minutes, I became disenchanted pretty quickly. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the screen, it worked really well actually and was very responsive to my touch, but I think I became “touch-screened out” by this point in my visit. I had seen so many touch screens after two hours inside NMAI and although they each had a different purpose they had sort of lost their appeal. I wanted something else to do in the gallery.

 

I understand that touch screens are an easy way to engage the visitor and they offer various ways to share information. They are clearly becoming a staple in museums, and perhaps even expected at this point. I can’t help but wonder, however, if they are a cop out for museums; that they are the quick and easy answer to giving museum visitors the in-gallery technology they want. How many touch screens does it take before they loose their magic? For me it was five.