Slow designing inclusive museum experiences.

Jenna Hall, Monash University, Australia, Vince Dziekan, Monash University, Australia

Abstract

Museums are faced with increasingly complex challenges to provide inclusive gallery experiences for the diverse audiences they serve. While issues of accessibility and cultural diversity have been focused upon in great depth in museum studies, and there has been extensive research into the health and wellbeing benefits of art, we are yet to see this research broadly embedded into museum practice through design. This paper introduces the potential of “Slow Design” to facilitate collaboration between curators, museum educators, researchers and audiences through action research. We will present a series of findings established during preliminary, pilot research and outline how these insights inform project methodology and objectives that form part of new research into accessibility issues encountered by blind and low vision visitors*. While seeking to integrate inclusive design solutions into exhibition experiences that prioritize these distinct needs, the research project aspires to reveal the potential for slow design to transform how museums communicate in ways that promote universal design and multisensorial interactions with art. By working towards embedding inclusive principles into real-world exhibition experiences, our project proposes that by employing slow design to address issues of accessibility and diversity, the wellbeing of all museum visitors will be greatly enriched. *This research is associated with the ‘Inclusive Gallery Experiences: Creating an Accessible Bendigo Art Gallery for Blind and Low Vision Visitors’ (2019-2022) lead by Chief Investigators Matthew Butler and Vince Dziekan, along with other researchers from Monash University (Kirsten Ellis, Leona Holloway and Kimball Marriott). Contributing to this research is a PhD research project conducted by Jenna Hall into design and mindful engagement with museum collections.

Keywords: slow design, wellbeing, inclusion, museology, accessibility, blindness and low vision.

 

  1. Responsive (and Responsible) Museums

Historically museums have been characterised as quiet reflective places, not unlike libraries or places of worship. But today, in order to retain their market share within the experience economy (Olsen, 2014), museums are faced with unrelenting pressures to compete with other forms of entertainment. While blockbuster exhibitions may “tick the boxes” for their economic benefit and museums seek to stimulate their visitors with entertaining experiences, including requisite “Instagram moments” (Agyeman, 2018), more and more people have begun to feel the need for more quiet reflective places to balance the accelerated pace of daily life (Herbert, 2019). In a world where stillness and silence are increasingly hard to come by, museums can provide spaces for reflection, contemplation and mindfulness.

In ‘Radical Museology’ (2013) Claire Bishop critiques the shift from museums being seen as elitist cultural institutions to mainstream entertainment venues by discussing alternative ‘radical’ approaches that certain museums are taking. Each of the European museums cited (namely: Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Museo Nacional de Reina Sofía in Madrid and MSUM in Ljubljana) contest the superficiality of the blockbuster exhibit and its ‘dominant mantra of bigger is better, and better is richer.’ (Bishop, 2013, p. 6). She considers these institutions as exemplars for how museums can be resourceful in actively researching and reinterpreting their permanent collections, especially to reveal new narratives that respond to local and global issues of the present and, thus, blur the separation of historical meaning from contemporary interpretation.

How might permanent collections be put to the service of community wellbeing? Inspired by recent movements such as Museums Are Not Neutral (https://www.museumsarenotneutral.com) and Museum Detox (https://www.museumdetox.org) that demonstrate the need for museums to assume responsibility and work towards positive change, an underlying aim of this research is to investigate ways in which museums can respond to issues of inclusion and personal, as well as social wellbeing. As a design-led project, our response seeks to gain better understanding of the benefit and value of inclusive gallery experiences by exploring potential solutions through design; in particular, by embracing “slow design”. 

 

So, what is Slow Design?

Slow Design is a relatively recent design movement that shares its philosophical origins with other “slow” movements, such as “slow food” or “slow fashion”.  A common trait connecting them is how slowness can be employed as a tactic in order to ‘respond to the ever-accelerating physical, social and technological landscape’ (Strauss, 2018, p.56). At the root of all slow movements is the perceived need to address the quickening pace of the world, its consequences and the mechanisms by which they are propagated (i.e., industrialisation, globalisation and new media technologies). The slow food movement arose from a protest opposing the construction of a McDonald’s restaurant in Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1986 (Grosse-Hering, et. Al, 2013). Instigated by Carlo Petrini, who believed that the opening of this outlet of the fast-food giant threatened the local culinary culture of Italy, the resulting movement inspired people to make more conscious choices about what they eat and to think in a more considered way about sustainability and where their food comes from. The philosophy of the slow food movement was adapted to design by Carolyn F. Strauss and Alistair Fuad-Luke who published ‘The Slow Design Principles’ in 2008. It is important to note that slow design does not seek to destroy the cultural influence of globalization directly, but rather to balance off certain of its tendencies (towards corporate monopolisation or conspicuous consumption, for example) and call for us (as designers) to ensure that adequate time and space is granted for Design (as a field of cultural practice) to consider its ethical responsibilities before intervening in the world.

According to Strauss and Fuad-Luke (2008), the six principles of slow design are:

Reveal – Slow design reveals experiences in everyday life that are often missed or forgotten, including the materials and processes that can be easily overlooked in an artefact’s existence or creation.

Expand – Slow design considers the real and potential expressions of artefacts and environments beyond their perceived functionalities, physical attributes and lifespans.

Reflect – Slow design artefacts, environments and experiences induce contemplation and “reflective consumption”.

Engage – Slow design processes are open-source and collaborative, relying on sharing, cooperation and transparency of information so that designs may continue to evolve into the future.

Participate – Slow design encourages users to become active participants in the design process, embracing ideas of conviviality and exchange to foster social accountability and enhance communities.

Evolve – Slow design recognizes that richer experiences can emerge from the dynamic maturation of artefacts, environments and systems over time. Looking beyond the needs and circumstances of the present day, slow designs are behavioural “change agents”.

 

OK, but how does this relate to museums and the question of inclusion and wellbeing?

Over the past decade, health and wellbeing has become a prominent trend within museum studies discourse. In ‘Connecting Museums’ (2020), Nuala Morse speaks of the social role of museums, connecting social inclusion with health and wellbeing. In recent years there has been a discernible shift in the ways that museums are assuming greater social responsibility, leading to discussions about how matters of economic, social and environmental sustainability are played out through museum practice. Morse suggests that when considering their social role, museums need to be flexible and responsive. Change should be viewed in a more ‘continuous and adaptive manner’ as opposed to the rhetoric of reinvention or revolution that such discourse generally encourages (Morse, 2020, p.60). Brown (2019) also makes an important point that while museums need to think globally, they must consider how to interpret and translate their relationships in the world at large in a way that is relevant to the wellbeing of a museum’s local constituencies and communities. 

Reinforcing these pronouncements, recent industry reports have also established the importance of wellbeing. A recent report by the Heritage Alliance (2020) discussed the huge disturbance that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused to the traditional business models of heritage organisations. It placed wellbeing at the core of institutional recovery and sustainability in the future. Another report conducted by ArtFund UK (2019) reiterates this current museum trend towards health and wellbeing in the museum. Their survey revealed that almost three-quarters of participants experience heightened feelings of anxiety as they struggle to find a balance between work and life. The report discussed the benefits of “investment in self” (Artfund, 2019) through dedicating time for leisure activities, with those who visited the museum regularly reporting a greater sense of wellbeing. It can be observed, however, that the perspective of personal wellbeing being reinforced by reports such as these is largely framed by Western individualism and biased towards what can be defined in psychological terms as “high-arousal positive emotions” (Lomas, 2020). In contrast, Eastern perspectives on wellbeing can be shown to embrace “low-arousal positive emotions” such as calmness, as a way of living in harmony with the natural world (Lomas, 2020; Lim, 2016). A relational approach to wellbeing (White & Blackmore, 2016) in museums can improve individual wellbeing by considering how they influence our relationships with others and with the environment. For instance (speaking from an Australian context), there is a great deal of work to be done in building and honouring relationships with our First Nations people. Achieving this – whether through efforts to decolonize museums or “re-indigenize” their collections – will require healing through acknowledgement and deep listening (Ungunmerr-Baumann, 1988) to take place within and outside of the museum. Ultimately, decolonization cannot simply be about ‘inviting indigenous and other marginalized people into the museum to help the institution improve its exhibitions; it’s an overhauling of the entire system’ (Shoenberger, 2019).

 

  1. Creating Inclusive Gallery Experiences for Blind and Low Vision Visitors

The importance of museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions being welcoming of the broader community also comes to the fore when considering visitors who may have a disability that impacts on their engagement with works in the institution. Museums and galleries have been investigating and trialling ways of making their collections more accessible, including to people who are blind or have low vision (BLV), for some years. As cases in point, in the UK the British Museum has provided tactile exhibitions and tours since 1983, while in the US, Art Beyond Sight has partnered with cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since 1987. While more conventional methods of quantitative and qualitative research have been called upon to capture, gauge and analyse the success (or otherwise) of accessibility measures, it is important to recognize and acknowledge how experimental, practice-based work can challenge preconceived notions by putting inclusive design into practice directly through applied “real world” scenarios. For one, the MCA Chicago has advanced access to their collection through their development of a web-based tool (Coyote) and its associated distributed workflow that enabled rich content creation by supporting crowd-sourced visual description of all images across the MCA website (Bahram & Lavatelli, 2018). This project, in particular, illustrates how adopting the principles of “universal design”, which argues that products or services designed to be useful to people with disabilities are likely to exert benefit to a broader range of users also. For their part, the Jodi Mattes Trust (a UK-based organization that advocates for cultural equality by promoting how technology can be used to increase accessibility to cultural collections for disabled people) has recognized the innovative achievements of design projects through their annual Jodi Awards. For example: the Manchester Museums was duly acknowledged for a digital interactive experience (Digital Touch Replicas) that employed hidden sensors to deliver information via audio visual multimedia as part of the user’s tactile exploration of a physical replica (http://jodiawards.org.uk/winners/manchester-museum-digital-touch-replicas-and-gallezeum/). Such work reflects continuing interest from cultural institutions into the use of digital scanning and fabrication methods such as 3D printing (Neumüller et al. 2014, Scopigno et al. 2104, 2017) towards the recreation of replicas of 3-dimensional artworks in an effort to resolve the inherent conflict between access and conservation while promoting multisensory strategies for education and engagement. Relatedly, immersive technologies, such as VR and AR, computer-generated soundscapes and the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to support greater accessibility through semi-automated audio description, and independent wayfinding via beacon-based user tracking, custom wearables or computer vision are areas ripe for experimental research and hold great promise. 

While various assistive technologies have been implemented by cultural institutions to support accessibility by introducing modifications to spatial environment, wayfinding and information systems, creating an experience of collections, displays and exhibitions that is more accessible presents a different challenge; one that has typically found itself outside the scope of this approach. Whereas assistive technology is often associated with a functional approach to design that seeks to solve the “problem” of disability, in contrast, adaptive technology involves design interventions of existing tools that enhance their operation or mode of interaction with (in principle, a wider range of) users. Such interventions might be thought of as “means” rather than an “end” in themselves, and thus, promote (and in cases, provoke) ways of thinking differently about access and inclusion by practicing inclusive design:

‘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 tact. “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 most people’s basic values. 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, and cultural background. Accounting for those differences doesn’t mean making everyone the same. Whichever term you prefer, universal design and inclusive design address the big picture. Accessibility, on the other hand, consists of those things we do specifically for those with functional differences.’ (Bahram, 2018)

Our current project is informed by preceding research that has explored how blind and low vision visitors can be provided with equitable access to cultural institutions (Holloway et al, 2019). Our primary case study involves collaboration with the Bendigo Art Gallery. Bendigo Art Gallery (BAG), is a large regional Australian gallery that has built a strong national reputation through its permanent collection and frequent exhibitions of items from major international institutions. In 2017 work began with a research team from Monash University and the gallery to consider how access to works in their permanent collection could be made more accessible to visitors who are blind or have low vision (BLV). A dozen representative works were chosen from across their permanent collection, representing painting and sculpture, as well as a range of styles and content. Using these as a basis, different techniques were explored to provide multisensory access to the works by BLV visitors. Multimodal approaches included the creation of tactile models using 3D printing and laser cutting, creating soundscapes to capture content or mood, providing supporting artefacts such as production materials, conducting role-play with visitors, and providing an accessible web experience to further support low vision visitors with high contrast and magnified imagery.

As reported in Holloway et. al (2019), these materials were evaluated with BLV participants at a Bendigo Vision Australia Day Centre Program to great success. Not only did the materials provide alternate access to the artworks, they importantly provoked discussion and contemplation of the works themselves. The materials were also the basis for a deeper understanding of the related values of accessibility to the gallery from the perspectives of many relevant stakeholders, including gallery curatorial staff and guides, artists, local residents and BLV gallery visitors. This showed that while all stakeholders were highly supportive of improving access, tensions existed between inclusion, fiscal responsibility and stewardship, and helped to recognize how human values – such as fairness, artistic integrity, and ownership – are at the heart of many of the issues encountered when seeking to facilitate inclusive access to galleries and their collections. 

Building upon the relationship that was forged by this project between museum professionals at BAG and researchers from Monash University, a substantial multi-year research programme was developed that extends the research to creating inclusive gallery experiences for blind and low vision audiences. This project successfully secured funding from the Helen Macpherson Smith Trust in 2019 (https://hmstrust.org.au/). The project responds to the stated goals of their Art and Culture funding for seeking to increase local participation, encourage public engagement and develop a sense of place through the arts (https://hmstrust.org.au/programs/arts-and-culture/). The programme’s main focus areas are directed towards arts projects that build social inclusion and access by facilitating diverse representation, participation and engagement to build understanding and respect; developing digital capability and supporting arts workers and artists. Other key objectives aim to strengthen rural and regional Victoria, reduce inequality, enable sustainability and organizational capacity while encouraging collaboration and partnership.

As such, the upcoming course of research is being directed towards the following set of deliverable outputs and targeted outcomes, including:

  • the development and evaluation of an evidence-based, technology-driven model and guidelines for providing accessible gallery experiences to people who are blind or have low vision; 
  • implementation and evaluation of the model at Bendigo Art Gallery and at least one other comparable regional gallery; 
  • conducting workshops disseminating guidelines and best practice to Victorian regional galleries.

All of this is being conducted with the aims of creating greater engagement with the visual arts by the BLV community, as well as facilitating a greater awareness of the importance of inclusive practice in galleries, as evidenced by increased development of accessible experiences at galleries across Victoria. This research also continues to highlight the fundamental importance of imparting a values-based model for accessible access to cultural institutions. 

 

Applying Slow methodologies

In a somewhat serendipitous way, the challenges outlined in the research brief for the Inclusive Gallery Experiences project with BAG embraced the intuitive practice of slow looking and slow design. There are clear crossovers between this larger, institutionally-framed project and the investigations defined by Jenna Hall for her PhD research at Monash University; not the least in that the necessarily tactile museum experience of BLV visitors can be considered inherently slower than looking alone. This is, in part, associated with the cognitive overhead of using multiple senses to “piece together” an artwork that may normally be engaged with only by sight. In prioritising the needs of BLV visitors this recognition might also provide the means of engaging general audiences in more stimulating, fulfilling and meaningful experiences. Considering ways that multisensory access could appeal to broader audiences will also enable BLV visitors to enjoy exhibitions with friends, carers, family members and diverse communities. Having access to BAG gallery spaces and stakeholders through this project provides a real-world opportunity to explore slow design and how multisensory engagement can be designed into exhibition experience as part of permanent collection displays and “re-hangs”.

Experience, particularly of viewing art, is highly personal and, thus, difficult to research. Therefore, employing a mixed methods approach will be essential for getting more detailed responses on the nuances of different people’s experience. The practice-based methodology of the PhD project is centred around the concepts of relationality, immersion and emergence. Fieldwork at BAG will be an iterative process; of working with others and working alone, questioning and responding, testing and reflecting, experimenting and refining. The act of researching itself will embrace a slow process that will ensure that ethics and empathy are found at the core of how the research is conducted. Inspired in part by design ethnography, this approach aims to critique and balance ‘society’s desires for quick fixes and easy digest [which] is eroding our ability to be resilient’ (Akama, Pink & Sumartojo, 2018).

Framing the methodology through a critical autoethnographic (Adams, Holman Jones & Ellis, 2015) lens will allow for Hall to situate herself within the research as a designer but also as a museum visitor and member of the dominant culture (Tilley-Lubbs, 2016) in this space. We bring our subjectivities to our research; and it’s important to acknowledge this. Autoethnography is about embracing subjectivity, embodiment, and reflexivity, and guided by the content, as well as context, of the research. It is about starting with the self to get to the granular, specific and personal – so that when you approach and relate to others you have something to work with; the researcher’s personal position provides a bridge to the experience of others (Holman Jones, 2016). 

 

Identifying opportunities for slowness

(To date) Recent and ongoing interviews conducted by Hall with experts working across the fields of slow design, museum studies, exhibition design, curation, and psychology have contributed to an initial formulation of slow approaches that could be implemented through exhibition design and curation. These will be further developed and tested through workshops and visitor interviews conducted at BAG, alongside the Inclusive Gallery Experiences project which itself is more directly aimed at responding to the needs of BLV audiences. 

Undertaking immersive, field studies is integral to the process. During a recent trip to BAG with the project team, we explored the collections that were currently on display. The exhibition installed in one gallery in particular stood out as displaying slow qualities: ‘Undercurrent: the history beneath the image’ was a collaborative exhibition that displayed the photographic prints of Dja Dja Wurrung artist Peta Clancy alongside colonial depictions of the land selected by Dja Dja Wurrung curator Natasha Carter. The space was dark and calm, with each artwork lit by directional ceiling lights. The sounds of a lapping tide added to the awareness of place and leaked into the adjoining colonial galleries. Subtle but considered design elements, such as the gold water line which ran around the space connecting each work, spoke of the continuing Indigenous connection to the land and waters surrounding the colonial gold mining town, acknowledging the history that colonial art largely evaded.

Exploration of the following formative principles will continue to be refined, revised and expanded through engaging the research process with iterative, collaborative practice:

Inclusive histories – Prioritise transhistorical curation, cross-cultural perspectives and genuine inclusivity that allows people to drive their own stories.

Beyond aesthetics – Multisensory experiences provide physical access for BLV visitors but can also slow and enrich engagement more broadly, supporting more ritualistic engagement with museum objects.

Slow looking – Avoid overstimulation, encourage visitors to spend more time with fewer works by limiting the number of works on display. Identify particular works where slower engagement is necessary or more beneficial due to the complexity of the piece and or historical context and narrative.

Rebalance – Museums must strive towards equality, but with historical collections, particularly in larger institutions, overrepresentation of white male artists is still an issue. Slow exhibitions with a limited amount of works can address imbalances by displaying more equal representation.

The space between – Create spaces for pause and contemplation, between works and between exhibits. Encourage slowness by physically slowing bodies in space through design. These spaces could be a place of self-reflection or a place for communities to meet.

Embracing stillness – Physical comfort such as seating and calm lighting encourage people to stay longer in a space.

Atmospheres of sound – Sound can also hold people in a space, the pairing of music and art can add further depth and meaning. Create space to host a performance, provide visitors with a selection of instrumental music or soundscapes to listen to as part, or in place of an audio guide. 

Flexibility of display – Design spaces and displays that allow for fluid transition of exhibits and artworks.

Thematic immersion – Focus on a theme, a style, a medium or material, something to look closely at. Design with restraint to emphasise nuances and encourage visitors to notice subtleties.

Interpretive wall texts – Avoid too much text, pose questions, consider when a historical narrative is necessary or when it might distract from deeper meaning or detract from different perspectives and interpretations.

 

  1. Concluding remarks: Responding to diversity through design

Overall, the research programme outlined here is seeking to design a framework that supports the independence and autonomy of visitors with visual impairments while striving for a more thoroughly inclusive approach to designing accessible museum experiences for all. Research being done into creating inclusive gallery experiences for blind and low vision visitors offers a value-based understanding of access and inclusion by embracing a practice-based research approach, adopting the principles of universal design and responding to issues of diversity and wellbeing. Slow Design contributes a distinctive repertoire of designerly methods to this research. In the future, we plan to report back on these investigations and their discoveries, which we hope will offer further understandings of how multisensory interactions extend appreciation of art and deepen personal and collective connection through embedding inclusive principles into real-world exhibition experiences.

Ideas of slowness in relation to design, as well as other creative practices more broadly, have evolved since Strauss and Fuad-Luke (2008) published their slow design principles. In a recent interview with Carolyn Strauss, we spoke about the various directions her work with slowLab (https://www.slowlab.net) and how her ideas of “slow” have developed through practice and transfer in qualitative ways to critical thinking, reflection and creative expression. Strauss makes the point that when it comes to the design and curation of museum experiences, a slow approach is about much more than a “different velocity of engagement”: 

‘Telling more of the story is also part of a slow approach, not just that it’s sensory and a different kind of durational engagement, but also that it’s challenging and, you know, prickling different nerves and different things than you maybe expect. Or maybe even telling a story that’s not complete, that leaves more questions than answers. Something like that, we regard as slow–as having certain slow qualities.’ (Strauss in conversation with Jenna Hall, November 2020) 

The pandemic presents museums with an opportunity to emerge as more inclusive spaces; to become more community-minded, more flexible, responsive and responsible. When considering the ethical responsibilities of museums, we should utilise design as a way to reimagine museum futures in response to the issues of diversity and inclusion that have been discussed in museum studies for decades – issues that in many ways mirror the inequalities in society more generally. As Strauss observed: ‘If you leave the exhibition, having learned a new tool of engagement and then you take that out into the world, that’s also an extremely successful experience’ (Strauss in conversation with Jenna Hall, November 2020).

As cultural institutions, museums are important places for acknowledgement, reflection and healing. This project aims to demonstrate slow design’s value for deep listening, collaboration and storytelling. Where implementing wide-spread change has proven difficult, perhaps through the design of inclusive museum displays, we can provide alternative pathways into history and culture, and take an important step towards achieving greater access and inclusion for museum visitors.

 

Author Biographies:

Jenna Hall is a PhD student in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) at Monash University, Australia. Her practice-based research explores engagement in museums through design, with a particular interest in permanent collection galleries as a space for ‘slow’ experiences. Her work considers how a ‘slow’ approach to exhibition design and curation can facilitate inclusion and wellbeing in museums.

Vince Dziekan is a senior academic and practitioner-researcher based in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture (MADA) at Monash University, Australia, whose work engages with the transformation of contemporary curatorial practices at the intersection of emerging design practices, creative technology and museum culture. He is series co-editor of the Critical Perspectives on Museums and Digital Technology book series published by Routledge.

Matthew Butler is a senior academic and researcher in the Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University, Australia. His work focuses on the use of emerging technologies to support people who are blind or have low vision, in particular facilitating better access to graphical information for education, orientation and mobility, and arts and culture.

 

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Cite as:
Hall, Jenna and Dziekan, Vince. "Slow designing inclusive museum experiences.." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 22, 2021. Consulted .
https://mw21.museweb.net/paper/slow-designing-inclusive-museum-experiences/