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Reich+Petch develops accessible exhibit for the Smithsonian

Case Study by Edmund Li RGD, Associate at RPDI

David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, an exhibit for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), designed by Reich+Petch Design International (RPDI) of Toronto.

Background

Mounting evidence and extensive research at the Smithsonian linked human adaptation to the earth’s environmental changes. In 2007, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) decided that it was time to share this knowledge and engaged our team to design a new exhibit. The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins is a 15,000 sq ft (1,400 m2) permanent exhibit about Human Evolution and was completed in 2010.

Accessibility is particularly important to the Smithsonian because their target audiences are families, school groups and tourists from all over the world. Visitors of the Smithsonian are extremely varied in their physical, visual and cognitive abilities. The exhibit design therefore needed to be rigorous in meeting different people’s needs, so each visitor can have an enjoyable and equal experience of the exhibit, content and key messages.

The Smithsonian is keenly aware of the importance of universal accessibility and has developed its own accessibility standards for their galleries. The Smithsonian Guidelines for Accessible Exhibit Design is a comprehensive design guideline which covers everything from exhibit content to label design and text, audio visuals and interactives, circulation, exhibit furniture, colour, lighting, public programming spaces, emergency egress, children’s environments, and much more. The guidelines are available online for public access at http://www.si.edu/Accessibility/SGAED.

RPDI has been designing, guided by that standard, since our first project with the Smithsonian in 2000 when we designed the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals.

Accessibility Features

When people think about accessibility they tend to only think about type sizes, visual contrast and wheelchair access. We believe those features are a baseline requirement that must be followed on every project. In this project, we adhered to all the dimensional requirements noted in the Smithsonian’s own accessibility guidelines.

The more complicated aspects of accessibility are the ones that people don’t usually think about but which are also critical to the philosophy of Universal Accessibility.

These include:

  • the specific details of how physical components are created
  • delivering content in a variety of methods so that it is accessible and understandable to a wide range of visitor’s abilities
  • organizing how the messages and content are organized within the exhibit hall to make navigation intuitive and understandable regardless of the direction they are being accessed from

Some of the specific ways the physical components of the exhibit were made accessible include the use of non-glare information carriers, placing information in accordance with viewing angles and eye levels and in providing content in a variety of methods including print, physical interactives, touchable artifacts, visual icons, images, video, subtitles and descriptive audio.

Some of the less tangible techniques used to deliver the content include: the distillation of the storyline, the placement of artifacts in a contextual setting and simplified graphics to help communicate the most complex aspects of the exhibit.

Woman and child using a touchscreen at the exhibit

The distillation in the storyline involved working closely with the interpretive planner and curator to carefully craft the messages, to ensure that key ideas are just as clear to a child as to an adult and for people with a range of cognitive abilities.

Small artifacts like bone fragments are hard for people to understand on their own. Our exhibit worked to place them in the context of a body form as most of the evolutionary evidence lie right inside the human body. A multi-layered graphic approach was created so that fossilized bone fragments were placed on body form within an outline of the bone structure so that just the placement of the fragment would clearly define what is a jaw bone versus a knee bone without the need for additional descriptive text. Simplified illustrated timelines were developed to visually describe the critical evolutionary milestones of humans, spanning a period of over six million years. The visual nature of the timeline allows people to translate the numeric years into a physical span of time. Graphic visualizations also help visitors that do not speak or read English, which is the main language of the exhibit, to understand some of the key messages.

Photo from Exhibit

Process

Similar to other environmental graphics disciplines, our exhibit design process follows the architectural design model which divides a project into concept design, design development, documentation, pre-production and fabrication. Accessibility needs to be addressed at all stages, both in the design of the physical components and in the development of the interpretive plan and content layout.

Before the design began, we worked closely with the client and curators to organize the content and craft the key messages that the design would be built upon.

During each phase, we reviewed both the design of the physical and graphic elements of the exhibit with the client to confirm assumptions, review options and gain their in-depth understanding of their own facility, visitors and operations. Both formative and summative evaluations were conducted by a third-party consultant to evaluate the design success of the project. Formative evaluations were conducted during the design phase, and summative evaluations were conducted after the project was completed. In earlier stages, our design sketches were used for testing. Later on, full-size mock-ups of displays, interactives, graphics, and scaled models of the exhibit were developed for evaluation. The results of these tests aided our designers in identifying problems. Although the score of our design was high, there was, of course, some room for improvement. Based on visitor feedback, delivery and exhibit techniques were refined or adjusted to improve the design of the exhibit to ensure the goals and objectives of the exhibits were met.

Photo of people walking around in exhibit space

Challenges

For a gallery as large as this one we did not have any large iconic artifacts to build the exhibit around. A dinosaur gallery, for example, is impactful even without exhibit elements just because of the sheer size of the skeletons. Human fossils however are much less dramatic. The challenge was to give the small specimens context and make them understandable and relatable.

Further, the layout of the exhibit hall provided multiple access points. Another challenge was to organize the narrative so that is was understandable regardless if a visitor entered from one end of the Gallery or the other. From our observation of visitors, we find that they tend to take unpredictable paths within exhibits and often ‘ping pong’ between areas.

The introduction was therefore provided at both ends of the gallery with the different zones clearly defined in both. We then used large sculptural iconic graphics to draw people instinctively to the different areas of the exhibit. These areas were created to illustrate the key qualities that are shared amongst the human species. The narrative of the areas does not depend on visitors accessing the gallery in any specific order but are understandable alone or in context.

For most designers, accessibility falls under signage, print or web. Exhibition design is different because it combines all of the above together with artifact, objects and multimedia presentations. Many of the current accessibility standards are focused solely on environmental graphics and signage and therefore cannot be the sole resource when thinking about wholistic accessibility. As an analogy, exhibits are like a book where signage is like the catalogue system. The book or exhibit should be expressive, content-driven and subject-specific with the goal of being different and to create a sense of surprise. Where the catalogue or signage is a system which needs to be regimented to be understandable.

Girl putting on headphones to view a video

Results

The result has been a successful, popular and award-winning exhibition which is always packed with visitors of all ages and abilities.

“RPDI’s creative design vision was fundamental to the success of the Human Origins Hall at NMNH. The exhibit’s subject matter is highly scientific and often times intangible, and most of the displayed objects such as stone tools and fossil bones do not offer much color choice or visual diversity. RPDI overcame these challenges by introducing dramatic yet elegant design along with using different textures and lighting effects to create visually interesting and soothing space. Moreover, in order to introduce many theoretical subject matters which cannot be conveyed through objects, RPDI used sophisticated but friendly graphic design to make two-dimensional presentations most engaging. Their thorough attentions to the design details succeeded in capturing visitors instantly the moment they stepped in to the space. The most important testimony to their good design can be seen in the positive reaction from the visitors in response to every design intention RPDI created in the space. I believe the Human Origins Hall at NMNH shows that RPDI are not only a group of exhibit design experts but also a team of creative individuals who care and understand the impact of good design.” Junko Chinen, Project Manager, Smithsonian Institution

Designer Takeaways

The most important factor to consider is relevancy. The specific requirements of accessibility for exhibits should be discussed with the client and stakeholders, the client’s accessibility consultant, as well as local accessibility committees or authorities. The need and degree of accessibility enhancements varies from project to project – designers should avoid designing in a vacuum.

Beyond the delivery of key messages, designers should also consider:

  1. Displaying key content in a variety of modes, using print, media, touchable models, audio, tactile letters, braille, alternative languages, and large print
  2. Ensuring that text size and contrast adhere to governing accessibility requirements
  3. Consulting local accessibility authorities to test designs and obtain feedback

Client Takeaways

  1. Start the accessibility discussion early in the project to clearly define the goals. Accessibility design elements are less expensive and more effective if integrated early.
  2. If budget does not allow for extensive accessibility initiatives in all the content messaging, at least apply them to the expression of main ideas.
  3. Enhanced programming can also be developed, if the budget will not allow for permanent built-in enhanced content.