Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness Summary Report

January 10, 2011

National Center on Accessibility
National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University – Bloomington


Historically, museums have displayed their collections for the visiting public primarily through visual means. Most often the objects are located behind glass or other barriers; and if not, clearly the message is to “look and not touch”. While audio tours have been a recent addition to the museum scene, the absence of descriptive information about the objects or exhibits themselves have proved inaccessible to for persons with visual impairments and do not provide an equivalent experience that is available to the sighted public.

This project was conducted in cooperation with the U.S. Architecture and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board) and the National Park Service. The purpose of the project was to convene museum and site exhibit stakeholders, including government and private sector museum staff, Federal and State accessibility specialists, exhibit designers, consumers with vision impairments, and related stakeholders in a workshop to consider issues in exhibit design and operation for people with low vision and blindness.

The project involved the commission of four white papers by experts who had conducted research or projects in subjects related to exhibit or interpretive media design for persons with low vision or who are blind. The four issues identified for white papers were in the areas of:

  1. Effective Communication: What Visitors with Vision Loss Want Museums and Parks to Know about Effective Communication (Beth Ziebarth, Smithsonian Institution);
  2. Tactile Mapping and Orientation: Tactile Mapping for Cultural and Entertainment Venues (Steve Landau, Touch Graphics);
  3. Tactile Models with Audio Description: Research on Effective Use of Tactile Exhibits with Touch Activated Audio Description for the Blind and Low Vision Audience (Rebecca Fuller and Bill Watkins, RAF Models); and
  4. Current Media Technology: Current Media Technology, Appropriate Application of Technology, Future Research Needs (Larry Goldberg, National Center for Accessible Media).

A one-day workshop was conducted in August 2009 in conjunction with the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) national conference. The experts prepared a 10-14-page white paper that was distributed to attendees prior to the workshop. The workshop consisted of fifty-two attendees representing the targeted museum and site exhibit stakeholders. The workshop consisted of presentations by each white paper author followed by questions, reactions, and recommendations from the audience. In addition to the four white papers, a fifth presentation by Michele Hartley, National Park Service Harpers Ferry Center provided lessons learned from evolving NPS interpretive media accessibility projects. Lastly, participants engaged in small group discussions on needs for future research and next steps for increasing access to the interpretive venues such as museums, zoos, aquariums, and other exhibit areas.

In November 2010, the National Center on Accessibility also conducted a three-day focus group on universally designed wayside exhibits at the Grand Canyon National Park. The focus group consisted of six individuals with vision impairments, whose task was to explore ways to communicate using tactile elements and audio to create additional opportunities for interpretation with the purpose of helping the park, and the Park Service as a whole, to better understand how to communicate resources in park wayside exhibits to people with visual impairments. This three day process involved not only consumers with visual impairments, but also members of the park’s exhibit planning, cultural resources compliance staff, interpretive staff and Diversity Committee staff, representatives of the wayside design contractor, fabricator, contracted park historians, and Harpers Ferry Center of the National Park Service.

Several global issues emerged from both the work presented in the papers, the discussions and recommendations within the workshop and from the wayside focus group experience.

1. Tactile opportunities are important to gain insight into the interpretive experience. The opportunity to touch artifacts or replicas, explore maps for orientation and models assist in gaining a complete picture of the interpretive story.

2. Input from user groups as exhibits/interpretive media as developed is critical. All the work conducted by the authors involved the use of focus groups, beta testers or other form of input from end users with visual impairments. This practice was followed in the conduct of the workshop as ten persons with visual impairments were recruited representing both low vision and blindness, congenital and adventitious onset, and varying ages and genders.

3. Visitors want independence when visiting museums and other venues. Having adequate information in the exhibits and other interpretive displays provides the visitor with vision loss more independence to explore and enjoy the interpretive opportunities. More content in the exhibits rather than for way finding is desired if both cannot be adequately provided. Visitors with visual impairments require a great deal more assistance with orientation and way finding than is typically offered or available. The exception would be if way finding were integral to the exhibit or interpretive experience. In the example of the Grand Canyon, orientation information was considered critical to the focus group members as poor orientation gets in the way of interpretive opportunities.

4. Lack of staff training was cited as a major problem. All staff and volunteers should receive training on the use and care of assistive equipment, accommodations (e.g., allowing tactile exploration of artifacts); availability of accessibility elements with the venue; and disability etiquette to name a few issues.

5. Availability of accessible features is crucial. If accessible features in exhibits are not available because needed staff is not available to provide the element or the feature is broken or degraded, then the visitor with a disability is unable to benefit from the exhibit.

6. Shared resources among cultural institutions should be explored for the mutual benefit of each entity. Many individuals pondered the feasibility of collective purchases of assistive equipment; allowing accessibility solutions to travel with traveling exhibits rather than each venue reinventing the wheel or not having the capacity to provide those solutions; or pooled resources for service provision such as audio description or sign language interpreters.

7. Integration of universal design into exhibit design approaches should be utilized to the greatest extent possible in order to mitigate the accessibility needs of cultural institutions.

Summary of Findings

Effective Communication


Federal accessibility laws require effective communication with people with disabilities. Alternative formats of standard print publications are a means of providing that effective communication through large print, Braille, or audio. Multiple formats should be provided so visitors have flexibility in use. A Braille literate visitor may consider a Braille version to be easier and faster for obtaining information, whereas for those who are not Braille readers require other alternate formats to meet their needs.

Large print and Braille publications should be of equivalent quality as standard print publications. Braille should meet the national or international Braille standards. Participants indicated that people who are blind or have low vision tend to use exhibition brochures during their museum or park visit. Additionally visitors with vision loss ought to be able to keep publications offered to them just as visitors without vision loss are able to do. Museums and parks commonly require the return of Braille or audio publications as they deem them too expensive or available in such limited quantity that they do not feel they can be given away.

Providing printed materials in audio format is considered equivalent to offering the publications in Braille. While some visitors may prefer to use their own audio devices If the content is available in a downloadable format, the museum or park needs to have audio devices available on site for those who don’t have an audio player.


Text on exhibits, maps, waysides, models, etc. should be simple and clean. Braille should be used sparingly for titles or labels and follow Braille standards. The use of raised letters for titles and labels should use a consistent simple serif font for ease of reading. As exhibits are designed, consistency in placement of labels is important as visitor move from one to another.

Tactile Graphics

The use of tactile graphics requires a connection and context to the interpretive story in order to make sense to the end user. Objects should be easily identifiable and consistent with the theme. The amount of detail that is provided contributes to the success of a tactile object. Some objects can be presented in profile or varying degrees of bas-relief. It is important that relative objects be presented in scale to one another. When scale is violated, it can lead to confusion.

Tactile Maps for Orientation and Way Finding

Tactile maps for orientation and way finding are found in a variety of forms. The simplest form of a tactile map utilizes a raised line diagram of a layout of a building. There are additional ways to engage the tactile sense and usually in a combination with visual and auditory information in order to build a really rich and universal orientation and way finding strategy for an institution. Users benefit from maps that provide navigation within the environment such as portable maps, way finding signs or a combination of the two. In addition, maps for orientation provide a big picture understanding of a whole geographic or environmental space for context.

Portable tactile maps

A variety of techniques have been used to produce portable tactile maps. Regardless of the technique employed, the major drawback of portable tactile maps is they lack a fixed point of reference, or a You Are Here marker. This is a crucial feature for someone trying to create a cognitive model of a complex environment and where they are within the context of the map. When the user is in motion, they have a difficult time knowing where they are at the moment, and which direction they may be facing. However, well-made tactile maps are useful for simple spaces, and drawn with limited tactile features. Some guides suggest the use of “no more than three distinct line types, three different textures and four or five point symbols, such as stairs and building entrances (Rowell and Ungar, 2003). Other rules of thumb include restrictions on crowding, and proper use of Braille labeling (Edman, 1992)” (Landau, 2010, p. 6).

Fixed tactile maps

Fixed tactile maps have the advantage that they can be affixed in the environment where they can be found by the person with vision loss and positioned in the correct orientation. Placement on a horizontal or near horizontal surface provides the map reader with a real world orientation. Maps should be large enough to provide sufficient scale for detail, but not so large that the map reader has to change their position or reorient themselves.

Talking three-dimensional models for way-finding and orientation

Touchable models provide more spatially accurate information than the simple raised line map. A three dimensional representation of the physical environment is more easily spatially understood than a raised-line map of that space. Scale models provide information about building volumes and details that can provide valuable information about orientation in a space. However, without additional audio descriptive information to actually assist the blind user in navigating from the model to destinations within the space, models are not useful for way finding.

Talking map models with descriptive information are useful for orientation and navigation. Touch activated on-demand descriptions of model elements provide a better understanding of what the map reader is looking at. Some models provide information in a series of audio layers that are accessed by continuing finger contact with a single part of the model.

Scale and size

Large scale maps are desirable, but how big is too big? Generally maps and models should fall within “the wingspan” (within arm’s reach or a suggested 50” x 30”) to be explored from one spot. If a map or model needs to be larger, then smaller inset maps or a smaller scale model for orientation should be provided

Tactile Models with Audio Description

The use of tactile models in tactile exhibits serves all people. “Generally, tactile exhibits are used to represent objects that are “out of touch” because they are too big, too small, too delicate, too dangerous, too precious, too far away, or, as with aquariums, from an alien environment” (Fuller & Watkins, 2010, p. 6). Tactile exhibits may have original artifacts, but are often replicas of objects that are fabricated. Visitors with visual impairments desire the opportunities for tactile exploration of objects that are meaningful to the interpretive experience. The addition of audio description of the features of the object or exhibit assists the visitor in their conceptual interpretation and provides a more meaningful experience.

Tactile models or objects should provide sufficient detail to be meaningful. The results reported from the “Tactile Talking Fish Project” showed that participants were able to correctly answer fact based questions about the types of fish, etc. when presented with full round models than with bas-relief and with greater accuracy than raised line models. The full round model also allowed participants to form a better “mental image” of the fish than the bas-relief or raised line models.

Audio Elements

Tactile exhibit elements should have carefully scripted audio information, description, or interpretation that is explicitly connected to the tactile experience of the tactile element. When possible, the audio information should be accessible on a hands free basis allowing tactile exploration with both hands. Users seem to prefer devices that they can carry with them as opposed to audio embedded in the exhibit. Pure sound quality, ambient noise, and overlapping or competing audio from exhibits in close proximity detract from the benefit of the audio description.

Audio elements built into exhibits may be touch activated. If users are not aware that touch activated audio is part of an exhibit, they may be startled when they begin exploring a piece. Users expressed desire to either have the ability to control when the audio would play, allowing initial exploration. Users also would like to have the ability to control the speed and volume of the audio.

Waysides may have audio content delivered via an audio post with a speaker. A preferred alternative would be to add an earphone jack (or two) to the wayside much like systems used to use of ATMs at banks where a headset could be plugged into receive the audio. Care should be taken that visitors don’t get entangled when there are many people moving around a wayside. Use of an infrared signal to trigger wireless headphones could also an alternative.

In general, when utilizing headphones to receive audio description/content, users preferred to have their headsets cover only one ear so they could hear the environment around them.

Visitors with visual impairments, like all visitors, want layered information so they can move on if the site is not interesting or “drill” for more information if desired. Audio programs and other media alternatives should allow for the same kind of a quick concise message (typical of most wayside exhibits) to peak the visitors’ interest and not try to tell the whole story.

Current Technology

While hands on exploration is important, technology provides expanded opportunities to interface with exhibits through magnification or description. A variety of software and hardware options are available to deliver descriptive information.

Voice quality

Descriptions delivered through audio files can be recorded human voices or synthetic speech. Text files provide descriptions that can be read by text-to-speech or screen reader software. While synthetic voices are evolving with more natural voice quality, many consumers the general consensus among the consumers was that recorded human voices are preferred. Providing text files of audio descriptions should be offered used in exhibits that can be downloaded are necessary for users who need refreshable Braille.

Hardware and software

Audio delivery can be provided through a variety of hardware options, software formats, and methods of distribution. Off the shelf mp3 style players such as iPods, iPhones, etc. can be provided by the institution or be visitor-owned. Some audio delivery is through proprietary devices. Such devices should be intuitive to use and have ease of navigation.

Audio files can be formatted as .wav, mp3, .mov, or other files. Distribution of audio content can be pre-installed on devices provided by an institution with triggering through wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, infra-red, Bluetooth or cell phone. While some visitors may prefer to use personal cell phones to receive descriptive information, many expressed opposition to using personal minutes, and more importantly draining the battery or tying up the phone that may be needed for business or emergency use. Delivery of audio files may be triggered by GPS technology, which should be carefully evaluated for quality and consistency of reception. Audio files can be provided to users in pre- or post- visit from accessible web sites for listening at on their personal computers or for downloading to their personal audio device or PDA.

Design parameter considerations

Research conducted by the National Center for Accessible Media for the Whitney Museum put forward the following design parameters for shopping for appropriate technologies:

  • Allowance for synchronization of caption text and audio description with museum’s exhibits and media
  • Accessible user interface to blind and visually impaired people via “talking menus,” “audible keyboard echoing” of user input and tactile controls
  • Device and content management system which enables fast-turnaround content creation and adaptation, authored by museum staff or variety of vendor(s) to enable access at first public opening of exhibits regardless of deadlines
  • IR emitter (or other wireless signals) with ability to adjust for narrow-zone coverage and accommodate multiple exhibits within small gallery space
  • If using public bandwidth (cell, Wi-Fi, GPS), signals must be able to reach all areas of the museum
  • If relying on user-owned equipment, consider battery usage, personal data plan usage, national and international cell network compatibility
  • Ruggedized – able to withstand moderate abuse from adult visitors (e.g., dropping the device from a height of four feet)
  • Easy to use for visitors – young or old, technophilic or technophobic
  • Easy to use for museum staff (for automated or near-automated content loading and reprogramming)
  • Programming of device employs contemporary programming techniques (drag-and-drop, pick lists, etc.)
  • Uses non-proprietary, industry standard content formats (e.g., .mp3, .txt, .wav, .mov, etc.)
  • Protects user privacy, accords with museum IT security needs
  • Open architecture – device’s on-board software and device management software written in commonly used computer languages to allow for third-party alterations should the vendor no longer be able to support the product
  • Extensible – can be “built-out” or evolve over years to add new features and take advantage of new technologies
  • Fully customizable look and feel, menus, branding, etc.
  • Upgradeable for adding new software, new processors, new memory capacity
  • Potential for incorporating (or demonstrating) industry-wide standards for museum access devices
  • Interoperable with off-the-shelf technology so alternate hardware could be used
  • Able to download content from the web on-site or in advance. (Goldberg, 2010, p. 8).

Future Research Needs

Funding and budgetary considerations are and will continue to present issues in providing meaningful and accessible interpretive experiences to people with disabilities. One recurring question during these projects has been whether the creation of access services can be shared across cultural institutions as a way of addressing the limited resources of each institution. Larry Goldberg of the National Center for Accessible Media proposed investigating the creation of a “Museum Accessibility Network” to determine whether a group of cultural institutions that create and use accessibility services could be utilized to share those resources developed to enhance access (i.e., descriptions, captions, sign language) not only in their own individual programs, but also to foster the use of such services for exhibits which tour the country. The investigation should include how to reduce duplication of accessibility services if initial work by one institution can be effectively utilized at another; as well as whether costs for creation of access services can also be shared across such a network of institutions (Goldberg, 2010, p.9).

Research should identify current and future efforts to integrate universal design into exhibit planning. Examination of existing and emerging exhibit design strategies and collaborations that utilize universal design principles should be explored with technical evaluations conducted of select approaches. Publication of the outcomes of developed strategies can promote further understanding of how accessibility and universal design can be incorporated into exhibit design for the cultural institutions and park sites.

“Research should identify and develop effective and practical technology-based methods to further equal access to exhibits, collections tours, live presentations, events, performances, and multimedia. One development focus should be on the creation of a software suite of authoring tools that cultural institutions can use to create industry-standard formatted files for timed text, audio, and video to create captions, descriptions or sign language files. Such software tools can enable museums to enhance the accessibility of static exhibits, guided audio or live tours, live performances, films, and live events by creating flexible, non-proprietary multi-lingual files which can be used with a wide range of mobile and fixed platforms and technologies. Such proposed software must be grounded in well-documented user needs and should build capacity within resource-constrained cultural institutions to cost-effectively address the needs of people with sensory disabilities at museums, galleries, visitor centers, historic sites, and science centers all over the country (Goldberg, 2010, p. 9).


Albrinck, J. (December, 2010). “Raw Findings, Focus Group on Universal Design and Accessibility. “ Memo dated December 2, 2010, Grand Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon, AZ.

Fuller, R. & Watkins, W. (2010). “Research on Effective Use of Tactile Exhibits with Touch Activated Audio Description for the Blind and Low Vision Audience.” White Paper developed for Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Goldberg, L. (2010). “Current Media Technology, Appropriate Application of Technology, Future Research Needs.” White Paper developed for Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Landau, S. (2010). “Tactile Mapping for Cultural and Entertainment Venues.” White Paper developed for Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Ziebarth, B. (2010). “What Visitors with Vision Loss want Museums and Parks to Know about Effective Communication.” White Paper developed for Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness. Indiana University, Bloomington, IN.

Special thanks to: 

Betty Siegel (Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) for her cooperation in hosting the one-day workshop in conjunction with the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference and Jessica Swanson (Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) for her excellent logistics coordination of the workshop).

Thanks to Alice Voigt and Michelle Cook (National Center on Accessibility) for their assistance in the conduct of the Exhibit Design Relating to Low Vision and Blindness workshop and to Linda Robertson and Nan Smith (National Center on Accessibility) for their work behind the scenes arranging support for all the presenters and supported participants of the workshop. And special thanks to Jennie Albrinck (Grand Canyon National Park, NPS) for her coordination of the Focus Group for Universally Accessible Wayside Exhibits with persons who are blind.