Museums in the United States

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Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
By John M. Slatin,, Sharron Rush
Table of Contents
Chapter 7.  User Experience: Museums on the Web


Museums are big business in the United States and throughout the world. Hundreds of millions of people visit them each year [Yee 2001], spending millions of dollars to see blockbuster exhibits or stroll through the permanent collections. Tourists to Europe often choose their itinerary based on a desire to visit a particular museum [Goldstein 2000]. The United States International Travel Industry reports that 20 percent of the nearly 50 million people from other countries who visited the United States in 1999 visited museums and art galleries during their stay [U.S. Department of Commerce 2000]. In the state of Pennsylvania alone, over 14 million people were reported as visiting 242 of the nation's museums in 1997 [Shockey 2000] probably a fraction of the actual count, since another 700 museums were not included in the survey. In this chapter, we visit the Web sites of cultural and scientific museums from around the world. Our explorations particularly focus on the most visited museum in the United States the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC and on the second-most visited, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Museums and Accessibility, Offline

Meeting accessibility requirements has been a major challenge for many of the world's museums. Many of these museums are housed in buildings constructed decades or even centuries before anyone even dreamed of the ADA, the DDA, or other legislation aimed at ensuring physical access to buildings for people with disabilities. Renovation projects usually trigger legislative requirements that these older buildings must be retrofitted with wheelchair ramps and other accessibility features that were not part of the original design. This can be difficult under the best of circumstances, but it is especially tricky in the case of historic buildings, including historic houses, that form the majority of the 8,000 or so museums in the United States because the "historic" designation carries with it stringent requirements aimed at preserving the historic characteristics that make these buildings museums in the first place. [1] Of course museums in Europe face similar challenges when it comes to making centuries-old museum buildings accessible by contemporary standards.

[1] For further information, see the American Association of Museums' Technical Information Service Resource List at http://www.aam-us.org/infocenter/index.htm and the United States Access Board at http://www.access-board.gov.

Curatorial staff have also had to develop new techniques and strategies for mounting exhibitions that are accessible to a diverse audience that includes people with disabilities. The Smithsonian Institution's "Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design," for example, include a requirement that artifacts that are essential to understanding the core concepts and themes of an exhibition must be accessible to the touch, either directly or through the use of reproductions and models.

But that's just the beginning. Exhibition designers must also ensure that display cases are accessible to people who are short or seated in wheelchairs as well as to people who are standing. Inside the display cases themselves, designers should use color and light to make sure that the objects are fully visible. Lighting, color, and floor surfaces in the galleries must combine to delineate a clear circulation route into, through, and out of the exhibition. Text on labels and signs must contrast clearly with backgrounds, and exhibitions and information about them should be addressed to a variety of "intellectual levels" and accessible to people who do not read English and cannot see text. Audiovisual materials and interactive kiosks must include closed or open captions and audio descriptions, and kiosks and their controls must be accessible to people with and without disabilities. In some cases, full transcripts of audio materials (rather than synchronized closed captions) are required. Galleries must include places where tired visitors can stop and sit down to rest their feet and contemplate the artifacts around them; these areas too must make provision for people with disabilities. The same applies to museum auditoriums and theaters, where accessible seating must be available not just in one part of the room (which would effectively segregate people with disabilities) but throughout the space.

Jan Majewski, author of the Smithsonian's guidelines, argues that attention to accessible design yields significant enhancements in the quality of the museum experience for all visitors, not just those with disabilities. [2] We couldn't agree more.

[2] From "Guidelines for Accessible Exhibition Design." Accessed June 9, 2002, at http://www.si.edu/opa/accessibility/exdesign/start.htm.

Museums and the Web

Many museums have invested heavily in Web resources, reaching out to attract visitors as well as providing information and resources for people who are unable to visit in person. As the National Museum of Australia planned its Web site, one of the key purposes cited in the action plan was to drive tourist business to the city of Canberra. [3] For many museums, Web-based outreach efforts have had a significant impact. For example, the University of California at Berkeley's Museum of Paleontology reported an average of 15 walk-in visitors per day before bringing a Web site online in 1997; the Web site has attracted up to 15,000 hits in a single day a thousandfold increase in its exposure to the public. The National Museum of American Art averaged 125,000 walk-in visitors per year; its Web site receives many times that number of visits, averaging 10,000 per day. A majority of museums responding to a 1998 survey reported that their Web sites were either "important" (52.2 percent) or "very important" (25.9 percent) to their work [McNabb 1999]. The most important reasons for maintaining a Web site, according to these respondents, were public relations (39 percent), education (27.3 percent), and an obligation to share their resources with the public (17.6 percent).

[3] From the National Museum of Australia Action Plan. Accessed June 8, 2002, at http://www.nma.gov.au/actionplan/onlineactionplan.pdf .

The number of visits to online museums shows a marked upward trend. Visits to the Virtual Library Museums Page increased from 57,064 in 1994 to 2,810,285 in 1998 [McNabb 1999]. The increase has been even greater since those data were compiled. For example, in December 1999, the Web site of the National Museum of Science and Industry in the United Kingdom recorded over 920,000 hits [Streten 2002]. The Houston Museum of Natural Science [2001] recorded more than 584,000 hits in 1999.

But museum Web sites are still based on inappropriate models, according to Katie Streten of the United Kingdom's National Museum of Science and Industry. The starting point for Streten's keynote address at Museums and the Web 2000, cited above, is a critique familiar to readers of Jakob Nielsen's Designing Web Usability [2000]. Nielsen says that designing Web sites to mirror the internal administrative structure of the company or organization is a mistake; in order to find the information they need, users first have to figure out which part of the organization might be responsible for it. Streten says that something similar is true of museum Web sites. She writes that mu seum sites "have been structured in much the same way as the Museum's own administrative structure," and she goes on to ask, "How can we move [toward] site structure that focuses on visitor needs rather than our own internal structure?" [Streten 2000].

Streten's answer is to practice user-centered design to identify the needs and interests of the people who use the museum's Web resources and design to meet those needs. The AccessFirst Design concept [Slatin 2001, 2002] extends this principle. Taking the needs of people with disabilities as the starting point for design leads to aesthetically richer, more productive, and more satisfying Web experiences for everyone, not just for people with disabilities. It's important to remember, too, that what people with disabilities want just like everyone else isn't just information: it's a quality experience.

For the rest of this chapter, we invite you to come along as we survey a number of the world's most visited museums. We'll start out at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, with brief visits to the Web sites of three of its component museums. After leaving the Smithsonian, we'll quickly review several other museum sites in the United States and Europe, then conclude the chapter with an extended visit at the elegant site of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


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    Maximum Accessibility(c) Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    Maximum Accessibility: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone: Making Your Web Site More Usable for Everyone
    ISBN: 0201774224
    EAN: 2147483647
    Year: 2002
    Pages: 128

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