Lisa’s research and end question about ‘great online exhibitions’ has prompted some interesting thoughts, and also more questions…

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Norwich Castle and Colchester Castle’s battlements and dungeons in the UK were amongst the flurry of virtual tours created around 2004; at the time heritage sites were addressing their then new legal duty to provide access to services with reasonable physical adjustments. When alterations were deemed to impact unduly on the fabric or nature of the place, site managers and digital designers worked together to create virtual tours. These were sometimes interpretive and with choice of communication formats with subtitles, British Sign Language and audio description. Others simply offered a visual tour thru’ the lens of a video camera or the latest 3D modelling fly thru’.

Today 10 years on digital and social media present a broader than ever range of ways for visitors to access heritage interpretation and engage with their history. From Brighton and Hove Story drop mobile App to downloadable audio description for blind and partially sighted visitors to the Natural History Museum, London’s newly refurbished Volcanoes and Earthquakes gallery.

It is an exciting time for opportunities to integrate new interpretive methods with inclusive choice of communication techniques, flexibility and accessibility options. Everyone uses a different range of audio, haptic and visual communication techniques.

However, it still requires a further shift from App and virtual options being considered as only an alternative format, rather than integrated choice. Apps are used as a starting point for museum or heritage sites making interpretive material available when they cannot afford to provide devices for audio description, British Sign Language (BSL), Easy Read tours or large print captions. It is not equal access if this is the only way to access these formats but is a way for visitors to access interpretive material. At the end of the day inclusive design means equality of choice and flexibility in what is on offer.

The Association of Heritage Interpretation (AHI) presented a session on digital interpretation at the annual Museums + Heritage Show in London, UK. One of the key messages was to choose digital technology because it is the most effective way to engage visitors and make interpretation accessible, not because it’s new. The same goes for virtual content and design.

An interesting AHI LinkedIn discussion has recently raised questions about whether to choose subtitles or BSL for an interpretive App. The responses highlight the inclusive approach being to provide choice with both: Some people who use English as their first language may require and use subtitles, but for those who use BSL as their first language the subtitles may not make spoken words accessible. The choice is needed.

In the discussion trail also raises more detailed considerations in creating the BSL presentation:

  • Signs vary regionally therefore for a local history museum it will be important to commission a BSL presenter who knows the local signs.
  • Someone with expertise or at least familiar with subject is more engaging. Shape, City Lit and Tate Modern undertook a project to explore and agree art related signs, how do you sign ‘Impressionism’ and ‘modernism’ or any newer art…ism to be understood and consistently used.
  • Equally a railway or science museum audience would benefit from a presenter who is also a subject expert or enthusiast, familiar with specialist terms.
  • When commissioning a BSL presenter the best are deaf people who use BSL, a sign language interpreter is a different role.

…and don’t stop at the AV screen have you taken account of the full exhibition text for someone who uses BSL as their first language and written English is their second or third language?

The Jodi Award has celebrated several excellent projects for social media and online access ranging from BSL tours to communication format for a broad range of learning abilities. A key aspect of these projects is the central involvement of deaf and disabled people in their development and delivery .

Accessibility options won’t fix it all either but can offer flexibility in

  • image/text magnification;
  • visual contrast;
  • labelled images and content menus indicate content;
  • touch sensitivity adjustment;
  • button or tactile as well as flat-screen interface;
  • audio or haptic as well as visual instruction/interaction;
  • also budget, plan, design for and commission
  • audio description, British Sign Language and Easy Read.

Check and enable accessibility options, also let people know their options and provide options not covered by this such as audio description, British Sign Language and Easy Read.

So as while many streams of thought were prompted by the May Blog, the overriding point is the scope for social media interpretation to integrate and increase choice for interpretation (not just as an alternative); also in creating social media platform or App ask people what works for them and follow-it through to detail design of interface and content.

Cassie Herschel-Shorland

21 July 2014

Cassie is a Committee Trustee for the Association of Heritage Interpretation

The Association for Heritage Interpretation is a key forum for anyone interested in interpretation – the art of helping people explore and appreciate our world.

AHI believes that interpretation enriches our lives through engaging emotions, enhancing experiences and deepening understanding of places, people, events and objects from the past and present.

AHI aims to promote excellence in the practice and provision of interpretation and to gain wider recognition of interpretation as a professional activity.