The Smithsonian, United States, introduced Aira technology which uses augmented reality and AI to assist visitors © Shutterstock

Keeping museums inclusive for people with disabilities
Technology might hold the key for art accessibility around the world
1 Mar 2024

Museums have always been a place where people could be enlightened by learning or experiencing something new. Today, technology has brought our knowledge and digital experience to a more advanced and sophisticated level but can we use it to help museums be more inclusive for people with disabilities?

One billion people — or 15% of the world population according to the World Bank — experience some form of disability. For a person with a visual impairment, objects exposed at a museum may not be of interest. Someone with a hearing disability may not benefit from the audio-visual guidance, and someone with an intellectual disability may not be able to grasp the captions and labels of the artworks. Improving the access to museum means thinking outside of the box, and using all the available tools to be inviting for those with difficulties. Mute and deaf people cannot enjoy explanations of the museum guide unless there is a sign language option available.

In this article we examine how some of the world leading museums have incorporated technological and digital tools to promote cultural access for people with disabilities.

Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, created a 3D painting exhibition: ‘Touching the Prado,’ in which visitors with visual impairments can explore and enjoy collections. Visitors are offered to touch and examine the painting of classical art works of Goya and Velasquez, by zooming in and out to see the paintings in their full detail. The project identified which details to emphasize and how it would make the most sense for a visually impaired person’s hand. In addition to this, the museum provides braille guides and audio commentaries alongside the art pieces.  

The Azerbaijan National Carpet Museum, the first inclusive museum in Azerbaijan, uses technology to help blind people experience the art works through the dot print of braille. Within this social project, weavers of the Museum’s Traditional Technologies Department have made miniature samples of ten carpets from the permanent collection, which can now be touched with hands. This approach will allow people with visual impairment to feel the different Azerbaijani carpets and differentiate between the various weaving techniques. Each sample is also accompanied by a note in English and Azerbaijani braille.

The Roald Dahl Museum in the UK partnered with an app called Signly to support deaf people. This application allows people to point their mobile device at displays and get the relevant information in British Sign Language. In fact, the museum has contributed to the application’s development, making it an award-winning app to help improve accessibility.

In the US, The Smithsonian introduced Aira technology which helps the visually impaired people by providing free verbal description. Visitors have a choice of using their smartphone cameras or smart glasses for this. Aira uses augmented reality and artificial intelligence to connect visitors to a remote member of staff who views where the visitor is and can see what is in front of them. The ‘guide’ is able to assist the visitor in the museum’s pieces but also in practical information of where the different facilities of the museum can be found.

While we are advancing and progressing in most of our daily lives with the help of technology, some aspects of our lives have still not reached their full potential. Accessibility should not be simply a matter of legal compliance or a kind gesture, but an ongoing aim in which everyone actively participates. It is important to make everyone feel included; especially for the growing generation to accept those with disabilities as no different from themselves. Promoting culture and art is equally important, regardless of where you stand in society. Cultural institutions as well as people must commit to the communities that are sometimes unnoticed. The way to do that is to proactively use technological developments that are now available to us in abundance. 

* Fariza Ahmadova is a UN Today Contributor.
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