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Re-imagining the Museum: Accessible NMoQ

6 December 2020

According to the World Health Organization, 15% of the world lives with some form of disability of which 2-4% experience difficulties in daily life. Making up a significant segment of the population, accessibility for people with a disability should be a top priority especially when it comes to civic spaces like museums. Housing time capsules of thought-provoking artistic expression, museums around the world are considered to be cultural and educational bedrocks of a society with a duty of broadening our perspectives of the world.  With this duty in mind, it is necessary that museums overcome limitations when it comes to accessibility to provide a more inclusive environment for the benefit of all. But, what does it mean for a museum to be accessible and what should that look like?

Museums have always been known for their aesthetics and captivating displays of rare and fine objects from all around the world. Locked away in glass cases, these artefacts are far from approachable and can only be enjoyed visually. However, museums are evolving with the introduction of new technology and innovation as they thrive to meet the needs of the people and introduce more inclusive methods of exploration and learning.

Georgia Krantz, an accessibility trainer, art educator and the creator of Mind’s Eye Series at  The Guggenheim Museums and Foundation explains the common conception around museums solely existing as aesthetic visual experiences. “We see through our brains, not our eyes…the eye is just one of the channels through which sensory information is passed to the brain for processing.” Krantz negotiates an idea found in many pieces of cognitive research. That we as humans formulate experiences and reflections of them using our multisensory observation, where visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and tactile aspects create a holistic experience. Therefore, in order to achieve an intellectually and physically accessible exploration, museums are required to accommodate a wide range of sensory objects for all types of visitor needs.

In response to this important challenge, the National Museum of Qatar (NMoQ) has been pioneering in its efforts to make the grand desert rose structure more inclusive and welcoming to all. Sahar Saad, a Museum Development Specialist leading on accessibility and inclusion at NMoQ states: “As cultural institutions, which have long been established as educational and learning spaces, museums have undertaken a more active role in advocating for change in the social perspective surrounding disability.  This includes raising awareness about accessibility, inclusion and the barriers that many people with disabilities face when visiting a museum.” She went on to ask the question of why accessibility is important.  “Being accessible ultimately leads to being inclusive, and with that, we ensure that every member of the community feels welcome at the museum. It is a way to engage a larger number of audiences and making the museum welcome to all. This is our vision at the NMoQ, one that I believe every cultural institution should aim for.”

But, the question remains, how do we go about making museum spaces, and the knowledge they carry, more accessible for visitors?

When it comes to NMoQ, Sahar further explains the Museum galleries have been evaluated by accessibility experts who ensure that exhibits and visitor paths are wheelchair accessible, the labels and written materials are legible, and that any obstacles are addressed in order for the exhibits to be physically and intellectually accessible. The Museum also ensures that it complies with the nationally adopted accessibility code, The Singapore Construction Code, as well as other internationally recognised standards and best practices such as the Smithsonian Standards and Guidelines, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

 

A look inside the museum gallery space © National Museum of Qatar 2020
A look inside the museum gallery space © National Museum of Qatar 2020

NMoQ’s efforts in making the museum accessible are evident through a range of gadgets and assistive devices that are made available to help make the Museum experience multisensory and inclusive for all visitors. Their assistive technology includes:

C Pen Reader

A scanning pen device designed for productivity and learning, the pen assists reluctant readers, specifically people with reading difficulties, by reading the scanned text to the user. Visitors simply need to pass the nib of the pen across the text in order to activate the audio assistance feature.

Portable Induction Loop

The system helps amplify sound for visitors with low hearing. The induction loop reduces or completely drowns out background noise and picks up certain sounds according to people's hearing needs.  

Ubiduo

A mini-keyboard that enables deaf visitors to connect through real-time text-based communication with two or more individuals.

Reading Machine

Similar to a reading pen, the self-contained machine reads text out loud by scanning written text.

Handheld Magnifier

For visitors with low vision, the magnifier can be used to read the displayed text, focus on artifacts or details of an object.

NMoQ comprises 11 immersive narrative galleries utilizing innovative storytelling approaches whereby each gallery exhibits the following: music, oral history,  films, archival footage, accompanied by a range of scents such as coffee, bukhoor, and the sea to give visitors an integrated life-like experience. Additionally, the Museum’s five multisensory tactile stations provide descriptions of some of the master objects in Braille, covering themes of geology, natural environments, archaeology, life in Al Barr, and celebrations; all accompanied by a range of 3D models. Furthermore, the family exhibits, programms and tours are designed to engage families and children of all ages and abilities.

In response to NmoQ’s assistive work Ikrami Ahmad, Activities Coordinator and Assistive Technology Specialist at the Qatar Social and Cultural Center for the Blind commented through a published interview  “I experienced many of the special things they have done and the storytelling itself was wonderful. This is due to the three main services: first, the instruction via Braille that is  available on the displays; second, replicas that can be touched which allows the visually impaired to understand the meaning behind the displays inside the glass and [thirdly], the amazing guides who accompany you and make things easier to understand about every gallery, explaining every display intelligently and in great detail.”

 

Tactile station found at the museum © National Museum of Qatar 2020
Tactile station found at the museum © National Museum of Qatar 2020

He continued, “However, I was drawn to the marine section and the storytelling about the marine life that brings you closer to the culture of the country before the discovery of oil. There were beautiful sensory things such as oysters, the tools they used for diving and the heritage items that we can now touch and explore in greater detail”.

 

The museum’s marine section showcasing all aspects of the marine life in Qatar © National Museum of Qatar 2020
The museum’s marine section showcasing all aspects of the marine life in Qatar © National Museum of Qatar 2020

In making visitor experiences even better, NMoQ promotes accessibility by giving accessibility awareness training to their staff such as their one-day workshop under the partnership of Sasol and Accessible Qatar Initiative involving practical advice and information regarding assistance for people with a disability.

 

NmoQ’s Accessibility Awareness training under  Sasol’s Accessible Qatar initiative on 5th November 2019
NmoQ’s Accessibility Awareness training under Sasol’s Accessible Qatar initiative on 5th November 2019

Beyond NMoQ’s assistive services provided within the physical space, the Museum has also made it possible to explore their impressive displays virtually with the help of Google Arts and Culture, online exhibitions such as “Qatar’s Culinary Journey” and “Habitats & Shelters”  and workshops available on their Instagram and website.

 

National Museum of Qatar web page with information related to accessibility and exhibitions.
National Museum of Qatar web page with information related to accessibility and exhibitions.

Committed to making accessibility a top priority the Museum, in consideration of the pandemic and its implications on all visitors, has expanded its accessible reach online and continues to employ new methods of creating an inclusive space where every member of the society can access and browse the exhibits.

Opening soon, the Museum looks forward to welcoming back its visitors with sanitary precautions in place. For more information about visiting, admissions and hours, head on to their website and book a ticket to reserve a spot at the museum. You can also find a page dedicated to accessibility, assistive services and contact details on their website. 

Curious about the Museum, you can head on over to our blog and get insight on its new publication and many other relevant feats. 

 

 

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