Museums are places for community education, yet they are seldom accessible to everyone nor equitable in their presentation of content. Acknowledging the unfortunate truth that visually impaired people struggle to enjoy museum experiences, "Senses: Design Beyond Vision" invited visitors of all abilities to actively engage in the exhibition in ways surpassing conventional "universal design" considerations. In collaboration with 65 contemporary designers, the design objective was to find innovative, artistic and technologically advanced ideas to create an environment and experience that welcomed visitors to encounter design through all of their senses. The exhibition featured direct sensory moments and displayed practical, inventive and exploratory objects to touch, hear, see and smell through several interactive installations. Some designs on display included: a touch-activated musical fur-lined wall, chairs that vibrated in response to audio clues, a food scent-diffusing "clock" that signaled mealtimes to people without sight or hearing, and color-changing lights that responded to room population density.
Given the historic building fabric and its fragile finishes, the museum required the 10,000 square foot installation to maintain structural independence from the envelope—a challenge that was solved through the use of undulating steel screens made with richly colored vinyl threads from Bolon. We were impressed by Bolon's color range and the fact that each thread yard is comprised of two colors. The material itself is inexpensive, a significant factor in providing an economical temporary installation with an overall $100K budget. The screens were either woven for more transparency between areas or hung for more privacy between visitor and object onto black steel frames. Offering both visual and tactile stimuli, these screens evoked "moods" by oscillating between cooler, low-frequency colors and warmer, high-frequency colors that seamlessly blended into different gradients. They served as both backdrops to the objects and definers of spaces, allowing different aesthetics to occupy the same installation while pragmatically solving issues of sound and aroma bleed and requirements for varied lighting levels.
The modes of display considered how visitors would interact with the works both individually and in groups. Visitors were encouraged to smell, feel and listen to highly distinct and original manifestations of design to better understand the complexity of our world, beyond vision. While some exhibition pieces were secured under vitrines, the majority were experienced through multiple senses and required custom means of installation, security, and contamination prevention. As awareness on accessibility was the show's intent, a cohesive braille overlay on museum labels provided simultaneous information for all. Labels remained at a static height, tilted for custom accessibility throughout all areas.
A complimentary smartphone app connected visitors to full-length visual and aural materials and T-coil–enabled devices provided audio descriptions of video content. The show's success was measured in that it effectively breaks the barrier of sight, signaling to all that there is a broader sensory environment and as such sets an example for other museums, and that visitors felt a greater appreciation for how design can provide alternative means of understanding through a multisensory process.
What were you asked to do by the client?
• Design the installation itself as a sensory opportunity that becomes part of the exhibition and visitor experience.
• Think about accessibility expansively.
• Create an environment that encourages exploration and participation on the part of all visitors.
• Allow all sensory experiences to be part of visitor understanding of how design can enable, enhance and change perception.
• Employ braille labels and other non-visual devices for the visually impaired according to best practices.
• Integrate t-coil access for the hearing impaired and mitigate acoustic issues as part of the layout.
• Work with different tactile means to create a unique, bold statement about our senses.
• Allow objects to exist in small groupings or individually to isolate sound or smell where required.
What were the agreed upon goals of the project?
• Inspire all visitors and promote active engagement with exhibition content and the creative thinking of the designers and artists concerning sensory perception.
• Create an overall aesthetic that works both spatially and texturally with a wide array of content.
• Allow visitors to see the emergence of different themes while understanding larger curatorial goals.
How did the design address these goals?
• Using a series of curving, steel screens custom-designed with colored vinyl threads, the design brought color and tactile experience to the exhibition. (Visitors were allowed to touch the screens.)
• As a singular, bold gesture, the nuanced blending of color and different degrees of transparency in the screens both divided content and enhanced relationships between objects.
• Use of color and texture worked hand in hand with the curatorial selection of objects. For example, furniture resembling candy resided in an area with warm hues of pink and yellow that spoke to "high-frequency" and an active, fun mood. In another area, a series of lights changed color from cool to warm depending on visitor interaction. The screen that enclosed this experience was dark, cool, and "low frequency", or what the curators refer to as "lounge-like", in blues and purples.
• The need for acoustical, visual and smell isolation determined the layout and use of space. The design team considered each of the over 200 experiences/objects in all their sensory aspects.
• The design was economical. Working well with a compressed schedule for load-in, the screens arrived on site and were easily installed in a short time.
• Graphic design was integrated metaphorically and physically with the overall installation.
How did you address the design problem(s)?
• Inspired by the curatorial mission to making a difference in museum experience for those with various sensory impairment, we designed a seamless, natural integration of Braille into the design that made it seem one with the overall concept without drawing attention to the users.
• In this 8,000SF gallery there were many restrictions as to where we could integrate electric and data, and there was no proper way to attach to the floor or ceiling. The installation had to be structurally independent of the building envelope. The curving shapes, like the Jeffersonian brick walls, had inherent structural integrity and required little bracing.
• Solution through a single gesture – using screens in different manners to create places for specific content, film and other experiences focused attention to the objects on display.
• Our team worked closely with the museum's curators and staff to make the best use of the gallery space while upholding the strictest standards of conservation and security.
• The vinyl threads were attached to the steel frames through two different methods. The "curtain" was dense with 8 strands to the inch. The thread was wrapped around the frame so that it hung on two sides. The frames were brought to the site and then after installation loops were cut to hang loose at the bottom. The second method of attachment was "woven". There were a series of horizontal, minor steel members that the yarn wove across to provide a more open feeling. It was the variation in transparency that produced the nuanced experience of enclosure and visibility.
• The vinyl threads are a raw material made for carpet tiles. We were impressed by the color range and the fact that each yard is comprised of two colors. The material itself is inexpensive, a significant factor in providing an economical temporary installation (the budget was approximately $100K). We used ten different colors for the screens dividing the color ranges between the two different "moods". In the north gallery, the colors reflected a cool, lounge-like, low-frequency feeling using purple, blues and greens. The southern areas featured brighter colors of pink, purples, and yellow for a warm, high-frequency feeling. In both areas, the colored yarns blended from one color to the next through a gradient that moved imperceptibly.
How does the architecture of your project affect the community?
• Museums are places for the community education. They are open to all, but in reality, do not cater adequately to all. This project addresses the not so acknowledged truth that visually impaired people, in particular, have a harder time in their enjoyment of works on display.
• People come into the exhibition in a way that gives them a greater appreciation for how all of our senses work together. Visitors can see radical ways in which designers use various means and technologies to take on the challenge of providing sensory experience in different ways.
• The show effectively broke the barrier of sight, signaling to all that there is a broader sensory environment and as such sets an example for other museums.