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Published: March 15, 2001.


Accessibility and New Technology in the Museum

Judith Kirk, Mathers Museum of World Cultures, USA


This paper will examine how the convergence of technologies such as positioning systems, mobile computing, and wireless connectivity may impact accessibility for museum visitors with disabilities. In addressing these issues the paper will describe the MUSEpad Project, a joint venture between Indiana University's Mathers Museum of World Cultures and Information in Place, Inc., a software development firm in Bloomington, Indiana.The MUSEpad project team is designing, developing, and evaluating a mobile computing tool that will enable visitors with disabilities to customize and optimize their learning and leisure experiences in museums through the emerging technology of WorldBoard. WorldBoard utilizes wireless connectivity and positioning technologies to extend the capabilities of the World Wide Web by virtually attaching information and tools to specified locations.The project partners have recently undertaken a six-month feasibility study funded by the National Institutes of Health. During this study, the researchers focused on four goals:
  • Creating user profiles via focus groups and visitor studies techniques addressing issues of mobility, dexterity, visual and auditory acuity, cognitive abilities and technology acceptance.
  • Developing customizable content, enabling users to set preferences and options
  • Undertaking pilot testing and usability testing to determine feasibility and key design issues
  • Investigating the development of an authoring tool, template, and guidelines for creating MUSEpad content.

Keywords: mobile computing, universal access, assistive technology, and disabilities


Museums are the treasure houses of our society, repositories of this nation's artistic, scientific, and cultural heritage. But too often access to this heritage is limited for individuals with disabilities. This dilemma has led a group of researchers, funded by a Small Business Innovation Research Grant by the National Institutes of Health, to design, develop, and evaluate MUSEpad, a mobile computing tool for use in museums that will enable individuals with disabilities an opportunity to customize and optimize their learning experiences in museums.

Convergence of technologies

MUSEpad is a first-generation WorldBoard-enabled device. WorldBoard, conceived at Apple Computer (Spohrer, 1999) and developed at Indiana University, is an extension of the Web that utilizes wireless connectivity and positioning systems to enable visitors to access Web-based information correlated with physical locations or objects

WorldBoard represents a convergence of technologies--handheld computing devices, wireless networking, and positioning and proximity devices-- all proliferating in consumer products. The first commercially successful personal digital assistant, the Palm Pilot, is taking vertical markets by storm. The Palm Pilot represents a growing trend in the hardware business, the development of information appliances--task-specific devices with limited functionality. As this market emerges and begins to mature we are beginning to see increasing convergence with other functionality--wireless connectivity on handhelds and MP3 players built into cell phones are just some of the current examples. New technologies in real-time operating systems and processors are creating new market and development opportunities.

Along with the trends in computing miniaturization and specialization, positioning systems products are maturing and becoming affordable. Global positioning satellite technology is now commonly used in consumer grade products, such as in-car navigation systems. There are other developing systems such as accelerometers and video recognition. Additionally, several cost-effective proximity devices are available, including the low-end bar code scanner and radio frequency identification (RFID) devices.

Convergence of Philosophies

These technologies are exploding at a time when museums are seeking new ways to increase accessibility to our facilities and learning activities. Too often we offer a single-tiered approach, segregating disabled visitors, limiting their choices and opportunities. This in turn denies an important concept surrounding the benefits of a museum experience: that a meaningful, successful visit must integrate physical context with the personal and social context of the visitor. (Falk & Dierking, 1992)

Concerns about personal context serves not only disabled individuals, but the larger population, as well. Increasing awareness of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) and varying learning styles as well as constructivist theory have resulted in a call for greater flexibility and "customizable" content among educators (Duffy & Jonassen, 1992).

MUSEPad Goals

Rather than a pre-packaged, single program aimed toward specific disabilities, not specific individuals, MUSEpad offers the potential of allowing each visitor to choose the experience that best reflects his or her personal context. By using a WorldBoard-enabled device, museum visitors could access and select from a wide range of content files (text, sound, or graphical) and tools virtually attached to a specific exhibit case or artifact. These information files could include vivid audio descriptions of museum artifacts, accompanying period music, large-print text, or more detailed information on the subject matter.

Because WorldBoard is a Web-based extension, museum visitors could also use the MUSEpad to access related content (such as exhibition reviews, art critiques, or historical period information) on the World Wide Web while moving about the museum. By "picking and choosing" visitors using the MUSEpad could tailor their museum experiences to reflect personal preferences, interests, and moods, as well as accommodate disabilities and special needs.

MUSEpad Design and Development

The design and development of this device was undertaken through four primary steps: the creation of user profiles, the development of customizable content, pilot and usability testing, and the investigation of a content authoring kit.

Researchers worked with consultants to establish a foundation for understanding the needs and concerns of our target populations. A key issue under consideration was the determination of which device functions might serve the greatest number of visitors balanced against helping those who need the most help accessing museum content. Representatives from three adult populations were recruited to participate in design and usability testing--individuals with low vision, individuals with low hearing, and individuals with mobility impairments.

The creation of audience profiles required an extensive review of literature concerning difficulties faced by members of these target populations and the documentation of issues relevant to usability and acceptability of various potential design of MUSEpad. Additionally, researchers examined past practices with assistive technologies to determine possible approaches to the design.

Museum observations, focus groups, and interviews were also incorporated into the development to obtain information directly from target audience members with regard to their use and adoption of assistive technologies and their prior experiences in museum settings.

Drawing on resources held by the Mathers Museum of World Cultures the team developed a list of content "types" offered by museums to enhance exhibition and visit experiences. The visitor's personal choice and selection of content, whether locally or globally generated, is possible through the use of channels, a key WorldBoard concept that differentiates the technology from standard Web-based interfaces. Channels offer multiple entry-points to information and can be based on a variety of characteristics, such as age, gender, educational backgrounds, or interests.

For example, while a blind adult visiting a museum may prefer hearing an audio description of the motif or ornamentation of an artifact on exhibit, a child who is blind may choose instead to hear a story illustrating the role of that artifact in ceremonial ritual. A third visitor, with low vision, may choose to access magnified images of the artifact through a MUSEpad graphical file. These individuals may share similar disabilities, and be in the same place at the same time accessing information about the same artifact, but WorldBoard's channel capabilities allow for each individual to have a completely different and customized experience.

Using off the-shelf hardware and software we built a primitive system in which we tested feasibility to determine key design issues, and via interviews and usability tests users assessed the appropriateness of the technologies used to deliver the content and tools.

The device contains a basic set of tools that can be used in most museum settings, and, additionally, the project team is exploring the development of an authoring kit that will enable others to create content for this device. Just as importantly, the system will be extensible to other leisure-time settings--zoos, parks, and aquaria, among others.


Duffy, T. M. and Jonassen, D. H. (eds.) (1992). Constructivism and the technology of instruction: a conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Falk, J. and Dierking, L. (1992). The Museum experience. Washington, D.C.: Whalesback Books.

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: BasicBooks.