What does great interpretation feel like?

Jane Stoneham, Sensory Trust

My memory is fed by my feet. They were the first to experience it directly through my slightly unsteady walk over the thick metal discs. Then my ears, picking up the chilling clink..clink…clink of the discs knocking against each other, echoed up the tall concrete walls. My skin prickled in response to the sombre tune. My eyes fed me the story… the discs were faces, punched with raw eyes and mouths. I was in the Jewish Museum in Berlin, making a three minute walk over metal faces.

Faces in metal discs line the path of an exhibit in the Jewish Museum Berlin

I had read and listened to many other interpretation materials in the museum before I came across this one, all focused on the same poignant story. Yet this was the only one to engage me through my different senses, and the only one that six years later I remember as if I was back there now.  

Interpretation gets defined in different ways but the theme that remains consistent is the conveying of story. Implicit in the act of interpreting is the aspiration of making a connection with someone that is meaningful and lasting. And in our experience, engaging through more of the senses is particularly effective at making this happen.
At the Sensory Trust our work explores the experiential side of interpretation, the aspect to do with how people connect, how we make personally meaningful and memorable experiences. Even when the focus is on sharing information we advocate making the experience as rich as possible so it is more likely to resonate, to be absorbed and recalled.

We also promote sensory engagement as an effective way of making interpretation inclusive so it can connect with the widest range of people. How inclusive was this particular piece of interpretation? Disappointingly, not as much as it could have been (it would be difficult for anyone unsteady on their feet and wheelchair users) but it would have been simple to have made it so. For example, adding a simple integrated rail, and making a portion less uneven, both of which could be achieved without detracting from the overall look and feel.

Reasons to be inclusive

Inclusive design takes into account the diversity that comes with different ages, backgrounds and disabilities. It recognises the various ways that some people get excluded, for example from barriers that make it difficult for people with limited mobility to get around a venue, communication issues for visitors without basic literacy or who don’t use English as a first language and entrance charges making it difficult for people living on low income.

It challenges designers to think about how a particular interpretation can engage as wide an audience as possible, for example by including lower view heights to make the experience child and wheelchair friendly. And it challenges the collective experience to add up to something equally great for everyone. So within a collection of different interpretation, what is the combination of experiences available to someone with a visual impairment? Or with limited literacy? This can reveal a need for specific additions, such as sign language to accompany performances, pictorial symbols to assist visitors with learning disabilities or reduced entry for people on low income.

We recognise some key motivations for taking an inclusive approach -
More satisfied visitors. It can’t be in the interests of any visitor attraction to exclude some of its audience. And it isn’t just those individuals whose disappointments will lead to no repeat visits, research has shown that families and friends are often more upset and react more strongly than those directly experiencing barriers to access.
Happier staff. Frontline staff will be the ones who witness and have to deal with the disappointment of visitors who aren’t able to join in. Conversely, they gain the satisfaction of seeing all visitors having a great time.
Setting a new norm. Inclusive practices are increasingly expected by visitors and by funders, who often want to see how their support is benefitting those who most often experience exclusion.
Better design. Contrary to the idea that making things more accessible makes them less interesting, in our experience creativity is fed by the challenge of thinking how to create something richer that can be interpreted in different ways and by different people.
It’s the law. Legislation including the Disability Discrimination Act and the Equality Act make it a legal requirement to ensure the visitor experience is equally great for everyone. 

Are we seeing diversity for what it really is?

Terminology turns people into issues. Terms like ‘wheelchair users’, ‘visually impaired’, ‘ethnic minorities’, ‘elderly’ ‘low income’ help highlight those most in need of changes to conventional design, but can imply a separateness that doesn’t exist in reality. To move the agenda forward, in a way that really changes things, we believe there needs to be a shift in how diversity is seen.

Diversity doesn’t exist as separate and discrete groups, rather it weaves its way through families, groups of friends, couples and individuals. It might be the elderly grandparent in a family group, a parent with a young child in a buggy, a wheelchair using partner or a group of students with learning disabilities. 

An over focus on the technical?

We are sometimes asked if too much emphasis on being inclusive can reduce the overall quality of experience. This seems to arise from a fear that being inclusive means ‘dumbing down’, simplifying things to the point where they lose their depth and spontaneity. Designers can worry that their creativity will be curbed. But our experience finds the opposite, where designing for a wider range of people challenges designers to think more creatively, to incorporate ideas they would not otherwise have entertained, to consider a richer mix of ways of engaging people, not just through the visual.

We suspect the problem arises at least partly from an assumption that access is a technical issue, rather than a challenge to think more widely and creatively about quality of experience. For example, transcribing text into Braille while overlooking the opportunity for visually impaired visitors to explore materials through touch. It doesn’t mean the Braille isn’t useful, but enriching the wider experience will ensure people can share it together. 

A welcoming approach?

A key ingredient of inclusive design is making all people feel welcome. In our work with the Eden Project we wanted to improve interpretation for people with learning disabilities. We wanted them to be able to enjoy the site with their families and friends, so rather than making separate materials we integrated pictorial symbols in the general interpretation. We started to hear positive responses from people, saying how much they appreciated finding these symbols in the mix. And a visitor told us something especially valuable, “you know, the most important thing is it shows you expected us to be here”.

This brought home something we hadn’t fully appreciated – that many people who tend to forgotten in the design of places and materials, come to expect they will be forgotten. One of the most significant things is to show people they are expected and welcome. They don’t get a dusty visitor guide from the back room, they find their language in the language of the place. At its simplest, even translating ‘hello’ into different languages will be a positive gesture. With some investment in training, guides could learn basic phrases so they can welcome visitors in their own language. 

A sensory approach

hands touching clay imprints of hands at Eden ProjectBy designing for our senses, we have the opportunity to create new, compelling, inclusive environments that stimulate and encourage all visitors to explore, discover and remember. This is valuable for all visitors and as well as for people with a sensory impairment.

We experience everything through our senses. We use our intellect, memories and assumptions to process the information, but it all starts from the raw materials we receive from looking, touching, smelling, listening, tasting and a whole range of lesser headlined senses. They trigger different parts of the brain and elicit different responses, smell for example is strongly connected with memory.

Inclusive interpretation in practice

There are increasing examples of an inclusive approach to interpretation. These two are close to home and show different aspects of an inclusive approach. 

An inclusive welcome

Banners lining the entrance to Eden Project, designed to be accessibleFor anyone who has visited the Eden Project in Cornwall in the last five years, your visit most likely started and finished with this series of banners. They were designed by Stuart Spurring, Sensory Trust, and Jo Elworthy, Eden Project. The banners are designed as a conversation, each piece of text positioned to match a gentle stroll down the path to the visitor centre. What makes them inclusive? The text is large and well contrasted against a plain background and the images help carry the message so it’s not all reliant on words – good news for visitors with visual impairments, anyone without basic literacy or English as a first language.

Engaging the senses

lady explores grain during a sensor rich farm visitOur Let Nature Feed Your Senses project with LEAF is working with farmers and wildlife managers to interpret their farms and nature reserves through sensory rich techniques. Visits are running throughout England for people who do not normally have the chance to enjoy such opportunities, including older people with dementia, young people with autism and children from families on low income. The techniques are designed to engage people with food, farming and nature. Some are as simple as a collection of sensory props – a handful of silage, bags of seed to dip hands into, lambs fleece to feel. Others have involved more preparation. For example, a farmer’s barn has become a cross between a 1950s tea room and a local museum with tea tables surrounded by old farming tools, crockery, pictures, and old dresses, all so older people from local care homes can come to reminisce and share stories. 

Looking to the future

We would like to see a world where the philosophy of interpretation embraces the challenge of making our stories, conversations and messages open to the widest audience.  We believe an inclusive approach that has at its core the engagement of the senses is an ideal way of making this happen.

This article was published in Interpretation Journal, the jounal of the Association for Heritage Interpretation.

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