Please Touch: 3D Technologies for Accessibility in Museums

Please Touch: 3D Technologies for Accessibility in Museums

Katie Stringer Clary

In the fall of 2016, students and faculty from Coastal Carolina University attended the annual Reconstructive and Experimental Archaeology Conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. The conference always includes a hands-on component like atlatl throwing, Viking bead-making, or other kinds of experiential learning. At the conference, Dr. Linda Hurcombe from University of Exeter gave a paper on using 3D technologies for accessibility to textiles and basketry at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, UK. As we listened to her paper and touched the 3D replica textiles she brought, we were able to connect with the past through artifacts in ways that are not always possible because of preservation and conservation concerns. Lightbulbs went off simultaneously above our heads. We could do this – we could combine our backgrounds and expertise and make a hands-on, 3D printed exhibit in our own town with our own students!

Please Fondle Our Artifacts

No museum sets out to intentionally obstruct their public audience with barriers. Some museums even actively fight against barriers using universal design techniques. However, even those with the best intentions often exclude visitors because of factors like disability, cost, language, and other limits to access. How can museums work with communities using innovative technologies to create a better experience for all? 3D scanning and printing may be one solution, as tactile experiences with the printed artifacts can help people build a tangible connection to the past.

In spring 2019, we set out to work with communities to create a tactile experience using 3D technologies. We combined our resources, applied for and received two grants, and reached out to our community contacts. Our local museum, the Horry County Museum, was receptive to working with us and our students, so we began the new semester with a goal of opening a brand new, from-scratch exhibit by April 30.

Ornate silver-looking match cases, which are 3D printed so that people can pick them up and handle them without damaging the original
3D printed replica of a 19th century match case. (Courtesy of the author)

As university instructors, we are always looking for ways to get our students involved in experiential projects in the classroom and in the community. We both have experience in museums and community education, and these backgrounds converged in the Spring 2019 semester at Coastal Carolina University in our respective courses: Museums and Communities and Cultural Resource Management. This collaboration ultimately culminated in a grant-funded, community-acclaimed, award-winning museum exhibit, Printing the Past: SC in 3D.

Why Accessibility?

As we met with our students, it became clear that accessibility for as many public audiences as possible was our main goal. We wanted to create an exhibit that was tactile, using 3D technologies, because almost everyone wants to touch when they go in the museum (probably because of the typical “please don’t touch!” rule). But in addition to satisfying the desire to touch, these 3D representations also create a new opportunity to expand museum accessibility.

Providing access to exhibits and museums is a legal obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and this includes accessibility to those with visual, sensory, and neurodivergence differences. However, in addition to meeting legal and moral obligations of equal opportunity, those who work in public-facing careers should view accessibility as a chance to reach new audiences, build community relationships, and engage stakeholders. The most recent Center for Disease Control report in 2018 shows that 26 percent of people in the United States live with a disability. The report enumerates 61 million adults with a disability in the United States. Additionally, in every year since 2008, the percentage of people with a disability has increased.

A set of baby mammoth teeth on display - 3D-printed replica, anyway! Accompanied by a display that has an audio guide and a QR code for more info.
A set of baby mammoth teeth on display – 3D-printed replica, anyway! Accompanied by a display that has an audio guide and a QR code for more info. (Courtesy of the author)

Even with the ADA, museums often question how to go beyond legal obligations to serve a variety of communities. One way to create an inclusive experience is through universal design: what is good for one population usually benefits others as well. Another way to look at this is as barrier-free education. Tactile exhibits in which visitors can touch benefit those who may not be able to see the exhibit, but also those with sensory processing disorders, a variety of neurodivergent conditions, children, and those who learn best by touch.

And so we set out to do the impossible: make everyone happy.

Working With Our Communities

We consulted with stakeholders and community members, especially those with disabilities, including SOS Healthcare, a local organization that serves community members with autism. Of all the advice and feedback we received, perhaps the most important was an explanation that many people with autism view images and artifacts quite literally. For instance, one of the artifacts included in the exhibit is a beaver skull. Sarah Pope from SOS explained that a child with autism may see that skull and see it as separate from the beaver itself. She suggested that we include the 3D replicated skull and a photo of a beaver skull, but also other images of live beavers in their natural elements. This was an easy request to accommodate and met universal design best practices.

We also worked with the South Carolina Commission for the Blind and enjoyed conversations with the Interim CEO of the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind, John McInerney. We received advice and guidance from Chief Harold Hatcher of the Waccamaw Indian People, Aynor, SC, who spoke with students on ways to respectfully present Native American material culture. Finally, students interviewed family members, where appropriate, of those who used or donated historic artifacts that became part of the exhibit.

Building an Accessible Exhibit

Working with the Horry County Museum, students selected eighteen artifacts that told a holistic story, including Pleistocene fossils, pottery, military medals, children’s toys, and even an ear trumpet. Once artifacts were selected, students scanned their artifacts using a NextEngine 3D scanner and edited using Scanstudio software to create accurate digital 3D images. Then, replica artifacts were printed using a Creality10s 3D printer. Once printed, students processed their objects by sanding, clipping excess filament, and preparing them for exhibition. Multicolored artifacts were painted with acrylic paints to better represent the artifact as it appeared in accompanying images.

A white man in a wide-brimmed hat and bolo tie is speaking to a tall teen in a green teeshirt. The teen is taking notes on a clipboard
Museum educator answers questions at the Printing the Past: SC in 3D exhibit. (Courtesy of Printing the Past)

We had the text panels printed on foamboard using a “dyslexie” font, designed to be easily read by individuals with dyslexia. We also provided large-print booklets for audience use in the exhibit. Additionally, we had all of the exhibit text printed on transparent braille panels that we then affixed over the printed text for braille readers. Each interpretive station included audio buttons using EZSoundbox audio players for non-readers. All text and images are also accessible using QR codes printed on the exhibit panels that are linked to soundcloud files and the exhibit website, for those who preferred to use headphones in the exhibit, or for those who are hard of hearing. Our university also produced a video about the creation of the exhibit, which includes text captioning for those who may not be able to hear the audio.

Students decided on a chronological display of the artifacts from oldest to newest, with the oldest pieces, Pleistocene fossils, at the beginning and the most recent, World War II Medals, at the end. The artifacts were arranged in a U-shape around the room, with the original artifacts in traditional display cases in the middle of the room.

Welcoming the Public to the Exhibit

We were thrilled that over 171 people visited the exhibit on its opening day. Students conducted evaluations of the exhibit at our opening event in April, where a total of 51 people completed a survey upon exiting the exhibit. Of those who completed demographic information, 13 self-identified as having a disability or accessibility challenges. These visitors offered suggestions to include bigger pictures and artifacts, and several requested headphones for the audio. All of the respondents to the survey stated that the ability to touch the 3D printed artifacts greatly improved their museum experience.

Several students stand in front of a display, and one on the end is lifting something up
Students exploring the exhibits at the Horry County Museum. (Courtesy of the author)

However, Printing the Past did not just reach museum visitors with disabilities. The exhibit also provided an experience for all visitors that allowed tactile learning and touching a (re-created) piece of the past. The experience of touching an artifact, even if it is a 3D rendering, helps people connect to the past and understand the experiences of people who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago. Additionally, the use of digital spaces allows people who are unable to visit the museum physically to interact with artifacts and interpretation.

While we are happy with the results of these evaluations by visitors and by our students, we think that the biggest and farthest-reaching impact is that this project can serve as a model for other museums. The partnership between university departments and the museum allowed the use of technologies, which distributed costs that might otherwise have been prohibitive. Partnering with a university’s public history, museum studies, and archaeological programs can alleviate some of these costs while providing hands-on experiences.

What’s Next? Hopefully a More Accessible Future in Museums

Printing the Past: SC in 3D will remain on display at the Horry County Museum for the remainder of 2019. After the exhibit closes, the individual exhibit stands will be moved and placed throughout the Museum hallways for visitors to explore while visiting. The website for the exhibit will remain online with photographs, text, and audio links. By the end of the spring semester, we were all exhausted, but the impact this exhibit had on our local communities, students, and other stakeholders was worth it. We hope that the exhibit will serve as a model for others to think about accessibility in new ways and work with their communities to build better spaces for all.

A group of 30+ teens stand close together and tiered up the stairs leading to the front entrance of the Horry County Museum, flanked by their teachers.
The curators at the Horry County Museum. (Courtesy of Printing the Past)

Featured image caption: Little hands touching the 3D-printed replicas of historic artifacts. (Courtesy of the author)

Katie is a Public Historian, who teaches a mix of history, museum, and public history courses. Her background is in museums, specifically in education and accessibility for people with learning and cognitive disabilities. Her current research is on human remains in museums.