ESRC Virtual Festival – Museum without Walls: Access for All…

Equal access to cultural venues such as museums, heritage centres and arts galleries for people with disabilities has been declared a human right, and is being addressed across the world as venues endeavour to ensure equal access for visitors with varying abilities.

A three-year research project at Queen’s, in collaboration with Titanic Belfast and Royal National Institute of Blind People is investigating innovative access options for the blind and partially sighted (BPS), using new technologies within diverse museum environments. I have pioneered two technological approaches that combine a commitment to low-cost accessibility solutions and emotionally engaged visitor experience.

Firstly, I have developed the use of a smart map using laser cutting, touch, audio and software control that enable BPS visitors to explore independently Titanic’s fateful maiden voyage. This map brings visitors on board the Titanic and they are able to use their fingers to trace the voyage routes, hear music of the locations, and hear the personal stories of the passengers using different voices. Evaluation has shown that BPS visitors had significant emotional engagement through the smart map.

“A very positive move. It would be a move forward to improve accessibility for visually impaired people but also for sighted people as it can help visualize events on one route.”

Secondly, I have led the development of a prototype of a speech-driven audio guide for Titanic Belfast. This audio guide uses text-to-speech technology and speech recognition to control the device. The guide is able to provide Audio Description and information for BPS visitors, enabling them to enjoy a semi-structured guided tour of the galleries and navigate the museum facilities.

Our aim now is to investigate to what extent such speech-driven audio guides might be useful in a museum accessibility context. If all the museum’s expert knowledge could be stored in a specific database held by the museum and the development of our interactive audio guide could make this information accessible via a specialized search engine, then this could be a far more accessible and independent way for users to explore a museum. Also, the interface is completely user-driven, so the user is in control of the dialogue.

We have already developed a prototype speech-driven audio guide specifically for Titanic Belfast, and we are looking forward to evaluating it.

If you would like to know more about our project, there will be a free live event on this topic entitled “Museum accessibility and challenges in the New Normal” on 11th November 2020 at 10.00am. It is part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in Northern Ireland 2020. Get your free tickets on Eventbrite.

Xi Wang is the lead researcher on this project involving the School of Arts, English and Languages and the School of Electronics, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Queen’s University Belfast. You can follow her on Twitter.