Prioritizing accessibility for Artifact Alley at the Canada Science and Technology Museum
The Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) closed November 2014 for a major renovation and recently reopened to the public. The original museum was demolished and replaced by a 7,400 m2 (80,000 sq. ft.) new building with 11 new exhibits, including Artifact Alley. Artifact Alley is the central spine of the new museum connecting the public galleries from the front door all the way through the length of the museum. It serves as the central gallery to showcase over 700 artifacts from across the breadth of the museum’s collection. In addition to Artifact Alley (480 m2), our design scope included exhibit areas surrounding the museum’s lobby (120 m2), the central demonstration stage and hub (200 m2). The design phase began in January 2016 and the project was completed in November 2017 for the re-opening of the museum.
Background Located in Ottawa, the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) is a national museum established in 1967. The CSTM invites visitors to experience science and technology in a dynamic and hands-on environment and to discover artifact-rich exhibitions featuring marine and land transportation, communications, space and computer technology from its national collection. Science and technology have changed Canada and the lives of Canadians and this transformation, from the period of early exploration and settlement to the present, has been marked by many achievements that are showcased within the CSTM galleries.
lngenium, a Crown corporation, runs the CSTM, Canada Agriculture & Food Museum and Canada Aviation & Space Museum. lngenium and its museums are responsible for preserving and protecting Canada’s scientific and technical heritage. I was the lead exhibit designer of the Reich+Petch (R+P) / The Taylor Group design-build team. R+P was the design team working for The Taylor Group, who led the Artifact Alley project. The Canadian Science and Technology Museum selected our team through a competitive RFP (Request for Proposal) process.
The museum envisioned Artifact Alley to be dramatic, delightful and most importantly – accessible. The primary audience for this project was local families, while secondary audiences included science and technology enthusiasts and visitors to the Capital Region.
As part of their major renovation effort, a set of guidelines were developed by the lngenium Museums for accessibility and universal design to close the gap between accessibly requirements, exhibit environments and the AODA requirements (mostly addressing signage in context in wayfinding).
When the contract was awarded to our team, an early draft of these guidelines was issued to the design team at the initial meeting, and an updated version of the standards was released later on with more details and specifications. As the project progressed, the design team identified gaps, conflicts and ambiguities within the draft and had continuing dialogues with the Canadian Science and Technology Museum about these findings. As a result, lngenium issued an illustrated version of the guidelines including explanations of terminology, nomenclature and further details to ensure clarity. For example, the guidelines outlined distinctions between a work table, an info-rail, an interactive kiosk and the associated reach distance, knee and toe space required for each.
The CSTM renovation initiated the development of the museum’s accessibility standards, which have become the universal design standards for all three of the lngenium museums. Currently, provincial and national accessibility guidelines provide very little (if any) guidance to exhibit and interpretive environments. The CSTM Accessibility Standards is designed to close that gap. All exhibits developed for the museum’s renovation, including Artifact Alley, the Demo Stage and the Lobby, are guided by the CSTM Accessibility Standards. In some cases, we pushed our design to exceed the museum’s standard to improve visitor experience.
The team created a tactile experience which includes exhibit titles, braille introductions, tactile pictures, touchable artifacts (de-accessioned or spare parts), and even considered the use of right hand vs. left hand for hands-on interactive elements.
The accessibility guidelines pre-determined certain aspects of design. For instance, the definition of minimum type size and readable height for displaying text meant that graphic panels had to be a specific size. The lngenium standards also do not allow text to overlap with images and require a minimum of70% contrast between text and background, artifacts and backdrop, vertical and horizontal surfaces. These rules can be limiting for exhibition designers as they affect composition, size and colour palettes within the design, but they also provide an opportunity to work creatively to find new methods of expression that meet accessibility requirements.
Hands-on interactive elements such as the hand saw, planer and ship’s wheel went through numerous revisions during testing to ensure the positioning and design of the interactive devices provided the specified knee space, reaching distances and wheelchair clearance. The guidelines did not specify whether considerations needed to be made between a left-handed versus righthanded user, or how to address a situation where the user might have only one arm, or no fingers to grab with. The collective team decided to respond to all of these considerations, and adjusted our design to allow for easy access to all.
The standards for digital media were issued after fabrication had begun. The design-build team adopted and modified the new requirements for braille and physical buttons for touchscreen interactives to make these features work with the contents of Artifact Alley. We also lowered the touchable height for the interactive columns at the Northern Lights interactive, so the reaching distance would work for visitors in wheelchairs and children.
The seating along Artifact Alley, the Hub and in the Demo Stage meets lngenium requirements, providing benches in various forms (with and without armrests, with and without back support, and space for wheelchair and companion seating).
In terms of graphic design, we added tactile and braille titles to the inforails along Artifact Alley, as well as brailled introductions, tactile images and touchable objects (de-accessioned or spare objects), so visually-impaired visitors would be able to experience the content of the exhibit. All of these design features exceeded the lngenium Standards for accessibility.
The biggest accessibility challenges we encountered were providing visual contrast and balancing between accessibility features and cost.
Requirements specified a minimum of 70% contrast between text and background, artifacts and backdrop, and vertical and horizontal surfaces. Sometimes these conditions overlap and contradict. If 70% contrast is provided for one condition, it may not be possible to provide the same amount of contrast to the other. We maintained an honest dialogue with the client team and reached solutions through compromise based on priority and practicality.
Tactile content is an excellent tool to engage with visually-impaired visitors, however, it can also be expensive both initially, and for future maintenance. We worked closely with the client team to determine priority, density and distribution to achieve the best experience within our available budget.
In general, maintaining a constant dialogue with the client group is key in achieving a successful result in this type of project.
Often, accessibility features come with a cost for design, fabrication and maintenance. Having a clear set of priorities not only helps the designers, but the client as well, to ensure the best visitor and learning experience for an exhibit. I think most clients who care about accessibility and visitor experience enough to initiate a dialogue on the subject are willing to listen and discuss. For clients whose goal is to simply be compliant, our knowledge of the requirements covered in AODA, ADA and the building code can help them understand their basic responsibilities; and sometimes, through this dialogue, clients are willing to do more than what the code has asked for.
The Museum agreed to the general design direction and has provided evaluation with volunteers and third party consultants. With this article, we hope to share this journey with fellow RGDs who are striving to improve accessibility in Canada.