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Exhibits are for everyone, and Smithsonian Exhibits (SIE) strives to make our exhibits as accessible as possible. Last year, thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Accessibility Innovation Fund, we were able to experiment with strategies for making exhibits more accessible to people who are blind and have low vision.


A display case containing an illustrated book and labels in a low-lit gallery
A typical museum display case containing artifacts, text, and images.


Think about a typical exhibit and you might picture a glass display case with artifacts, text, and images inside. Now consider this from the perspective of a person who is blind or has low vision. How can you engage with the artifacts, text, and images inside if you can’t see them? It’s frustrating, right? SIE decided to take on this challenge and find solutions to make exhibit cases and graphics more accessible.

Throughout the process, SIE worked closely with Access Smithsonian, the Smithsonian’s central office devoted to visitor accessibility, which funded the project and provided guidance and expertise along the way. Access Smithsonian connected us with their network of User Experts, volunteers with disabilities who help the Smithsonian test exhibits and advise us on how to make them more accessible. This was crucial, because—as with any exhibit—understanding your audience and their needs is key to success.

At the project’s kick-off meeting, we sat down with a group of User Experts with varying levels of vision to listen to their needs and common barriers that prevent them from engaging with exhibits. Among other things, the User Experts stressed the importance of providing the exhibit’s big picture up front and incorporating a range of different tools, including tactile elements, audio components, and braille.

The next step was to select an exhibit to work with. SIE wanted to use an exhibit that was already open to the public. Consulting with curators at the National Postal Museum, we selected Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks, an exhibit SIE was already familiar with from having worked on the graphics.


A gallery with display cases lining the walls and at the center of the room
Trailblazing: 100 Years of Our National Parks at the National Postal Museum


During the research and planning phase of the project, we spoke with accessibility experts and visited other museums to learn more about existing accessibility solutions.


A table containing a raised-line floor plan showing the locations of exhibits at the White House Visitor Center
A tactile floor plan at the National Park Service’s White House Visitor Center


We decided to create two reader rails for Trailblazing: one to provide an introduction and overview of the exhibit and another to interpret a display case on mail delivery in the Grand Canyon, which included a mix of artifacts, text, and images.


A drawing of a freestanding reader rail structure with an angled panel at the top and a holder on the side for braille and large-print label binders
Initial design for the intro/overview reader rail structure


A drawing of a reader rail structure attached to the corner of a display case. The reader rail has three angled panels at the top and attaches to the base of the display case.
Initial design for the display case reader rail structure


One of the star artifacts of the exhibit was a mule mail riding saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the only place in the U.S. where mail is still delivered by mule.


The interior of a display case showing a brown leather saddle
The exhibit included a saddle used to deliver mail to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule.


During the design phase, SIE solicited feedback from accessibility experts along the way, which helped us rethink some of our initial plans and refine our designs.

SIE built physical prototypes of the two reader rails. These included braille, raised characters, a raised-line floor plan of the exhibit, buttons playing audio descriptions, and 3D tactile models of a mule mail riding saddle and a mule mail train.


Two men use tools to attach elements to a reader rail structure.
SIE’s graphics team assembles the reader rails.


A white 3D model of a saddle with a black background
SIE’s 3D studio created a tactile model of the mule mail riding saddle from the display case.


A white 3D model showing five mules carrying packages. Buttons below the model are labeled "Listen to an Audio Description" and "Listen to a Firsthand Account."
The prototype also featured a tactile model of a mule mail train delivering mail to the Grand Canyon.


Then, it was time to test!

We installed the prototypes in the Trailblazing gallery and invited User Experts with varying levels of vision to come try them out.


A man and a woman stand side by side in front of an interpretive panel on a reader rail and use both hands to touch it.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.


A woman touches a 3D model of a mule mail train on a reader rail.
Testing round one: User Experts test the prototypes at the National Postal Museum. Image courtesy of Access Smithsonian.


A group of 15 people sit around a table in a conference room. Several service dogs lie on the floor.
User Experts and Smithsonian staff sit down to discuss the experience.


Afterward, we sat down with the User Experts to listen to their feedback. People loved the tactile models. But the audio descriptions played through speakers were muffled and hard to hear. This was a problem, especially for the typical scenario of a crowded gallery. Based on the group’s feedback, we decided to replace the speakers with audio handsets as well as a separate audio jacks, to allow visitors to plug in their own headphones.

The group had several other helpful recommendations, including shortening some of the audio descriptions, adjusting the location of the tactile floor plan to make it more intuitive, and aligning the braille text with the buttons.

Based on this feedback, SIE brought the prototypes back to the shop and redesigned them. After all the modifications were made, it was time for round two!


A man touches an interpretive panel on a reader rail with his left hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his right hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes.


Two men stand next to an L-shaped reader rail. The man on the left touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds a white cane in his left hand. The man on the right touches the reader rail with his right hand and holds an audio handset to his ear with his left hand.
Testing round two: User Experts test the refined prototypes. Accessibility expert Ray Bloomer from the National Park Service (left) provided help and guidance throughout the project.


Round two of the testing confirmed that we were on the right track and opened up more possibilities for future exploration. The User Experts expressed an interest in being able to pause, rewind, and fast forward the audio, and recommended that audio components be placed in a consistent location on all panels to make them easier to find.

Some User Experts were concerned about “feeling in the way” when using the audio handsets and suggested adding a portable handheld device or enabling visitors to play the audio on their own devices.

SIE learned an incredible amount from the Trailblazing project, which we have already begun to implement in our latest exhibits. Working with visitors who are blind and have low vision gave us a deeper understanding of the needs of this important audience. The project reaffirmed SIE’s commitment to providing high-quality 3D tactile experiences and provided new insights into working with braille, raised characters, and audio descriptions.

This May, SIE will be sharing our findings as part of a panel on accessibility at the Smithsonian at the American Alliance of Museums’ Annual Meeting in San Francisco. In the meantime, we’re working on several other accessibility initiatives. (More on those soon!)