More than 200 people with diverse access needs were included in the team, to work as fully emancipated partners, participative researchers and artists. From 2017 to 2019, they gathered in four European cities every two weeks with the experts in cultural heritage and the technology companies that formed the Consortium. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, and Madrid´s Thyssen-Bornemisza are part of this consortium, which has teamed up with three smaller institutions (the Wallace Collection, the Lázaro Galdiano Museum and the Museo de Bellas Artes of Oviedo), as well as four technology companies (project leader VRVis Forschungs-GmbH, Coprix Media, SignTime and ArteConTacto), and two universities (The Open University and University of Bath), to make art accessible for all.
The participative research approach and the close collaboration between user groups and experts in education, culture and technology stands for a new way of empowering people, so they can help shape accessible museums for the future, or what we call Museums for All. Furthermore, they were involved in all decisions as well as the testing of the technology, from the very beginning, which helped to develop solutions “for” these user groups, instead of “with” them.
During the production process, specific rules were developed so that people with different disabilities can work together, in an enabling and productive environment, while respecting each other’s needs (e.g. the use of an iconographic language for people with learning difficulties). Together, we developed a museum handbook in three languages, as well as cutting-edge technological solutions.
Please Touch! An inclusive art experience powered by ARCHES
The EU-funded project ARCHES is a new and exciting way to include people with special needs into cultural life. The outcomes include a museum handbook, Best-Practice guidelines, fully accessible museum-apps and games, avatar-based sign language, and a novel 3D relief printer. In this context we want to highlight the interactive tactile multimedia station "Please Touch!”, which represents our approach very well: Made for all kinds of users, including blind and visually impaired people (which includes different kinds of color blindness), sign language readers, children and elderly users, and people with cognitive impairments. It features videos, soundscapes, X-ray images of paintings, and tactile reliefs, all developed using a novel participatory research approach, to make art accessible for all.
The interdisciplinary consortium consisted of six outstanding European museums, four tech companies and two universities. But more importantly, the team included over 200 people with various disabilities, who worked as equal designers and researchers, to shape the results the way they need them. Our common effort resulted in tools that people can use to explore cultural heritage in a new way, using audio-description, sign-language, simplified information and tangible interfaces, to make real-world implementations for museums all over Europe.
“Please Touch!” was developed as an on-site installation for each museum, but is also being used in outreach sessions in e.g. in schools and nursing homes, for those who cannot visit the museum (which is increasingly important in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic). Using a custom-built relief design software, tactile interpretations of selected paintings were designed and realized as CNC-milled bas reliefs in different materials. As mentioned, the interactive station includes 3D-spatial soundscapes, projections, animations, written and spoken text, as well as three different sign-languages (BSL, ÖGS and LSE), and an option for easy language. A computer-vision system detects hand gestures that trigger audio descriptions, animations and story elements. The result is a completely new user experience, especially for people with special needs.
“Please Touch!” and the ARCHES project as a whole enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities to better experience art and cultural heritage, and allow them to be an active part of it. Using a Design for All approach, we have made sure that the results can be used by everybody, in a fully inclusive environment. In other words, our solutions help museum visitors, young or old, local or new to the country, visually impaired, hard of hearing, with intellectual or motor disabilities, to enjoy artworks and learn about them.
Using a novel participatory research approach, which has been recognized by the European Commission's Innovation Radar, twelve European institutions (museums, tech companies, and universities) teamed up with around 200 volunteers with various disabilities. Over the period of three years, they all worked together in participative research groups in Vienna, London, Madrid and Oviedo.
The outcomes include a museum handbook in three languages and Best-Practice guidelines, as well as technological solutions:
1. An avatar-based sign language translation including mimic and gestures to give additional meaning.
2. A fully accessible museum guide and other Guidelines for museums that want to reach out to all people.
3. A game for iPads and tablets, which is a fun way to explore selected artworks and encourages the users to remix and create their own versions. The game uses high contrast, large buttons, sounds and voice-over technology to make it equally accessible for visually impaired and blind users.
4. A novel 3D relief printer working with a re-usable material, which can bring the artworks to the people, outside the museum context (e.g. during restrictions due to Covid-19)
5. An interactive computer station using tactile reliefs as well as multisensory and fully accessibility features.
This computer station is called “Please Touch!” and was developed as an on-site installation for each museum. Using a custom-built relief design software, tactile interpretations of selected paintings were designed, and realized as CNC-machined bas reliefs, in different materials, in the format 40x30x3.5cm. A computer-vision system detects hand gestures that trigger audio descriptions, animations and story elements. In addition, a 3D-spatial soundscape was composed to give all parts of the painting a distinctive sound. All accessibility features can be highly customized and stored individually using QR-code cards, to be quickly retrieved at the next visit.
After working for three years with six museums and over 200 participants, our achievements went way beyond a proof-of-concept but established new standards in the field of accessibility in the cultural field. Or, as an external reviewer of the project put it: “The project goes beyond the state of the art […] It will have an impact on how future such projects will be carried out, and there will be a social impact from the deployment of the technical solutions in the museum context (and other related areas).”
The games, museum apps, sign language avatars and interactive tactile relief setups were created for each of the six participating museums and will reach hundred-thousands of visitors each year. Since the start of the project, further nine reliefs have been ordered from other museums and are already on display. In order to ensure the follow-up of the effects and to increase the impact, the project partners are currently working on turning the results into a service, in the framework of an Exploitation Consortium. The sign language translation by avatars has significantly lowered the cost for production of sign-language videos, and a fully automatic avatar-based sign language translation is currently being tested for applications such as weather forecasts. This will make sign language more affordable and therefore more widespread leading to more inclusion of Deaf people, which is important in these times of turmoil.
Finally, we are assessing possibilities for a follow-up project to bring the relief printer technology to a market-ready state, with the goal of commercializing an affordable device for home-use, to explore Cultural Heritage. It allows people to quickly “print” spatial 3D information in a re-usable way.
With the input we received from external reviews, the awards and recognitions from organizations, and mostly, the feedback from the stakeholders, users, participants (plus family) as well our own staff, we are thus convinced that our project is eligible for the Heritage in Motion Award 2020. This recognition would be an important asset for us to keep fighting for more inclusive cultural environments, so that all people can enjoy the arts, just the way we do.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 693229.
Image Credits: the ARCHES consortium, last two images: Sabine Gruber