To Touch or not to Touch?


One particular problem we’ve encountered at the Museum of Natural History, is slightly unusual.  There are many objects in the museum that are on open display.  A lot of them the museum actively encourages visitors to touch – but not all.  Being able to touch objects on general display is an exciting and important experience at this museum for the general public, but even more so for our blind and partially sighted visitors.

As part of the project, we want to make sure that we can highlight and encourage blind and partially sighted visitors, as well as general visitors, to handle our “touchable” specimens, but at the same time making sure the other specimens on open display are protected from wandering hands.

The first step was to talk to staff at the museum so that we could obtain a definitive list of what can and can’t be touched.  We then started to think about signage.  The museum’s current signage is not really suitable for a blind and partially sighted audience, is often ambiguous and we were unsure whether visitors actually took any notice of it.  One way to find out was to watch the visitors in action and to see if they read the signs or resisted the urge to touch.

A number of volunteers were asked to sit and observe visitor behaviour in certain sections of the museum for a two hour period, marking down how many visitors engaged with the displays and how many touched them.  They were stationed in areas where there are objects on open display, but where the signage on touching is not always obvious.

Simon, one of the volunteers, commented on his observations,

I was given the area around the iguanodon and tyrannosaurus rex skeletons casts, two of the largest and most noticeable in the Museum.  While I was watching over 700 visitors came through the area and interacted in some way with the exhibits.  Over a third of them touched at least one of the displays.  In particular many visitors (of all ages) were keen to touch a reconstruction Tyrannosaurus Rex head on display next to the skeleton cast. The head was also a very popular photo opportunity and often caused much excitement among younger visitors. It was clear that for many an important part of their experience was touching these objects.”

We’re now looking into ways of highlighting our touchable objects that are both appropriate for both blind and partially sighted visitors and work for the general public.  Any suggestions welcome!


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