How Museums Like The Smithsonian Are Embracing Digital Experiences & Inclusivity

By: Sarah Roberts
Elephant exhibit inside the Smithsonian Institute

Museums, like the rest of the world, are increasing their digital presence and offering more interactive ways to engage audiences. Verbit interviewed Selma Thomas, who served as the Executive Producer for Inaugural Exhibit of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture and worked with museums for over three decades for insider insight into these trends. 

Thomas began her museum career as a filmmaker and experienced first-hand how “institutions didn’t really use media and didn’t trust it.” The apprehensiveness stemmed from the fact that it was new and because the presence of media seemed antithetical to the idea of ‘real’ collections.  Over the years, she’s witnessed museums increasingly embrace digital media, a trend that increased during the recent pandemic, when museums worldwide migrated much of their programming to the web.

These shifts are showcasing potential new touchpoints for audience engagement. They’ve also shed light on areas where museums must do more to ensure accessible, inclusive experiences for audiences entering their physical doors or engaging with them online. 

Woman viewing modern painting

How Museums Are Moving From Accessibility to Inclusivity

Although museums are growing their digital presence, Thomas notes that most leaders have, until recently, perceived the term “accessibility” somewhat narrowly as it relates to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). That law mainly addresses accommodations for people with disabilities in physical spaces.

The Smithsonian Institution created an accessibility handbook, which the organization openly shares with smaller museums.  The handbook is a valuable resource for addressing accessibility online because the ADA does not offer guidance for digital accommodations. Museums can, therefore, turn to the Smithsonian’s guide, which devotes a chapter to digital accessibility issues. Still, it seems that the objective for many museums is avoiding legal exposure. Instead, they could be considering the added benefits of inclusiveness, such as the ability to reach broader audiences.

In recent years, Thomas said she’s finally witnessing this growing shift in the museum world from a focus on accessibility to one of inclusion. “Museums are looking to provide experiences in multiple languages with subtitles, looking at audio descriptions and other kinds of enhanced programming that can reach underserved audiences,” she said.

These positive changes are occurring in both in-person and digital spaces. By looking at inclusivity as the goal, rather than checking boxes to avoid litigation, Thomas says leaders at cultural institutions are acknowledging that “different audiences have different needs, and we need to reach out to more audiences to learn how to meet those needs more effectively.” 

Yet while technology offers new ways to engage with the public, clear guidance and regulations often lag behind. As a result, each institution must forge ahead by developing its own plans or borrowing practices from other museums considering inclusion and equity as they craft new experiences. 

Lacking Consensus Gives Innovators Room to Inspire 

Thomas described museum accessibility as a piecemeal process. Some museums rely on various vendors for their accessibility strategies or tools. Additionally, museum professionals may not share the same awareness of approaches or technologies that can help them in the process. As a result, Thomas states that visitors “might notice great disparity from one institution to another.”

Forward-thinking institutions are therefore taking it upon themselves to adopt new technology or employ creative practices to improve their audiences’ experiences and meet the needs of those with disabilities. Thomas hopes her peers are paying attention to one of her favorite museums’ creative practices with regard to captioning its videos and will look for ways to emulate them.

Visitors viewing artwork in an exhibit with blue lighting

Creative Captioning at the National Museum of Qatar

Thomas visited the recently opened National Museum of Qatar, in Doha, a museum that displays contemporary oral histories through videos. In all of the exhibits, the informants speak in their own languages, either English or Arabic.  The exhibit team knew from the beginning that all of the content would need captions and subtitles in multiple languages.

Rather than adding standard captioning to check the accessibility box in a one-size-fits-all approach, the captions, both in Arabic and English, were integrated visually and incorporated as a true part of the film and imagery. Thomas was excited to see the captions treated as an aesthetic complement that makes the video content itself more engaging to all visitors. 

Exterior of the National Museum of Qatar

Redefining What’s Possible for Museum Engagement 

The pandemic continues to challenge museums to develop new ways to engage with the public. Instead of relying on local communities and tourists to buy tickets, leaders at cultural institutions began developing creative ways to connect and attract online global audiences.

Some museums “used the COVID restrictions to create innovative programming for digital distribution,” Thomas said of the webinars and lectures institutions hosted with museum experts and historians as speakers.

Thomas said she found that these live events offered additional context that made the exhibits fun and engaging. Giving audiences the ability to connect with the people who created an exhibit meant the public could experience the story behind it, not just a collection. Plus, individuals from around the world could now enjoy more museum offerings.

Cultural institutions are reopening their physical doors, but the way forward is to continue offering engaging digital experiences while taking in-person exhibits to the next level by prioritizing built-in inclusivity practices.

Verbit serves as an essential partner for museums and libraries through accessibility solutions like video and archive captioning and transcription. Our process makes audio and video resources accessible and removes much of the manual work associated with these tasks. Contact us to learn how our captioning, transcription and audio description services can help your cultural institution operate more efficiently and promote inclusive practices.