I haven’t just been looking at Harry Potter things this month. I’ve also been to other museums as well. And in this post, I want to talk about the Information Age gallery at the Science Museum. I explored the exhibition over a couple of visits, as there’s so much to see in there. It was all very interesting, and I was also curious to try a special accessibility app that had been developed especially for it. So this post is a little review of my experience.
The exhibition is all about various forms of information and communication technologies from the past couple of centuries, including telephone exchanges, television, radio, computers, mobile devices, satellites, etc. It has lots of interesting objects, including a massive Aerial Tuning Inductor in the centre of the room, along with audio, video and interactive content that helps to keep it engaging and fun. So there’s something for everyone here, and I spent a couple of days having a good look around the exhibition. I didn’t want to rush through it all in one go, as there’s so much to look at. So I did half of the room on one Saturday, and the other half the following Saturday.
If you’re visually impaired, it’s not always easy to see things in there. The lighting is quite dim in places, making it difficult to see a few objects clearly, especially those in glass cases that aren’t very well lit, and it can also be difficult to read some of the text panels. But I was able to use my monocular to look at most objects when I needed to, so that was fine. Navigating the place just takes a little bit of getting used to at first, as each zone doesn’t have a linear path within it, so the placement of things can seem a bit random sometimes.
That said, however, they have made an effort to incorporate accessibility into the gallery, as detailed on their website, which is wonderful. You can pick up a large print book and a tactile map, there are 7 objects you can touch that have large print and braille labels next to them, there are markers on the floor for cane users to help them avoid hazards, there are subtitles for audio exhibits, they can do audio described and British Sign Language tours, there are induction loops in many audio exhibits for the hard of hearing and British Sign Language is available for a few of the films.
I liked the fact that there were some tactile objects there, as it was great to be able to get close up and have a good look at those items. I did also pick up the large print guide on my first visit, but I found it only gave you the text for a few objects in each area, and trying to find those objects in the first place wasn’t at all easy. Granted, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of labels in the exhibition altogether, so putting it all into one book could have been huge and impractical, I appreciate that. One book per zone could have been better to do that. So while having the large print guide was useful, it was only to a limited degree if you wanted to explore a lot of the exhibition.
But the most interesting feature that I tried was an app called Audio Eyes. This app was specifically developed just for this gallery, for visually impaired people to get audio descriptions of a few objects in each area. So again, it doesn’t cover every single object, just some of the key ones. But the descriptions you do get for those objects are very good, so it’s very worthwhile.
The app has a very simple interface, with the screen divided into 3 distinct segments from top to bottom, and speech talking you through it all. The first time you run it, it’s worth doing so at home rather than at the museum, because you can listen to the introduction about how to use the app (the gestures are very simple), plus it needs to download updates. It only has to get the updates once, but it does take a few minutes, so it’s worth doing it at home rather than wasting time in the museum. Then you’ll be ready to take it with you.
In the gallery, the app uses Bluetooth to pinpoint where you are, so it can tell you about each zone that you’re in. And when you’re near certain objects, about 3 or 4 in each zone, it offers to give you a detailed audio description for them, which is very interesting to listen to. This includes the tactile objects that you can get hands-on with, so you can listen as you’re feeling them, but it describes various other things as well. It will also tell you which other audio described objects are nearby, with directions to get to them, although it can still be a bit tricky to find the next object each time if you don’t know what it actually looks like.
The app can be a bit unresponsive occasionally, not always recognising when you’re near a particular object that it can describe, or it might incorrectly say you’re in the neighbouring zone if you get close to the border between two of them. And on a few occasions it seemed to stop responding for no reason and I ended up restarting it. Plus, if you’re the type of person that likes to take photos, or if you need to jump to another app for any other reason, switching away from Audio Eyes will cause it to lose its place, even though it’s still running in the background. So when you switch back to Audio Eyes again, it will go back to the very beginning. Sure, you can hold 2 fingers on the screen to skip the opening intro again, but it would be nice not to have to do that.
So the app does have its quirks and there is room for improvement. But for the most part I found it worked quite well, and I really enjoyed all the audio descriptions, so I made sure I found most of them. So I’m really glad they’ve made the effort to produce that, as I’ve never encountered anything of that nature in a museum before. It would be great to see this kind of technology expanded, so you could perhaps have an app that reads out the labels of all objects that you get near to, and gives audio description too if you need it, rather than just doing it for a small selection of objects. It would be a great deal of work to set up, I know, but it would benefit a lot of people. Now that most people have smartphones these days, anybody could use something like that to enhance their museum experience, not just those with disabilities. Food for thought anyway, and I do know somebody who has also had thoughts along those lines.
All in all, I thought the exhibition was very enjoyable and the audio description app was very useful. And I would recommend the exhibition to anyone who’s interested in technology and communications. We take it all for granted now, so it’s important and fascinating to see how we’ve got to this point, thanks to the way science and technology have developed over the past couple of centuries. And who knows what it’ll be like in another 200 years time, or even just another 20 given how fast things develop now!