DEAI From A Museum Technologist’s Perspective

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by Mark Osterman, Digital Experience Manager and Head of Education at the Lowe Art Museum, and MCN Board Member (@osterman_mark on Twitter)

Mark Osterman
Mark Osterman

How should we as museum technologists think about and act upon diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI)? I am constantly grappling with this question in my current practice. Over the past 20 years—while focusing on education, interpretation, and visitor studies—these issues were often raised, addressed, avoided, and failed upon but they always seemed to be naturally part of my practice. As my career has progressed and evolved towards a focus on technology, I have been trying to figure out the best ways to address DEAI practice. The reality is: nothing has changed, only the medium. DEAI remains as challenging and elusive a goal as ever, yet one that is always worth aspiring toward and building into one’s practice. Reflecting on this issue, I want to share some thoughts and ideas we are working on at the Lowe Art Museum | University of Miami.

To be successful in any aspect of DEAI, co-creation needs to be embedded into one’s practice. We cannot create for those we do not know or understand. Co-creation leads to inclusion and hopefully equity. As we bring others into our work, we find assurance that we are fulfilling other’s needs (not just our own) and making a community impact. For co-creation to be successful we must also be willing to give away some authority. We need to allow our interpretation and communication to include other voices. Those new and additional perspectives bring a spectrum of understanding and knowledge construction that is representative of the diverse communities we inhabit. We must also learn to be iterative in our approach to interpretation, programming, exhibitions, and technology. Embracing a laboratory approach to some of our endeavors, allowing for mistakes, and building upon those mistakes through iteration—to improve experiences that embrace community involvement and engagement—will enhance DEAI practice and continue to show our relevance to our constituents.

Screen shot of Lowe Art Museum's homepage with Accessibility / Inclusion drop-down highlighted
Screenshot of Lowe Art Museum’s homepage with Accessibility / Inclusion drop-down highlighted

Three objective ways the Lowe is looking to embrace DEAI through technology are: 

  1. Developing a focus on accessibility solutions for the Lowe Art Museum’s website in accordance with WCAG 2.1 criteria. Working with partners such as NewCity, the Lowe has conducted a computer and human-led accessibility audit and created an accessibility prototype intended to serve as a resource for conversations with internal stakeholders around the importance of web accessibility. The Lowe has also had a computer audit done by the Bureau of Internet Accessibility. These projects are to be used as case studies and as advocacy tools that could allow the Lowe team to explore opportunities for further improvements and be a model for web accessibility to the larger university. With these audits we also hope to reach out to internal University of Miami faculty and staff, along with community members and organizations such as Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, to better understand how to best prioritize and implement changes to the website. The overall goal would be that the website begins a journey that eventually can lead to the museum, which offers onsite integrated accessibility experiences interconnected to those on the web. 
  2. In the future, conducting a thoughtful assessment and reflection of associated object information in our collections management system for an identified cohort of the collection. Through this process, we would like to consider what information is being shared and what is not, how that information was originally sourced, and whether we can add new content that increases the number of voices included so that our interpretation is representative, culturally sensitive, and not limited. This work would be done with input from community members so we can learn what they want to learn. If we are able to conduct this assessment and work with community members, we would then use this case study as a model for future data input and enhance how visitors experience our online collections.
  3. Developing new forms of inclusion and access by working with community partners and technology firms like Prime Access Consulting to develop visual description experiences. We are inspired by the work of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Cooper Hewitt, and others using Coyote to integrate visual descriptive experiences into websites and collections management systems. The Lowe hopes to enhance Emuseum access and inclusive experiences for visitors exploring our online collections. This online work is meant to be coupled with experiences that take place in the galleries to surface visual descriptions that appeal not only to the low vision and blind community members but also connect to mindfulness practice and the field of art, health, and wellness. 

These examples are all projects that exist in an exploratory phase that the Lowe hopes to make a reality through working with community members and others using an iterative and co-creative approach. I hope that sharing these ideas inspires others in the field to experiment with technology in order to reach new and expanded audiences while addressing relevancy, social impact, and DEAI.

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