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The iMuse project - using apps to transform accessibility in museums


  • Social enterprise

RSA Catalyst awarded a grant to Fellow Annette Haworth for her project iMuse.  The projects seeks low-cost ways that mobile devices can help museums become more accessible.  In this guest blog Annette sets out her progress so far and how Fellows can help and get involved.  

"The good news is you’ll be working with iPads; the bad news is it’s in a museum".

This was the message relayed to a 16-year old about his work-experience placement. What is it that makes a flat piece of plastic and metal so intriguing and a whole building-full of 3D objects so unappealing? While that’s too complex a question for my little iMuse project to solve, it seemed safe to take as a given that mobile technology has terrific appeal. Can museums use it to make themselves more engaging, and perhaps more accessible to more people?

Large museums may have the resources to experiment with new technology; the British Museum’s Samsung Digital Centre and the Museum of London with its Street Museum have some intriguing examples. But there are many, more modest, museums, without dedicated IT teams or the resources to commission high-cost apps. Set against that, there seems to be masses of potential in commonly-used systems such as Youtube and Wikipedia, together with the rapid rise in visitor-owned mobile devices. The Jodi Mattes Trust, which awards museums who increase accessibility by using technology, has found some great low-cost examples such as the MShed’s RNIB Penfriend project. I wanted to investigate whether there is potential in pushing these low-cost ideas further.

The good news is you’ll be working with iPads; the bad news is it’s in a museum

The Museum of English Rural Life housed us. RSA’s Fellowship Catalyst fund helped with fees for museum-learning and e-access consultancy. Reading Borough Council, the Vodafone World of Difference scheme and the Foyle Foundation helped fund some IT support. Access-ability Communications Technology, a small volunteer-run charity, provides the project board. Serendipitously, three of us are RSA fellows. The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology and the animator, Steve Simons, wore an iMuse iPad in the Houses of Parliament as part of the Cultural Olympiad, Stories of the World presentation.

All this has been terrific fun, provided work-experience and internships for six young people, four with disabilities, and tried-out different ways of presenting museum information from the Great Reading Cheese Mystery, to an Ancient Olympics trail. The big message has been that young people will become more engaged when they are involved, for example in a trail’s creation. Indeed, our trail-making booklet, ‘Release your inner geek with iMuse’, was partly written by young-people.

The big message has been that young people will become more engaged when they are involved, for example in a trail’s creation.

But it’s still not entirely obvious that this approach is sustainable in practice. Copyright, technical, physical, cultural and support issues will need consideration in individual museum environments. With the RSA’s help, iMuse will be seeking a couple of moderate-sized museums which would like to help investigate the practicalities further to see if there is an evidence-based case to create a national advisory service to help increase museum-accessibility and hence engagement.

I'm looking for small to moderate sizes museums who'd like to help try out some of the ideas.  If you know or work at a museum that might be interested in trialing it then get please get in touch.

Contact Annette Haworth

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