Image courtesy of AGO.
Translating AGO Collection artworks into a physical experience that you can smell, hear, touch, or even taste is a challenge graduate students in OCAD University’s Inclusive Design Multisensory Museum Course have been tackling every year since 2016. The results are awe-inspiring – an Otto Dix painting recreated inside a suitcase, a palm-sized 3-D model of Walker Court, Tom Thomson’s The West Wind brought to life with a small portable fan and wet sticky slime.
This year’s class, taught by Melissa Smith, AGO Assistant Curator, Community Programs, has faced an even bigger hurdle – restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The students have had to forgo the typical in-person presentation and instead must now explain their finished prototypes from a distance, in a series of self-produced videos. They are challenged with translating 12 works from the AGO Collection by Walter Trier, Wassily Kandinsky and Kazuo Nakamura, reflecting different media and styles, into 12 unique sensory experiences, ranging in format from touch boards to soundscapes.
Anticipating the debut of these student prototype videos (a new video will air every third Friday beginning January 29 on the AGO Facebook page), we connected with Melissa and the course founder, Dr. Peter Coppin, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Design at OCAD University, to find out just what inclusive design is and the role multisensory objects play in expanding who can “see” and how we react to a piece of art.
AGOinsider: What is inclusive design?
Coppin: Here at OCAD U, we think of it as design that aims to be inclusive of the fullest range of human diversity—with respect to ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference. Inclusive designers strive to understand how individual differences can interact with the design of an object, environment, system, or convention to afford or impede an experience of individual agency. These understandings are then adapted to create designs that are more inclusive.
Smith: I understand it as a process that includes brainstorming and prototyping elements with specific users/gallery visitors in mind. In most cases, these users/visitors have specific needs that have been overlooked by common design practices. Inclusive design is about solving that oversight.
AGOinsider: Due to COVID-19, this year’s students are demonstrating their prototypes digitally. Did this add a layer of complication? Any new possibilities?
Smith: Creating videos has put a greater emphasis on visual description, not only of the original artworks but for their translations, as well. An exciting outcome is that I found that the video presentations themselves became artwork.
AGOinsider: How do multisensory aids, like the ones your students create, further inclusivity in a museum setting?
Coppin: Visuals are dominant in our culture. Many traditional solutions that aim to provide access to visual artworks focus on providing text or spoken descriptions. Our goal is to provide auditory and tactile cues that provide some type of model for audiences.
Smith: Multisensory aids can provide different entry points to museums, acknowledging multiple perspectives and the co-creation of meaning. They help lower perceived and physical barriers. It is my belief that when we design for the margins (for users who have more barriers), that we create a better outcome for everyone.
For more insights into inclusive design and the role of multisensory objects in museums, catch Melissa Smith in conversation with Dr. Coppin on Friday, January 8 at 11 am on the AGO Facebook page. Find out more about this free online event here.