July 6, 2012  |  Events & Programs, Family & Kids
Designing for Accessibility: Material Lab

Third-grade students who are blind or partially-sighted visit Material Lab. Photo: Kirsten Schroeder

As a coordinator of programs for visitors with disabilities at MoMA I am constantly thinking about ways to make the Museum more accessible and engaging. I frequently hear from visitors that, beyond wishing they could touch real works of art in the Museum’s galleries, they want to experiment with artists’ materials and create their own art. For visitors with disabilities, the need for tactile learning experiences is even more immediate and necessary.

Last year I had the opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues Elizabeth Margulies and Cari Frisch in Family Programs to design Material Lab, the fourth in a series of interactive MoMA Labs for families. While planning the lab, my goal was to make sure the space and activities were accessible to a diverse audience. Liz, Cari, and I agreed that offering a broad range of tactile, sensory experiences was necessary to engage visitors with different learning abilities. MoMA’s Exhibition Design department designed tables for art-making that would be accessible for wheelchair users. Touch screens for digital painting would be sensitive enough to react to the touch of a visitor with limited dexterity and participants with low vision would be able to magnify their on-screen paintings and drawings. We aimed to create a universally designed space knowing that the adaptations we were making with individuals with disabilities in mind would benefit all visitors. After months of careful planning and research, including our own art-making experiments, Material Lab opened on February 16, 2011.

Over the last year and a half we have welcomed feedback from our Material Lab visitors and implemented small changes throughout the space to make it more accessible, including a computer touch screen on an adjustable arm that can be lifted, lowered, and tilted, so as to be reachable by small children, individuals using wheelchairs, or participants with limited use of their arms or hands.

We have also been inviting groups of visitors with disabilities to use Material Lab through our Access Programs. It has been especially popular with children and adults with learning or developmental disabilities, as well as students who are blind or partially sighted. We recently welcomed a class of third-grade students who are blind or partially sighted. After touching the Discovery Box, containing elastic, one student with low vision exclaimed, “Like a guitar!” and jumped up to dance around as he played an air guitar. When the MoMA educator asked the students to recount the various textures the group had explored, he listed them off: “Smooth! Bumpy! Hard! Excellent! Soft!” As they finished up, one student announced, “Now I know what I want to be when I grow up: I want to work here!” As they gathered their belongings to leave the lab and head into the galleries, he reminded his classmates that they can’t touch the art in the Museum, only in Material Lab.

For more visitor experiences in Material Lab, check out the video below.

There are still almost two months left until Material Lab closes on August 31, so come play and experiment on your next MoMA visit! And be on the lookout for our next iteration of the lab, opening in the same space in The Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Building in September.