“Hands-on exhibits bring a space to life, giving a greater understanding and meaning to cultural heritage. This is especially important for people with learning disabilities” (Lord Rix, 2005, President of Mencap).

The experience of handling artworks, as Lord Rix makes clear, enormously enhances our understanding of cultural heritage, and this is especially so for those with learning disabilities. For this social group, hands-on experience of cultural objects has in recent years become an important approach in promoting an understanding of cultural heritage as highlighted by the Access to Heritage Forum, and in response many museums and heritage sites have established ‘handling collections’. Yet there are many drawbacks. The materials made accessible to those with learning disabilities as substitutes for the originals are usually chosen by the curators rather than determined by the user-group; many materials are deemed by curators too delicate to be handled by the user group; and in some heritage sites access to the objects is limited because of the complex nature of the site’s environment, and their character is sometimes limited to pictures in books.

This project aims to address this problem in three ways. One is to create a series of interactive, multisensory objects that replicate or respond to artworks of other objects of cultural significance in our national collections. These artistic responses to existing artworks might include for example a replica that has a screen or speaker embedded in it which responds to light or movement, triggering a recording of an oral history, or a series of photos from the archives to appear on the screen, or perhaps a recreation of a physical experience – such as the vibration felt when ploughing a field or even the smell of wet straw. A second – especially innovative – is to employ people with learning disabilities as participant researchers in generating and designing these art objects, so that they cater for a wide and yet targeted range of needs. The third is to explore techniques for developing interactive sensory objects, focussing on iterative design through participant workshops, with a view to developing best practice guidelines which can provide a basis for future development and provide a lasting resource for museums and heritage sites to support them in engaging with user groups.

The project will consist of a series of workshops that are fundamentally experimental and exploratory in character. In each, the academic research team will work together with the participant researchers with learning disabilities to develop interactive art objects, and in so doing record their successes and failures. The academic researchers will use their own expertise as artists and technologists in guiding the exploration to allow it to achieve its creative and interactive potential. In particular the investigators will explore the potential of newly developed easy-to-use electronics in making the experience of members of the user-group more vital and meaningful. In planning the project the investigators from the University of Reading and The RIX Centre have secured the collaboration of three different heritage collections, one national – The British Museum – and two regional – the National Trust House, Speke Hall, in Liverpool and the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) at the University of Reading.

The project is timely as “the heritage sector is waking up to the benefits of using technology in creative ways and making the usability as easy and intuitive as possible,” (Heather J. L. Smith, Head of Access for All, The National Trust, 2009).

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