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Mining the Dimensions of Accessibility



The Multimodal Museum

Alternative Modes

Physical Access

Cognitive Access

Social Access

Emotional Access


family entering woodson museum

Family entering the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin

As institutions for life-long learning, museums are visited by audiences representing different ages, genders, ethnicities, and abilities. Children typically visit in a group such as on a school field trip, family outing, after-school program or summer enrichment experience; adults come as independent museum visitors, on a social outing with a partner or friend, as a program participant, or member of a tour group; and families represent a convergence of both groups. The motivation behind each individual’s visit differs. For example, an adult may visit a museum as a chaperone for her child’s class field trip, as a companion for her mother who uses a walker, or as a member of a book club who are attending an author book signing. Her needs for access to the museum differ for each. As a chaperone, she wants labels or printed guides written at a level developmentally appropriate for the students (cognitive access); as a companion for an older adult, she needs easy access to elevators and seating throughout the galleries and public spaces (physical access); and as a member of a group, she desires time to spend with her friends (social access). Museums must become nimble and flexible in their responsiveness to providing multiple points of access for a changing and diverse audience.

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Through audience research, marketing studies, surveys, and a host of other tools, museums continue to deepen their understanding of who visits their institution and the motivations, expectations, skills, and abilities visitors bring to the experience. In an effort to reach out to new audiences, “welcoming” has entered the formal rhetoric of museums appearing in strategic plans, mission statements, and promotional materials. Welcoming though is more complex than a friendly front line team of staff and volunteers. Welcoming challenges staff from across the museum to mine the dimensions of accessibility and the different ways it is communicated through gallery and public spaces, experiences and programs, way finding signage and maps and the collection of products and services. The choices we make in exhibition content, gallery experiences, program formats, and even food services determine who has access, who can participate, and in the end, who feels welcome.

To fulfill a museum’s promise to be welcoming, museum staff must engage in conversations on the meaning of accessibility, who has access (and who does not), and the dimensions of providing any one visitor access whether it be physical, cognitive, social, or emotional.

exterior chicago history museum

The Chicago History Museum

In reflecting on the Chicago History Museum’s desire to expand its audience from a traditional older adult population to children and families, Phyllis Rabineau, the Museum’s Vice President of Education and Interpretation, reflects:

“Our narrow audience focus shaped our exhibition processes and products in ways that are evident only in retrospect. We knew our collection and how to explain any one of its objects with no more than 75 words on an attractively designed label panel.  We had honed our editing skills to encapsulate whole chunks of history into 3-minute videos, and posing Q&A issues on flip-up labels.  Once in a while our budgets allowed us to develop an interactive computer program.  We figured we knew which stories mattered, and since the way we told them was so interesting to us, we didn’t pay much attention to who else was listening.  Almost (but not quite) unconsciously, we had chosen to make exhibitions for ourselves, relying on teachers, chaperons, parents and docents to do the heavy lifting for kids.“ 1

Accessibility shifts institutional dialogues from “what is it about” to “who is it for.” These dialogs may reveal the divergent perspectives that exist between staff focused on collections and staff focused on audience. The visitor experience is no longer one that assumes “if you build it they will come” and “one size fits all,” but rather one that values the free-choice learning that can occur in a museum.

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graphic of accessibility iconsThe Multimodal Museum

Multimodal refers to the diverse formats available for delivering content and communicating messages. In museums, the visitor as learner is drawn to a particular mode—an approach, an experience—based on their abilities and preferred way for meaning-making (physical and cognitive). The multimodal museum has moved beyond the traditional label and objects in cases or paintings on walls. Multimodal engagement removes the velvet ropes and unlocks the cases to design exhibitions and programs that are welcoming and accessible to a more diverse population both physically and cognitively. The multimodal museum is not one dimensional but rather a welcoming environment that considers the complexity of accessibility. The design choices we make or don’t make in our products and services determine who can participate, interact, engage, and enjoy. Context plays a critical role in revealing a visitor’s abilities and disabilities. Context though is not limited to physical spaces but also includes the design of programs and experiences with multimodal engagement at their core. “Accessibility” is more than physical accommodations such as ramps or larger stalls in public restrooms to accommodate visitors who use wheelchairs.

The multimodal museum is no longer a place that is dependent solely on sight. Collections, content, messages, and experiences delivered through a variety of formats. Label and brochure copy is also made available in large type, braille, and audio recordings; media and films include closed captioning, assisted listening connections, and narrated descriptions. Touch tours put objects into the visitor’s hands as do models and reproductions.

Multimodal approaches expand a visitor’s tool kit for engaging cognitively, socially, and emotionally. A visitor with low vision may prefer a floor plan and signs in large print for navigating the building and locating a specific exhibition. A visitor who is blind may join a touch tour to learn about the collection, while a visitor with hearing loss may join a public tour asking the guide to wear a small transmitter and lapel microphone. A family comprising of a range of ages and abilities welcomes a gallery interactive that accommodates and engages all members of the group. The collection of resources, experiences, and programs offer each visitor options, access, and the emotional satisfaction of personal choice and engagement. At the same time, multimodal allows staff to expand their tool kits and experiment with new techniques for designing exhibition environments, program formats, and building amenities that extend a welcoming message to all visitors.

photo sheila leiglandSheila Leigland is blind and lives in Great Falls, Montana. She is a member of the Montana Association for the Blind.

First Person Voice: What I would like from a museum



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 Alternative Modes

Theater performances are visual and auditory experiences. When a patron’s sight or hearing is limited, alternative tools are made available to provide them with access to the monologue or to the staging of the performance. Aside from sign interpreters and assisted listening devices. open captioning and audio described performances provide hearing impaired attendees with alternative access to the monolog, and access to the staging for attendees with low vision or who are blind. Many theaters offer a pre-performance touch tour to gain a mental map of the staging. Two Chicago theaters offer a menu of multimodal engagement for a range of disabilities.

graphic: Accessibility, Theater is for everyoneSteppenwolf Theater, “Accessibilities”



graphic Victory Gardens access project    Victory Gardens Theater “Access Project”





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Physical Access

sign with wheelchair icon and the word accessibleIn evaluating current spaces and designing new environments, the Principles of Universal Design offer seven guiding principles for maximizing accessibility and use. Universal design is defined as: “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” 2  The characteristics of these principles can inform choices and decisions made by project teams to create experiences that offer different points of cognitive and physical access. Programs, exhibitions, and experiences that are equitable, flexible, and intuitive extend a more welcoming message to all visitors.

On the one hand...physical access is closely tied to the bricks and mortar of the museum, the doors into the building and galleries, the height of the front desk, bathroom sinks, or media interactives, the lighting of galleries, works of art, and objects in display cases, the color contrast of walls and labels, and the clarity of the path through an exhibition. All are design decisions and choices that determine the level of physical access for each visitor. Designers Andrew Anway and Neil Mayer in “Shaping the Space: Designing for Kids” note the tension that unfolds between design decisions and audience accessibility: “disabilities are perceived by their context and design has the ability to amplify or ameliorate a perceived disability by the context the designer creates.”  3

On the other hand… physical access also relates to information sources and wayfinding tools designed to help visitors plan a visit and navigate unfamiliar spaces and environments. Detailed information on visit logistics resolves uncertainties about museum location, directions, and possible transportation options. While the web is typically the first point of contact for pre-visit planning, the same information needs to be repeated in alternative formats, such as recordings on the museum’s voicemail.   Descriptions of the building’s exterior and entrances provides another layer of information critical to advance planning and anticipating stairs, ramps, and doors.  Visitors with a range of abilities are able to familiarize themselves with the museum and anticipate any potential obstacles that may compromise their mobility when traveling to the museum or during their museum visit.

Well-informed and trained front line staff is another source of pre-visit and on-site information relating to physical access. A museum cannot underestimate the critical role staff and volunteers play in setting a welcoming tone. Aside from answering pre-visit questions, they offer suggestions on accessibility tools available for visitors with different needs. Wayfinding tools such as tactile maps and three-dimensional models of the building provide information on the museum layout, and locations of exhibitions, classrooms, restrooms, restaurant, and museum store. In addition to providing content, narrations for audio guides are another method for delivering detailed instructions for navigating the building and for movement through an exhibition. Translating the museum floor plan into a tactile diagram or a three-dimensional model offer visitors who are blind or with low vision the freedom and independence to navigate a museum on their own.

Module 3 of this website provides more details on how front line staff can make a museum more welcoming.

What Front Line Staff Need to Know

 Helping Visitors Plan a Visit

Websites can provide answers to logistical questions —location, hours, and pricing, as well as more detailed information on physical access.

Here are a few examples:

vienna now or never graphicVienna Now or Never 

On this site, each museum link listed in the Art in the Evening series provides a sub-section called “accessibility” which provides detailed descriptions about museum entrances — number of stairs, location of ramps, type of doors (revolving verses swinging), and proximity to elevators.


spy museum logoInternational Spy Museum website page describes its complete range of accessibility features.




Richard Fox at podiumRichard Fox, Senior Faculty Baruch College Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, demonstrates examples of good and bad web design.

Accessible and Inaccessible Web Pages



Walei Sabry at podiumWalei Sabry, Consultant on Disability Access and Awareness, demonstrates good and bad

design on apps for smartphones.

Good and Bad Design in iPhone apps


 Helping Visitors During a Visit

gorgonvideoJoseph Gordon, a New Yorker with hearing loss and an avid museum-goer, describes what makes for successful museum experiences.

First Person Voice: Hearing Loss and Successful Museum Experiences


delaneyvideoGale Delaney, Orientation and Mobility Specialist at The New York Institute for Special Education, demonstrates Sighted Guide technique.

Techniques for Guiding a Person Who is Blind



photo carmen papaliaWayfinding – an artistic piece revealing the complex nature of moving through public spaces when you have to use sound rather than sight. Artist Carmen Papalia started using a white cane when he began to lose his vision nearly ten years ago. In his performance piece Mobility Device he replaced his cane with The Great Centurion Marching Band of Century High School, Santa Ana.

Mobility Device

In Touch logo

InTouch Graphics website provides  examples of the range of tactile solutions for museums to create maps and floor plans and other graphics.


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Cognitive Access

Developmental theories explore how we learn and make sense of new information and experiences. graphic of brain Through exploring the different phases from infancy to adult, the theories provide insight into abilities and strengths at different ages and stages of cognitive and psychological growth.

Book Cover: Frames of MindHoward Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, developed the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Expanding on the accepted modes for learning — auditory, visual, and kinesthetic — Gardner has identified nine styles of “intelligence” for learning. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences challenged the classroom teacher and educational community by declaring that you ought not teach to the class or the group. But rather, each individual has a preferred way of learning that draws on particular skills and abilities.

The same approach holds true when facilitating an adult group visit. While group members may share a similar disability, each member has their preferred style of learning. One member may be drawn to the tactile experience of a touch tour while another member prefers a workshop experience where they are invited to make and create their own art.  Initially six, the types of intelligences have now expanded to nine — visual/spatial, verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, bodily/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, and existential. 4  Similar to how the theory of multiple intelligences recognizes that each student brings a unique blend of skills and abilities, multimodal approaches transform the museum visit from a one-size fits all to a place populated with a range of experiences that acknowledges museum audiences as individuals with preferred ways of learning.

By revisiting the characteristics of the intelligences, museum professionals are able to expand their own interpretive process and outfit the museum with alternative approaches to appeal to different learning styles. The ability to see images and orient a body in space, conversations, problem solving, expression through physical activities, rhythmic movements, working collaboratively, and categorizing/organizing are all viable approaches to providing audiences access to key messages and content.  Carefully crafted stories and descriptive language paint colorful pictures in the mind’s eye. The language of numbers — inches, pounds, velocity, and miles—is another way to deliver content and messages. Quantity, weight, distance, scale, and size are means for making comparisons and given dimension to the unseen. Posing questions, or thought-provoking problems can spark individual curiosity and conversation among group members.  Challenges become opportunities to engage both the mind and body in “figuring it out”  and “trying it out.” Variety in delivering content invites all learners to explore, experiment, and make personal discoveries.

The Senses

Sight tends to be the “alpha” or preferred sense for many museum experiences as museum visitors read labels, look at collections, and view media presentations. But there are other senses museums can leverage that visitors can utilize. Scents and odors are strong triggers. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence revealed that learning is personal and that it is not teaching to the group but to the individual.

i e r g logoThe Imaginative Education Research Group of Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, B.C. Canada) has been led by the research of educational theorist Kieran Egan. A contemporary to Gardner, Egan has written extensively on the role of the imagination in learning and a child’s development. Imaginative education presents learning as a dynamic process that uses the story form to affectively engage the learner with the content. Knowledge is not a set of givens but rather the result of flexible thinking that challenges the learner to go beyond the known to new discoveries and possibilities. 5

Egan identifies five kinds of understanding, each associated with the development of more complex use of language from oral to written. Each kind of understanding has a set of cognitive tools (or thinking tools) used to make sense of the world and to engage the learner’s imagination. Somatic, the first kind of understanding, is “corporeal, physical, bodily understanding. The child’s own body, the way that body moves around in space, and the way it relates to the objects and persons it encounters in the space, are the primary tool, the first way of making sense of experience.” 6 When designing interpretive experiences, the cognitive tools of somatic understanding—the senses, incongruity, gestures, and emotions—become unexpected resources for accessing the content and affectively engaging visitors. Embedding sensory experiences throughout the museum encourage museum visitors of all ages and abilities to try out other senses.


3 hands touching head of a sphinx statueNo longer sequestered to children’s galleries, touch experiences bring visitors of all abilities closer to the collections.

Tactile diagrams translate images into a tactile language. They are not exact relief reproductions of visual images. Tactile diagrams allow people access to the visual information in works of art, maps, architectural and other diagrams, and three-dimensional objects and spaces. (For more about Tactile Diagrams, see Adaptive Technologies in Module 3).

Touch tours allow participants to have an authentic experience with pre-selected collection pieces either on display or in a designated space. On touch tours, a staff or volunteer uses verbal description to facilitate the exploration and to provide additional information as participants’ hands uncover the distinctive characteristics of an object, sculpture, or painting. A visitor’s hand moves over the gestalt of an object’s size, shape, and weight.  This allows the visitor to deconstruct the work detail by detail, becoming acquainted with the materials it is made of, how it was crafted, and how it works or was used. If the original collection piece is unable to be held, reproductions, models, and props can create similar exchanges between the visitor and the related object.

Integrating tactile elements into exhibitions offer all visitors the opportunity to stretch their sensory toolkit to allow a sense other than sight to take the lead. An architectural fragment takes on a new dimension for a visitor who is blind when a reproduction is included in the gallery display. Adding a model of the building places the fragment into its original context and invites the visitor to connect the two through tactile investigation. Costume collections are another exhibit element that can be experienced through touch.   Costumes that are displayed on distant mannequins can be placed into the hands of visitors using fabric swatches, doll-sized replicas, or reproductions that can be physically worn.  Reproductions invite curious minds to try it out, make it work, and draw conclusions.

Touch Tours

Here are three approaches to the role of Touch Tours in a museum.

photo erin narlockAt the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin Curator Erin Narlockh describes how the museum began a touch tour in its sculpture garden that includes an art activity after exploring selected works found in the garden.

Sculpture Garden Touch Tour — Woodson Art Museum


photo debbi hegstromAt the Minnesota Institute of Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota Debbi Hegstrom of the Museum Guides program explains how the museum invites all visitors to participate in a monthly Touch Tour and why it’s a good example of Universal Design.

Touch Tour as Universal Design — MIA


photo francesca rosenbergAt the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community, Access, and School Programs, offers advice on how to conduct a successful guided touch tour.

How to Conduct a Guided Touch Tour (Audio Described)


Other Senses

Museumsgraphic of an ear continue exploring new ways to expand the traditional hands-on experience as other senses enter the sensory landscape of exhibitions. In addition to verbal descriptions of collections, sound creates a mood and context for the visitor experience. First-person voice from oral history interviews, period music and songs, and soundscapes of the natural and built environment fill the galleries to take the visitor somewhere.

Listen to the opening minutes of the works of art featured on Art Beyond Sight’s American Art web site, done in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

graphic for american art siteAmerican Art




Sound can create an audio analogy to visual concepts, to help understanding of a specific work of art or a style of art.

Nude Descending a StaircaseListen to the painting Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel DuChamp

Nude Descending a Staircase -Understanding Through Sound




surrealist paintingListen to an audio interpretation of Surrealism in Art

Surrealism Understanding Through Sound



 Smell is an unexpected sensory encounter and can trigger a range of images and memories in the mind’s eye. Scents of culinary traditions, nature and wildlife, and industry and transportation transform galleries into distinctive environments. Moving beyond the traditional period rooms that could only be accessed visually, museums recreate actual places that are sensory-rich spaces visitors can physically enter and inhabit. Museums are no longer dependent solely on sight; touch, sound, smell, and even sometimes taste can transport the curious visitor to another place and time. The affective pay-off for visitors of all abilities is impactful as Anne Chodakowski and Kieran Egan describe in “The Body’s Role in Our Intellectual Education,” “The practice and development of the ability to generate rich and satisfying images helps keep alive the acuity of our bodily senses; when we create powerful images, not only do we smell, taste, touch, hear and see with great specificity, we also feel significant emotional responses to the images we have generated.” 7

 cover of intrepid's tactile guideThe Intrepid Air, Sea,and Space Museum designed a Verbal Description and Tactile Guide that provides a tour of the Museum for visitors who are blind or partially sighted. This video explains how visitors can use tactile maps and images coupled with sound from a “Talking Tactile Pen” to access artifacts in the collection, and access audio description and stories from former crew members and staff.

Intrepid Education: Verbal Description and Tactile Guide


Photo Chris Downey Chris Downey is an architect, planner, and consultant. Working with design teams and clients, he draws on his unique perspective as a seasoned architect without sight, helping to realize environments that offer not only greater physical accessibility, but also a dimension of delight in architecture experienced through other senses. Here he reviews a 2011 sound installation by artist Bill Fontana at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Since museums are frequently works of art in themselves, the author describes new avenues for architectural appreciation.  Hearing Architecture: A Review of “Sonic Shadows

thumbnails of paintingsOn Art Beyond Sight’s web site, you can hear many examples of verbal descriptions of art, artifacts, historic sites, and the built environment.

 Verbal Description Database



graphic for american art siteOn the website American Art, Art Beyond Sight created a model for how museums could use sound and verbal description in an online exhibition. The site was created with the cooperation of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

American Art: From the 1700s to the 20th Century


graphic new york beyond sightOn the web site New York Beyond Sight, everyone can listen to verbal descriptions of New York’s visual culture, including art, architecture, and public spaces.

New York Beyond Sight






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Social Access

Museums are competing in a crowded market as desirable destinations for leisure and entertainment. For many, a visit to a museum is done with someone or in a group as a social outing. When considering equitable use of the museum, families as a targeted audience provide a cross-section of ages, abilities, and learning styles. A hallmark in the museum profession when designing family experiences is PISEC, Philadelphia-Camden Informal Science Education Collaboration.

photo linda borun

Linda Borun

Led by Minda Borun, this study involved four Philadelphia-area science museums: Franklin Institute, the New Jersey State Aquarium, the Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Philadelphia Zoological Garden. Their research focused on the question: “What is family learning and how can it be measured?” Through a series of studies conducted at each museum, researchers observed and tracked family behavior. Findings from the first study identified behaviors including “asking and answering questions, commenting, explaining, and reading labels aloud and silently.” They then created prototype exhibitions that encouraged these behaviors in family visitors.8  From this research, Borun identified seven exhibit characteristics that would provide access (physical, mental, and social) to all family members.

children at Academy exhibit

Exhibit at Academy of Natural Sciences

While this study was conducted at science museums, PISEC’s findings offer a lens through which museums can consider how to create accessible experiences that accommodate a group.

Similar in tone to the principles of universal design, PISEC’s seven characteristics for creating successful family learning exhibitions are: 9

1.            Multi-sided – family can cluster around

2.            Multi-user – allows for several sets of hands (or bodies)

3.            Accessible – comfortably used by children and adults

4.            Multi-outcome – observation and interaction foster group discussion

5.            Multi-modal – appeals to different learning styles and levels of knowledge.

6.            Readable – text is enlarged in easily understood segments

7.            Relevant – provides cognitive links to visitors’ existing knowledge and experience.

As explored in physical access, design choices affect how a group interacts with the exhibition and with one another. The PISEC characteristics for family engagement translate to important questions when considering social access for individuals of varying abilities and skills. Questions such as these:

Does the activity allow for more than one participant?

Does its height accommodate a wheelchair or a small child? 

How are directions communicated — large print, audio, or diagrams?

How does the experience welcome different learning styles and abilities?

Imagine a group that has multiple members representing different ages and abilities, possibly including someone who is blind, deaf, or uses a wheelchair. All members of this group outing will share the experience of interacting with the exhibition and with one another.

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Emotional Access

hand touching sculptural reliefJohn Falk, in “An Identity-Centered Approach to Understanding Museum Learning,” describes learning as “self-motivated, emotionally satisfying, and personally rewarding.”10 Just as visitors bring different expectations and motivations for visiting a museum, they leave with a range of emotional outcomes and takeaways. Visitors who are blind or have low vision are no different from other visitors or learners. In a recent study conducted at seven art museums by Art Beyond Sight and Boston’s Museum of Science, focus group participants who were blind or have low vision shared their perspectives, personal experiences, and desired accommodations. Among the findings in the report “Speaking Out on Art and Museums, participants also identified desired outcomes for a museum visit —  “social experiences that are intellectually and emotionally stimulating, welcoming, and enable independence.” 11 These outcomes require a multimodal approach that recognizes diversity in learning styles as well as levels of sight. Through offering multiple points of access to spaces, experiences, and other people, each individual has the satisfaction of choice in designing their own museum visit regardless of his or her abilities.

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1.  Phyllis Rabineau, “Forward,” Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions,  edited. D. Lynn McRainey and John Russick (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc, 2010), 12.

2. Center for Universal Design, “The Principles of  Universal Design,” North Carolina State University, 1997.

3. Andrew Anway and Neal Mayer, “Shaping the Space: Designing for Kids,” Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, edited. D. Lynn McRainey and John Russick (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc, 2010),

4. Howard Gardner,  Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

5. “A Brief Guide to Imaginative Education”

6.  Claudia Ruitenber and ed. by Mark Fettes, “What is Imaginative Education? “Imaginative Education: an Introductory Exposition.”

7. Anne Chodakowski and Kieran Egan, “The Body’s Role in Our Intellectual Education,” Imaginative Education Research Group. March 27, 2008.

8. Minda Borun, Margaret Chambers, and Ann Cleghorn. “Families Are Learning in Science Museums.” Curator: The Museum Journal 39, no. 2 (June 1996), p. 134.

9.  Minda Borun, “Object-Based Learning and Family Groups,” in Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums, ed. Scott G, Paris (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2002), p. 255.

10. John H. Falk in “An Identity-Centered Approach to Understanding Museum Learning” Curator 49/2 (April 2006) 152..

11. Christine Reich, Anna Lindgren-Streicher, Marta Beyer, Nina Levent, Joan Pursley, and Leigh Ann Mesiti, “Speaking Out on Art and Museums: A Study on the Needs and Preferences of Adults who Are Blind or Have Low Vision,” April 2011 Report #2011-3 by Museum of Science, Boston and Art Beyond Sight, p.43.
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