Use of Clay in the Dialogue with the Visually Impaired


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This paper was published in the working paper series of the University of Art and Design Helsinki, F35. Digital tools, a new way to interact with the world.

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Use of Clay in the Dialogue with the Visually Impaired

  1. 1. Use of Clay in the Dialogue with the Visually Impaired Mariana Salgado Anna Salmi msalgado[at] asalmi[at]uiah.fiABSTRACTThe topic of this paper is the tools used for designing accessible solutions in the contextof museum exhibitions. The paper focuses on the use of clay pieces during twoparticipatory design workshops held in Ateneum Museum in 2005. In addition we explainhow we use cards and affinity diagrams for analyzing the results. Based on the diagramsproduced we describe some features that are relevant for visually impaired people inexhibitions.The analysis of the clay pieces together with the participants’ oral interpretations is anexploration into visually impaired people’s perceptions in the context of museums.Emotions and space were the central topics that came up from this process of organizingthe workshops and making sense of the material we collected.From this analysis we develop preliminary suggestions for planning future dialogues withvisually impaired people in this particular context.Keywords: museum, participatory design, visually impaired, tactile and visual materials,accessibility.INTRODUCTIONAs part of our process in the design of an interactive tool for the visually impairedpeople’s community we posed some questions: how to engage with this community inorder to understand their needs in the context of a museum visit? How to clarifyquestions about accessibility that deal with emotions?In an attempt to look for these answers we organized two workshops during 2005 inAteneum Art Museum, The Finnish National Art Gallery, in Helsinki. The workshopswere based on Participatory Design methodologies. Researchers such as Hulcrantz andIbrahim have been using workshops of this type in order to evaluate future concepts(Hulcrantz and Ibrahim 2002, 344-348). Our workshops were based on the model thatTaxén proposed for introducing participatory design in museums (Taxén 2004, 204-213).Taxén describes methods for evaluating museum exhibits and for developing exhibitionconcepts.Two workshops were organized as part of the research activities of the projectÄänijälki.1This project consists of an interactive audio service for museums that allowsthe exchange of comments within present, past visitors and museum staff. Thesecomments relate to the pieces in the exhibition and the navigation inside the museum.1 Sound traces 1
  2. 2. Äänijälki is an interactive audio service for museums that allows the exchange ofcomments within present, past visitors and museum staff. These comments relate to thepieces in the exhibition and the navigation inside the museum. “Äänijälki will be used forsharing hints about the experience of going to and being in an exhibition. The goal is tomotivate visually impaired people to visit museums by providing a tool to getinformation about museum spaces and exhibitions, with their ‘comments.’ ” (Salgado andKellokoski 2005, 10-17). It is now in a prototype stage.Participants did not get to use the actual Äänijälki PDA application in the workshops.They were informed about the concept and basic functionality. In addition the workshopsare an attempt to gather research material that can be useful for the project and to obtaininspirational ideas for making museums accessible for the visually impaired people’scommunity. The aim of the workshops is to enable us designers to create a thoroughunderstanding of the users’, their opinions, emotions and the challenges that they facewhen visiting museums.DESCRIPTION AND COMPARISON OF THE SITUATIONSThe workshops were planned in order to use the audio material produced in them as partof the content of Äänijälki. We have video and audio documentation of both workshops.We organized these two workshops in different ways. In the case of the first one we senta letter through a mailing list of visually impaired people advertising the workshop andinvited the people we were in touch with. In the first workshop we had six persons, onlyone was a sighted person and she was the wife of one of the participants. Two of themknew each other well before and one of them was an acquaintance that by chance met theothers in the workshop. Three were ladies that were around 70 years old and three werearound 40 years old.In the case of the second workshop we invited the people through Arla Institute, avocational training and development centre, where we went to give an introduction aboutour project: Äänijälki. Seven participants were visually impaired and the rest wereassistants or teachers. All of them participated in the workshop in equal terms. In thisgroup there were people of different ages, from 16 to 50 years old, and from differentbackgrounds (For example: craft or masseurs students). In this workshop the total amountof people present in the workshop was 17: 12 persons came from Arla Institute, twopersons were Ateneum Museum staff, one person was in charge of documenting and tworesearchers conducted the workshop.The program of the two workshops varied for some parts. In the second one we added atour in the museum and the whole workshop lasted one hour more than the first one.CLAY PIECESThe aim of the first task of the workshops was to shed light on the factors that for the 2
  3. 3. visually impaired make up a good experience in the museum. In the first workshop thefirst hands-on task was to describe the features of an ideal future guide for museums. Itcould be a person, a dog or a device. In the second, the task was to describe features of agood exhibition. In both workshops clay was used as material for visualizing thoughts.We chose clay because it utilizes visual medium, essential in design, for conveying ideasand also because neither of us knows Braille. We also thought that the familiarity withthe material and the connection of it to childhood memories could facilitate the task.Participants were asked to make a piece for each aspect they wanted to present.The pieces were placed in the middle of the table one by one, in the order of beingfinished. Participants modeled the clay and spoke about their ideas. After the participantexplained the clay piece we asked some questions related to the issues that rose from theexplanation. In many cases the question was how the person connects the piece with thetopic of future exhibitions.After this activity, we asked the participants to start dividing the pieces into groups. Thetask was, first, to classify the objects according to some commonality and then to giveeach group a title. We participated in the classification task as facilitators. Collaborativelywith the participants we went through the pieces on the table one by one repeating thetitle and asking suggestions for grouping them. Together with the participants weformulated titles for each group. At the end of the task we confirmed that everyoneagreed with the titles given. This activity was based on the technique of making anaffinity diagram (Beyer, 1998). Most often such a diagram is put together on a wall usinge.g. Post-It Notes. The aim of building the diagram is to organize individual notes into ahierarchical structure that reveals the common issues and themes in the subject that isbeing studied (Beyer 1998).The clay pieces are unique small sculptures, made for the purpose of communicatingparticipants’ ideas in the context of the workshop. They were a tool for stimulatingdiscussion and an aid for remembering what was discussed. The tangibility of the pieceskept the meaning attached to them in a concrete shape.ANALYSIS OF THE CLAY PIECES1- Cards“Pictorial montages show their seams, whereas the images produced by words fuse intounified wholes” (Arnheim 1969, 253). Based on this statement, we decided that ourinterpretation would focus on both the images and the oral descriptions that accompaniedthem in the situation. To isolate these two sides of the same coin from each other wouldhave led to misinterpretations. Figure 1. A card shows the title, a clay piece and the explanation.In the process of analyzing the clay elements that the participants had made we createdcards. Each card had a picture of the particular clay piece (digitally color-corrected), a 3
  4. 4. title given by the participant who made the piece and a fragment of the oral informationchosen and translated by the researchers. In this process of manipulating the cards someof the interpretations took shape. These cards were boundary objects for the analysis.This process of converting the clay pieces into cards was time consuming but it facilitatedmeaningful discussion in our group and it helped to familiarize with the material. Firstthere is the fact that the pieces lost their tangibility aspect the moment we started workingwith pictures and not any more with three-dimensional objects. Second the fact ofchoosing a small piece of text that describes the piece is arguable. Since some times itwas not in this piece of description where meaningful hints appeared but in the discussionthat follows. Also, in some cases other participants were adding features or comments tothe piece and we chose to leave attached in the card only the comments made by theauthor of the piece. We know that all these decisions influenced this analysis.We gave pseudonyms for the workshop participants. Participants described themselves,their intentions and their personalities through these pieces. For example, Hannaassociated the small cat with love (Picture 2). For her it was important that the work ofguiding was done with love, with an interest in the job and activity that was performed.The piece also showed the ability of the person to make a small, precise cat out of clay.Moreover, seeing the cat as a representation of love was a personal construction, not astraightforward connection. Figure 2.”Cat”.The picture above depicts one possible connection between clay pieces and the oralspeech that accompanied them. There are a variety of relations that appear in these cards.A cube, for example, has a perceptual and cultural liaison with the semantic meaning ofthe cube. Everybody understands the cube as a simple form. Anniina put a cube on thestage, adding that for her the cube means clarity. Anniina chose one characteristic of thecube and associated it with the message she wanted to give. On the other hand, the cardwith the “Cat” shows a personal connection between the metaphor chosen and theexplanation.2-DiagramsWith the purpose of making an interpretation of the pieces, we did two diagrams thatdescribe the results for each workshop. First of all, after the workshop, we made anaffinity diagram using the cards with the aim of answering the question of what is a goodguide like. Based on our diagram (Figure 3) we found some characteristics that visuallyimpaired people found important: presentation skills, emotional or human features andawareness of the context in which the guide is immersed. Figure 3. Diagram 1.The presentation skills are related to the fact that a guide “has to be clear”, manage the 4
  5. 5. complexity and the shortages that an exhibition might have, and be able to explain onepiece in connection with others.The guide has certain emotional characteristics as “love for the thing she is explaining”2,interestedness, humor, personality, presence in the moment and subconsciouslyconnection with the theme. Another point was the notion that the guide has to be able tomake connections between knowledge and experience.The issues undertook in the workshop concerning the situation of being in a museumguided tour were the importance of the dialogue between the guide and the person, theflexibility of the guide in talking about different topics related to the exhibition, “evenabout technical description that someone could be interested in”. This flexibility isconnected to the idea that the guide should not have a fixed speech but could change itaccording to the audience. Another point concerning the situation was that theconformation of the group of listeners shapes the visit, and therefore naïve questioning iseither exhibited or inhibited.There were other features that came out in the discussion, features specifically related tothe exhibition. These were represented in some of the clay shapes as well. A guide couldalso address these problems although they were not direct characteristics of the guideherself. For the participants the artist’s presence in the exhibition and the connectionbetween the artist and the piece were relevant issues. Moreover, the participantshighlighted the importance of having some touchable elements that could be explored inan exhibition. Finally, they added that sometimes they have an unconscious assumptionthat they are not able to move, so they avoid going and even trying. For representing thisidea Kalle, used the metaphor of the threshold.In the case of the second workshop the first regrouping of cards produced a thematicdiagram. In this diagram we identified four groups. We also found pieces out of thecontext of the workshop, or not addressing the question asked.A) Accessibility issues were divided into two sub-groups: the kinesthetic accessibility(relating to moving around, including the body actions in the exhibition) and the sensoryaccessibility. In the sub-group that related to kinesthetic accessibility they proposed asfeatures of a good exhibition: absence of obstacles, possibility of movement even withwheelchair, motivation for body movements as hanging, swinging and touching andclarity of the exhibition’s route. In the sub-group of sensory accessibility touch and smellwere highlighted as important factors in the enjoyment of an exhibition.B) Atmosphere and emotions. They pointed out that the whole atmosphere in theexhibition influences emotions. They suggest that the ideal atmosphere for a museum iscozy. Other topics such as shame, security and having enough energy for visiting thewhole museum arose in the discussion.C) Concrete ideas such as having an exhibition that includes moments of relaxation andmoments of extreme experiences.2 Note: The English quotations referring to participants’ speech of this paper are all our translations from Finnish. 5
  6. 6. D) Positive experiences in other museums such as the Natural Science Museums and theProvincial museums.Secondly we did another regrouping of the cards (Figure 9). This time we had therelationship between the clay pieces and the oral descriptions in mind. We separated thecards between sensory and arbitrary features. Ware defines these concepts in thefollowing way: “The word sensory represents symbols and aspects of visualizations thatderive their expressive power from their ability to use the perceptual processing power ofthe brain without learning. (…) On the other hand, arbitrary defines aspects ofrepresentation that must be learned, because the representations have no perceptualbasis.” (Ware 2004, 10). One example of a sensory piece is “Cat” and an example of anarbitrary piece is “Talking heads”. (Figure 4) Figure 4. “Talking Heads”In the case of the cube, the relation between the piece and the oral description workssmoothly. Moreover, there are other meanings implied, but not explicitly shown likesimplicity and easiness.Within these two groups we found that some of the pieces have a personal andinnovative way of associating the oral description with the pieces. See the case of “Funnyand with personality”. (Figure 5) Figure 5. “Funny and with personality”In contrast, in others there was a direct connection as in the “Right hand”. (Figure 6) Figure 6. “Right Hand”Moreover there were some cases where there was no literal relation between themetaphor chosen and the description. This is the case of the “Horn of Wealth”, a piecethat has certainly cultural connotations. Figure 7. Diagram 2.There are other cases in which pieces and meanings attached to them were not sostraightforward. Some of them are used as metaphors, as in the case of the “Brush andpalette”. Jouko said that the piece represents “the presence of the artist” in the exhibition. 6
  7. 7. In the case of the second workshop most of the clay pieces were sensory material andwithin this group there is a majority of metaphors used as a way to present their ideas.DISCUSSIONParticipants found that they could make the pieces easily and could express their ideasthrough them. They told us that in some cases the pieces appeared first and then theytried to connect it with the idea they had.Some of the participants opened themselves up, presenting emotions. We would seldomhave imagined such issues as loneliness, shame, position in the society, religion andspiritual issues to come up in groups of people that have not necessarily met before.Material encourages people to talk, and works as an inspiration for thought. We have stillsome open questions that we would like to explore in the future: How thought andphysical activity interact in these cases? How emotions become visible through molding,or working with materials?Clay as medium was a good choice because it gave enough flexibility and made itpossible to pass pieces around. In this way all the group members could touch them,enabling sharing and understanding. Passing around the pieces was only applied in thesecond workshop. This generated a lot of small side conversations within the group, sincethe person passing the piece was explaining the piece to the person receiving it.The atmosphere was quite different since in the first workshop the participants were moreengaged into a common discussion. In the second one there were constant sideconversations. This might be due to the amount of the participants and the workshop’sprogram and atmosphere.Participants were concerned to leave a piece, and make a valuable contribution but werenot committed to listen to the rest of the group. This caused that some objects wereoverlapping in their meaning. This means that eventually there were two different objectsstanding for the same meaning. Even some objects were repeated, such as the boats or themen. That resulted in two objects representing the same but standing for different things.Something that was particular for the second workshop was that there were some claypieces and comments that were not at all connected to the question. We constantly askedthe participants how do they connect their piece to the museum exhibition, and in somecases we did not get a clear answer.In the case of the second workshop we also felt that there was lot of interesting insightsthat could not be undertaken in depth because of lack of time. We perceived the secondworkshop group as too big and heterogeneous. The participants had different age,background, visual impairment degree and other disabilities. How did their identitydefine their participation? We think that we need a long-term engagement with this groupin order to understand their needs not only as visually impaired persons but as peoplewith their own background and identity. These two workshops were not enough but they 7
  8. 8. gave us some hints of the kind of dialogue that we wanted to have with this particularcommunity. In the future the axis of this dialogue will challenge the perception ofemotion and space for the visually impaired.We realize that the way we collect material affects the results we obtain. Thus, it isnecessary to reflect on the approach used for collecting material. The tasks presented tothe participants were well defined but open-ended. In this way people could expressthemselves ingeniously. The categorization of the clay pieces forms the basis of thisanalysis. The approach was chosen for both the collection of research material and foranalyzing it. These diagrams served to clarify our interpretations and enabled us topresent them in certain order. On this topic Bertin has the opinion that graphics makevisible the notions of discussion, reasoning and understanding. (Bertin 2000/2001, 11).The material gathered is inspirational material that will be used in the next face ofÄänijälki, when we plan to implement it in Ateneum. These are also outcomes gatheredfor the later design of suitable and accessible interventions in other museum spaces.AcknowledgementsThanks to Lily Diaz-Kommonen that is always helping and encouraging us in our work.We want to especially thank all the participants of the workshop and the staff ofAteneum. Thanks to Arla Institute. Thanks to M. Luhtala and T. Laine who were incharge of the video documentation during the workshops.Bibliography 1- Arnheim, R. (1969). Visual thinking. University of California Press, Berkeley,U.S. p.253. 2- Bertin, J. “Matrix theory of graphics”. Information Design Journal 10 (1) 5-19.John Benjamins Publishing Company. (2000/2001), p.11. 3- Beyer, H. and Holtzblatt, K. Contextual Design, Defining Customer-CenteredSystems.. Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, San Fransisco, USA. (1998), p. 154. 4- Hultcrantz, J. and Ibrahim, A. “Contextual Workshops:User Participation inthe Evaluation of Future Concepts”. In Proc. PDC 02. Binder, T., Gregory, J. andWagner, I. (EDS). Mälmö, Sweden, (2002), p.344-348. 5- Salgado, M. and Kellokoski, A. “Äänijälki, Opening Dialogues for VisuallyImpaired Inclusion in Museums”. In Proc. of the International Workshop: “RethinkingTechnology for Museums: Towards a New understanding of the User”, Limerick, Ireland.(2005), p. 10-17. 6- Taxén, G. “Introducing Participatory Design in Museums”. In Proc. PDC 04.Toronto, Canada, (2004), p. 204-213 8
  9. 9. 7-Ware, C. Information Visualization. Perception for design. Second Edition,Morgan Kaufmann. San Francisco, USA, (2004), p.10 9