19 January 2015 // Thoughts

Trends in Design Conclusion: Busting Social Barriers By Creating Connections

Through our examination of the 2014 trends in design, we’ve learned how giving guests a curatorial voice can eliminate role barriers and drive museum attendance. We’ve also discovered how various technologies are dissolving physical barriers by offering new avenues for education and access. For our final post in this series, we’ll uncover how new programming methods are breaking down social barriers for children and adults alike.

Providing Opportunities

 Breaking down social barriers is really about providing opportunities. More and more museums, especially children’s museums, are staging sensory nights. One example of a sensory night is where the museum reduces stimulus levels such as lighting and noise so that autistic guests can better enjoy the museum. Registration is required to limit crowds, and quiet spaces are made available to allow autistic guests the chance to take a break. Another example is Lincoln Children’s Zoo’s Sensory Safari, in which guests with visual impairments have the opportunity to touch, feel, hear and smell at interpretive stations located throughout the zoo.

But breaking down social barriers isn’t just kids’ play.  One of my favorite examples of breaking down social barriers is the brainchild of one of JRA’s clients – the Golisano Children’s Museum of Naples. After the museum opened, staff kept on encountering adults in the community who had heard about it, saying, “I don’t have kids, but it sounds really cool.  Can I visit?” So, the museum created a series of Adult Nights, where for a $26 admission fee, adults can explore all of the museum’s exhibits, eat, drink, dance and basically re-visit their childhood. The program is great for outreach, helps to educate the community about the museum and also generates a bit of funding.

Another example of how museums can break down social barriers with older guests is “Dialogue with Time”, developed by the curators of the famous “Dialogue in the Dark” exhibit. The goals of the exhibit are to help dispel stereotypes about old age, promote empathy toward the elderly, provide new perspectives about the aging process and reduce guests’ fear of aging. The exhibit is hosted by guides, all of whom are between 70 and 90 years old, so the exhibit provides work opportunities for senior citizens. The guides lead guests through each gallery, while sharing their personal stories. The experience is designed to immerse guests in what it is like to age.

For example, in one gallery, visitors wear weighted shoes to stimulate muscle loss as they walk up and down stairs. There’s also a device that visitors strap to their hand, causing it to shake – stimulating tremors – while they try to thread a key through a keyhole to open a door. Guests also take a picture of themselves at the beginning of the tour and are given a necklace with a timer. Toward the end of the exhibit, guests are led to a gallery and see their image morph into what they will look like when they are older. The elderly hosts “welcome them into the club” and escort them to the next room, where all the guests gather around to play a series of games. Suddenly, a guest’s necklace blinks and he or she is “forced into retirement” and must sit away from the group and watch them play. Slowly, other members of the audience join, as they listen to audio recordings of elderly people talking about how they feel isolated and invisible to society. Their host them leads them to two doors, one featuring personal stories of regret, and one featuring stories of embracing life to the fullest, and asks them to make their choice. The exhibition ends with a roundtable conversation with an elderly host.

The final project I’d like to discuss beautifully symbolizes how exhibits and programs can break down social barriers, even barriers within oneself.  The program, called Meet Me, recently closed its run and was created by the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a way to make art more accessible to people with Alzheimer’s. The program was very simple: once a month, the museum invited Alzheimer’s sufferers and their caregivers for an after hours event. Trained museum educators educated the participants in conversations and analysis of artworks and provided art-making opportunities. While MoMA has closed their own exhibition, they have created a variety of materials online, which outline how other institutions can start their own program. Here are some of the participant comments:

“There are so many things that Dad can’t do the way he used to, but when we go to the Museum, it seems to engage his mind by triggering so many memories.”

 “I realize that when you have Alzheimer’s, you don’t know if your memory is correct. The program gave me the confidence to know that I had been able to retain my appreciation of art.”

 “I sat down and critiqued one of the paintings that I saw. And that brought back things that I had studied, and that made me start thinking that I didn’t lose everything that I was afraid I was losing.”

 So I think that’s a nice way to wrap up our look at projects and trends that can help break down a variety of barriers. Here are my Top 10 Ideas that can be implemented for relatively little to no cost:

If anything, I hope that you are inspired to look at your audiences in new ways and to take steps to communicate and collaborate with them, for that is the way in which you can truly connect with them in a meaningful manner.


Thanks for reading.


– Shawn