MoPOP — Constructing a sensory-safe museum experience
The Museum of Popular Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle, Washington, offers interactive experiences around iconic moments in TV, music, gaming, and more. While the exhibits are fun and immersive, the museum is also loud, cluttered, maze-like, has little natural light or space to decompress, and is overall not particularly sensory-friendly.
Recent estimates indicate that 5% to 16.5% of the general population have symptoms associated with sensory processing challenges.1 Another study showed that at least 1 in 20 children is affected daily by a sensory challenge.2 MoPOP currently has a sensory-friendly program that allows museum guests to come during specified hours with lowered lighting and sound.3 They also provide a kit that includes a social story4, a list of routines/protocols, a museum map, a welcome sheet, a timeline, and COVID-19 protocols. However, MoPOP doesn’t address that each individual with sensory processing challenges has different triggers. They could be affected differently by various colors, lights, textures, sounds, and other sensations.
How might we envision alternative exhibits and interactions for people with sensory processing challenges?
Our design solution is a three-part approach. The system expands upon MoPOP’s current sensory-friendly program and includes  a pre-visit personalized path-generating system,  real-time sensory feedback, and  themed sensory safe rooms. The path-generating system would gather guest information via a questionnaire before their visit and develop a sensory-friendly path throughout the museum for that individual based on their needs. The sensory wayfinding would allow all guests, regardless of their participation in the sensory program, to plan for what triggers might be in the exhibit and contribute to crowdsourced real-time sensory feedback. The sensory safe rooms offer visitors a break in spaces related to the exhibits. This system of solutions individualizes the museum experience and allows everyone, regardless of sensory challenges, to visit and enjoy the museum.
- Museums are notorious for being large-scale and not sensory-friendly, which often helps promotes engagement and interest in the exhibits
- While tactile and interactive exhibits are becoming increasingly popular, they engage more senses (e.g. visual, auditory, and haptic) which makes them less inclusive for people with sensory processing challenges
- Our users might avoid going to museums for this reason, but that does not negate the desire to explore a museum and its exhibits. If they do visit, they may cut their visit short because of sensory overload and some museums and exhibits don’t allow for re-entry once you leave
- Our users may instead try virtual tours online where they can control the sensory environment and explore at their own pace, but this is a severely limited experience — they would prefer to explore the exhibits in person in an environment that works for them
Team: Jessica Hord | Miranda Elliott | Priyana Patel | Kevin Shum
In many ways, museum and gallery spaces continue to exclude large groups of people because they are — or have the perception of being — inaccessible. Even members of our team were overwhelmed and overstimulated by some of the exhibits at MoPOP.
We created a digital app experience, but we’re also interested in exploring more intuitive ways to share dynamic sensory data in the physical space without a mobile device mediating the experience. The device itself can serve as a barrier or distraction that gets in the way of the overall experience. This requires visitors to have a mobile device that can connect to the internet or wifi and is charged with enough battery to last the duration of the visit. Visitors must also have a high level of digital fluency to understand how to fill out the pre-visit survey, navigate through the space with the app, and know how to use all the features.
What if the spaces and exhibits responded dynamically to the number of people in the room or adjusted to the audience on demand? Could the space sense if someone is triggered by sound, light, or movement and adjust accordingly?
In our work, we did not consider the privacy and security of the visitors’ personal data. A lot of the data may be sensitive to the user (e.g. sensory preferences, location data, messages sent on the platform, etc.). Our platform will have a responsibility to safeguard the data users report and the sensors collect.
We also need to consider bad actors such as spammers or hackers with nefarious intentions. Would they be able to hijack the system in any way or disrupt the museum experience intentionally?
Another area we can explore further is how to communicate to the public and educate them around our new sensory-sensitive experience, especially to those who wouldn’t have considered going to the museum in the first place. How can we help MoPOP extend their outreach and attract more visitors who otherwise wouldn’t have even thought that sensory accommodations were possible?
Finally, one area that stood out to us was the cost of the tickets to enter the museum. We found that the free tickets that the local library systems offer to the community were sold out when we looked for them. For those with more severe sensory sensitivity, they may need a 1:1 individualized experience after hours that accommodate their very specific needs. These are all part of the service blueprint that we could expand on in our future work.
We also got feedback around designing experiences for groups, taking into account the preferences of all members. While we think that could be useful in some instances, we would need to do further research into the feasibility and effectiveness of trying to accommodate for more than one user’s preferences and accommodations and whether or not that improves the overall visit experience.
Miller, L. J., Schoen, S. A., Mulligan, S., & Sullivan, J. (2017). Identification of Sensory Processing and Integration Symptom Clusters: A Preliminary Study. Occupational therapy international, 2017, 2876080. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/2876080↩︎
About Sensory Processing Disorder, https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/about-spd↩︎
MoPOP’s Sensory Program, https://www.mopop.org/programs-plus-education/programs/sensory-friendly-programs/↩︎
Social stories are stories that help set expectations so the person with sensory challenges will feel confident handling the situations using appropriate behaviors, https://www.thewatsoninstitute.org/resource/sensory-needs/↩︎