Mille Milliards de Fourmis, the height of inclusive museum practice

Mille Milliards de Fourmis,  the height of inclusive museum practice

During our stay in Paris for the Design for All Foundation Award Ceremony, we visited some museums looking for inspirational projects. In particular, we were looking for examples of accessible museum practice which provide a creative, innovative response to the diverse requirements stemming from the different characteristics (sensory, physical and cognitive) of different visitors. Rather than looking for accessibility resources as such, we wanted to discover an inclusive museum experience, and finally, thanks to Marcus Weisen, an international cultural accessibility expert, we found it at the Palais de la découverte.

(A billion ants)
Palais de la découverte
From 15 October 2013 to 24 August 2014

The ideal balance between originality and full accessibility


[Photo caption:] One of the accessible installations in the exhibition
This descriptive text below is the only mention of the inclusive nature of the exhibition. We found it in the online communication material as part of the information about exhibition services available for visitors.

“The exhibition has been designed taking into account the diversity of all potential visitors in order to ensure that the environment is accessible. The audiovisuals have been created according to the principles of universal design and provide a summary of the thematic areas of the exhibition. The exhibition is aimed at all kinds of visitor, including people with a hearing impairment, partially sighted or blind visitors and people with learning difficulties. All texts are written in large text and in Braille. Models and elements in relief help visitors understand the how ants organise themselves and the details of their morphology. Guided tours in French Sign Language are also available.”

Why do we quote this text here? Because, having discovered this fantastic exhibition, we feel that they haven’t given enough space to its inclusive nature in the publicity materials and that this doesn’t do it justice. We think that one of the strengths which could have been highlighted is, precisely, the full accessibility of the exhibition; in fact, we feel that this exhibition could be considered an international benchmark in terms of museum theory and practice today. One of the mainstays of Mille Milliards de Fourmis is the originality and the dedication which with accessibility has been approached.

The focus of the exhibition is in fact not on the ants; rather, it is on the visitors. It is evident that user-centred design has been implemented holistically throughout, in all the different components of the exhibition; texts, circulation, spaces and museum resources have clearly all been developed from the outset with visitors in mind, whatever their characteristics (sensory, cognitive, physical or cultural) may be.

Elements which support accessibility are perceived simply as museum resources which enrich the visiting experience, inviting visitors to touch, to listen, to perceive the space in a new way. The models and 3D tactile reproductions, resources which are usually reserved for visually impaired people, here provide an ideal way for visitors to get closer to creatures as tiny as ants.

What, in particular, surprised us most?

1. A highly accessible virtual guide. The virtual guide who accompanies visitors on different screens communicates in French Sign Language, and the video’s different options allow you to customise the content, both in terms of the spoken language and subtitles. You can find the link to the video at the entrance of the exhibition’s entrance on the exhibition website.

Imagen del intérprete (LSF) en el video

[Photo caption:] The virtual guide

2.The exhibition material, both written texts and multimedia elements, is concise and easy to understand.

3.The visual exploration area it’s perfect for children and wheelchairs users.

4.Unusually, screens, buttons, tables and models are located under 120cm from floor level. It was a surprise at the beginning, but we got used to it without strain and we realised how comfortable it would be for children, who make up the main visiting public at the Palais de la decouverte.

Imagen de uno de los audiovisuales donde se aprecia la accesibilidad de las pantallas de la muestra.
[Photo caption:]  An example of the height of one screen
5.The execution of the 3D models, made out of bronze and resin, which make the exhibition worth visiting for the opportunity to touch these spectacular pieces of art alone.

6.Not too much multimedia content; instead, lots of experimentation with different materials.

7.Lots of seats and a general feeling of comfort.

8.Appropriate tour pace and duration.

9.Open spaces without background scenery. It is evident that the majority of the budget has been allocated to the exhibits rather than to the fittings of the exhibition.


Multisensory installations

In the second part of the post we focus on the multisensory installations we found in the exhibition.

[Photo caption:] Multisensory exhibit explaining the anatomy of ants’ eyes and sight

So what are multisensory installations?

Multisensory installations are units which combine tactile, visual and audio elements in different ways. The combination of these elements creates an ideal means of promoting understanding of the nature of these insects, which is much more effective than using only one. This concept is widely developed in ‘Mille Milliards de Fourmis’, and we think this is where most of the exhibition’s interest lies.

Before discussing these installations, we’d like to highlight the incredible execution of the 3D models, sculptures in metal and resin which provide further proof that, in the museum sector, innovation can be found outside of information and communication technology (ICT). The exhibition is worth visiting for the opportunity to touch these genuine works of art alone.

On to the multisensory installations…

Multisensory installation 1

1.1 Vivariums with magnifying lenses

Vivariums with magnifying lenses
[Photo caption:] Vivariums with magnifying lenses
An impressive network of connected display cabinets shows life inside an ant’s nest, with all the labour of gathering and producing food, etc. which is undertaken by ants. Huge magnifying lenses allow what is going on inside to be observed clearly.

1.2 Tactile-visual exploration board

[Photo caption:] Detail of one of the labels
This 3D model in resin reproduces part of the nest. It features Braille labels and tactile-visual markers on the abdomens of then reproductions. The text encourages visitors to play in order to find out the different tasks carried out by each insect and the importance of its position on the board.

Multisensory installation 2

3D tactile models: Sculpture used as an enlargement model

[Photo caption:] Multisensory installation of the growth cycle
[Photo caption:] Detail of larvas
At this table you can see and touch ants at every stage of incubation and growth. The installation has a well placed cabinet, but as the tiny size of the larvas makes observation difficult by sight alone, a solution has been found by using metal and resin sculptures as an aid.

Multisensory installation 3

3.1 3D tactile models and magnifying glasses

[Photo caption:] Multisensory exhibit explaining the anatomy of ants’ eyes and sight
By combining tactile models in wood and metal and a series of magnifying glasses, this exhibit promotes the connection between the “how” and “why” of the various ways in which different types of ants see. The magnifying glasses are made with different lenses, and looking through them provides an approximation of the particular kind of vision provided by different eyes.

3.2 2D tactile-visual model

[Photo caption:] Model showing ants’ field of vision
On the opposite side you find this ingenious solution to the problem of explaining ants’ field of vision to all visitors including blind and partially sighted people. This model resembles traditional toy theatres, using a trick of different planes, printing techniques and reliefs to bring visitors closer to the vision of the landscape as perceived by ants.

Multisensory installation 4

3D interactive models

3d interactive models
[Photo caption:] 3d interactive models
This exhibit plays with the element of surprise: by putting your hand on the wooden models and pressing the button … pow! stings and clouds of gas shoot out from the huge abdomens. This allows visitors to learn which methods different ants use to attack and defend themselves, feeling them directly against the palms of their hands. In the video below you can hear the sound of the different mechanisms in action.

We conclude this article in the hope that we might be able to see this exhibition one day in Barcelona, and that it might be an inspiration for all fans of inclusive museum practice, as it has been for the Avanti Studio team. If you’re heading to Paris in the next few months, you can see the exhibition at the Palais de la découverte until 24 August 2014.

We especially thanks to Madeleine Gray who helped us with the English translation and Marcus Weisen, who recommend us to visit this exhibition.

Avanti Studio workshops and talks on accessible and inclusive museums

From time to time we hold talks and workshops on accessible and inclusive museum theory and practice, an introduction to design for all and accessible wayfinding/signage. You can find out about upcoming events by following us on Twitter @avantiavanti o requesting further information by email.

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