Old Faithful Visitors Center Exhibitions and Accessibility

Accessing the National Parks

From geysers to battleships, the National Park Service chronicles the American experience with an emphasis on accessibility.

The U.S. National Park Service welcomes about 285 million visitors a year to nearly 400 parks across the United States. With a charter to preserve the country’s natural and cultural heritage, the NPS is also charged with educating visitors about the parks and the treasures they contain. Two of the most-visited parks have recently opened new visitors centers with interpretive exhibits: Yellowstone Park’s Old Faithful Visitor Education Center and World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor.

While Yellowstone and Pearl Harbor tell very different stories about the American experience, their visitors centers share the same goal: to make these stories accessible to all visitors, regardless of ability. Supporting national parks in this endeavor is Harpers Ferry Center, the NPS service-wide center that administers services for planning, design, and fabrication of media, including exhibits.

Promoting accessibility

Michele Hartley, media accessibility coordinator at Harpers Ferry Center, says her group’s mission is to educate and support those who create media for the NPS. “We want to emphasize the value of designing for accessibility, not just the fact that it is required.”

To assist exhibit designers and park managers with this effort, the Harpers Ferry Center publishes Programmatic Accessibility Guidelines for National Park Service Interpretive Media. Hartley explains that this living document provides guidance on the laws as well as requirements specific to the National Park Service. It also explains best practices that can further effective communication for all audiences.

When possible, the guidelines are concrete and specific, such as the NPS requirement that all video programs be open-captioned, meaning that captions are displayed on screen at all times. Open captioning not only helps hearing-impaired visitors, but also aids visitors with lower proficiency in English.

Incorporated in the guidelines and well known to many designers are the Principles of Universal Design, drafted in 1997 by an international group of advocates and designers. The seven principles are broad enough to apply to nearly any creative pursuit. Note for example, Principle 3: “use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.”

Storytelling benefits from adherence to the principles, especially when they, along with the rules of accessibility are integrated in the early stages of the design process. The more prescriptive NPS interpretive guidelines, married with the more expansive universal design principles, make for better choices in the methods and devices used to tell these stories.

New Exhibits for Old Faithful

There are many stories to tell at Old Faithful, the perpetually astounding geyser discovered in 1870 in what was to become America’s first national park. Eleven years ago, when the National Park Service decided to replace the old amenities at Old Faithful (a lobby, theater, and restrooms), the team knew the task would be formidable, beginning with the fact that they were to build on a precarious and sensitive hydrothermal area.

As CTA Architects Engineers (Billings, Mont.) developed the site plan and program for the new visitors center, exhibit design firm Christopher Chadbourne & Associates (Boston) was selected to design interpretive exhibits to explain the science of Old Faithful and the other hydrothermal features of the park. Over the course of the project, the area planned for the exhibits shrank from 7,000 to 4,500 sq. ft. as a result of reductions in the construction budget and building footprint.

Design for family learning

Ernesto Mendoza, CCA’s graphic design director, says the exhibit design had to respond to two unique challenges of Old Faithful. First, its unusual visitorship pattern. As Mendoza describes it, “it’s a quick hit”—people arrive to see the geyser in action and tend to scatter after it erupts. Most visitors view the exhibits while they are waiting for Old Faithful’s next blast; the eruptions range from 30- to 90-minute intervals and are predicted and posted by park staff. The goal of the exhibits is to succinctly explain the very complex geothermal physics, vulcanology, and chemistry that generate such magnificent displays.

The designers’ second challenge was to distill these scientific principles into accessible and engaging narratives for a wide audience. “Our job was to capture attention quickly and tell a concise story,” Mendoza explains.

Through a fruitful collaboration with Linda Young, Yellowstone’s chief of interpretation, and a team of in-park experts and science education advisors, CCA approached the project with an emphasis on “family learning.” Their concept was based on universal design: serve visitors of different ages and education levels by providing a variety of learning methods, from interactive levers to dioramas and touchscreens. “We wanted to create an environment where visitors of all ages could interact with each piece,” says Mendoza.

You are standing on a volcano

Together, the team simplified and clarified the scientific explanations into an essential theme: “You are standing on a volcano powered by heat and water; there’s a lot going on under your feet.” All the displays reinforce and expand upon that theme, from the interactive mechanical geyser designed and fabricated by the Exploratorium in San Francisco to the floor-mounted video cabinet that plays a loop of bubbling mudpots.

The lead fabricator on the project, Pacific Studio (Seattle), contributed its own knowledge of accessibility. Project Manager Jon Harmon explains that from their experience working with NPS on other projects, “accessibility has become a fundamental way of thinking in our studio.” Pacific Studio arranged client reviews of the exhibits in construction at their shop so that the team could review lighting conditions and exhibit heights for accessibility issues.

Linda Young notes that throughout the design process, the team consulted with the NPS Accessibility Office in Washington D.C., the Harpers Ferry Center, and other NPS visitors centers to ensure that each exhibit and visitor activity met accessibility standards. Usability testing was performed with visitors outside the center while the building was under construction. Visitors interacted with foamcore mockups while Chadbourne representatives noted any interaction issues. Further evaluations on the installed exhibits will be commissioned by NPS this summer.

After 10 years of planning, design, and construction, the new visitors center opened on August 25, 2010, welcoming a record 10,000 visitors that day. Young affirms that Chadbourne’s focus on tuning the content to the audience yielded good results. “The designers dealt with a cocophany of feedback, shifting demands, and high expectations. They rendered these concepts in entertaining and appealing ways.” Young and her colleagues at the center look forward to watching visitors interact with the exhibits during their first full season this summer.

--By Leslie Wolke, segdDESIGN No. 32, 2011


Client:  U.S. National Park Service

Location:  Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Exhibition Design:  Christopher Chadbourne & Associates

Design Team:  Ernesto Mendoza (senior graphic designer); Michael Biddle (exhibit designer); Christine LeFebvre (graphic designer); Andrea Medalie (project manager);

Marleen Cloutier, Stephanie Williams (production managers)

Architecture:  CTA Architects Engineers

Fabrication:  Pacific Studio

Consultants:  Chedd Angier Lewis (media); PPI Consulting (media hardware and system design); Clanton Associates (exhibit lighting design); Fiona King, Grant Gilliland (illustrators); Tom Murphy (exhibit content photography)

Photos:  Jay Rosenblatt


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