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.
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.
WORLD WAR II VALOR IN THE PACIFIC NATIONAL MONUMENT AT PEARL HARBOR
On December 7, 2010, a new National Park Service visitors center opened in a solemn dedication ceremony at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor.
Michele Hartley, media accessibility coordinator at the NPS’ Harpers Ferry Center, points to the Pearl Harbor education and visitors center as “a wonderful example of how accessibility was integrated into the design process.” National Parks Service Project Manager Lynne Nakata acted as the client representative for the project to build a new visitors center at one of the nation’s most emotional and tragic sites. Her mission was to ensure “physical as well as programmatic accessibility by integrating many of the basic principles of universal design.”
The visitors center serves as the hub of the 10.5-acre historic park that includes the sunken USS Arizona and the memorial constructed above it, as well as other memorials, Navy ships, and amenities. Architectural firm Portico Group (Seattle) designed the open-air building to house the exhibits.
AldrichPears Associates (Vancouver) won the competitive bid to develop the concepts for 5,400 sq. ft. of interior exhibit space and 1,600 sq. ft. of exterior exhibits. Principal Phil Aldrich notes that the attack on Pearl Harbor is “an extremely important story for Americans, with quite tragic circumstances… The exhibits were meant to convey a deeper understanding of U.S. and Japanese history and the consequences of the attack.”
Catering to the “Greatest Generation”
The demographic profile of the 2 million people who visit the site every year informed the decision to emphasize accessibility throughout the design process. As the “Greatest Generation” ages, veterans, attack survivors, and their families represent a large percentage of visitors. Because of its location in Hawaii and the impact of Pearl Harbor on Asian contemporary history, the park also attracts a large number of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese visitors.
To highlight the issues of accessibility and ensure they were addressed throughout the design process, the cross-disciplinary team from AldrichPears and the National Park Service hosted a series of workshops with subject-matter experts such as the director of the National Center on Accessibility and the Smithsonian Institution’s accessibility coordinator. “We went out of our way to engage a broad spectrum of stakeholders,” Nakata explains.
Setting the strategy
During the planning stages, input gathered during the workshops led to the development of a set of best practices to be followed as the design progressed. For example, the team decided that each of the center’s twelve major artifacts, such as the Japanese bomber that hangs from the ceiling, would be paired with a companion tactile model. Half of the models are cast bronze, to ensure durability. The tactile models serve visually impaired visitors, but also aid anyone who might want to examine the details of the pieces. Visitors can also touch a bronze model of the USS Arizona memorial to understand how it appears to float above the shipwreck.
Another component that serves multiple audiences is the system of devices that provide assistive listening for hard-of-hearing visitors. Currently in development, these headsets will also provide descriptive audio of the exhibits for visually impaired visitors and audio tours in twelve languages for those who request them. When someone with this device approaches an exhibit, the associated audio selection is triggered by infrared signal.
Designing for double duty
AldrichPears and lead project fabricator Color-Ad Signage and Exhibits (Manassas, Va.) set their sights beyond the project’s accessibility goals.
“Our goal was to seamlessly exceed all accessibility requirements, making ‘special needs’ invisible wherever possible,” says Aldrich. In practice, this meant designing elements for “double duty” when possible. Instead of mounting a flat-printed map on the wall and a companion Braille panel at reach height, the designers built one larger cast-zinc panel layered with tactile and visual information, including Braille and raised English text. Sighted and non-sighted visitors can review military campaigns and other complex interpretive information together in one installation.
“The touchable elements were primary to our strategy and we reviewed the established strategy at each milestone,” adds Richard Lien, designer and project manager for AldrichPears. Don Grogan, vice president of Color-Ad, agrees: “We went all out to meet the needs of all visitors, exceeding the clearances for wheelchairs and testing the lighting and sightlines in a series of mockups.”
Occasionally accessibility standards required AldrichPears and Color-Ad to develop novel design solutions. “Twenty-seven inches was a critical height,” Lien recalls. Wheelchair clearance required some elements to be no lower than 27 in. while cane detection required some elements to be no higher than that. To resolve these clearances against potential changes in floor grade, the team designed a built-in “leveler” to adjust the height of some structures on-site.
NPS Accessibility Coordinator Michele Hartley sees this as an exciting time for accessibility. “We are starting to move beyond just an awareness of the laws,” she notes, and moving toward building universal design strategies into the planning stages of projects such as visitors centers.” She believes the next step is “to evaluate these experiences and use those findings to help us design the next generation of centers to be even more welcoming and accessible to all visitors.”
--By Leslie Wolke, segdDESIGN No. 32, 2011
WORLD WAR II VALOR IN THE PACIFIC NATIONAL MONUMENT
Client: U.S. National Park Service
Location: Honolulu, Hawaii
Interpretive Design: AldrichPears Associates
Design Team: Phil Aldrich (principal in charge); Richard Lien (project manager/designer); Doug Munday (designer); Cathryn Bingham, Ria Kawaguchi (graphic designers); Sheila Hill (content developer)
Architecture: Portico Group
Consultants: Aperture (A/V), Acumen Engineering (A/V hardware design), EOS Light Media (lighting design)
Fabrication: Color-Ad Signs and Exhibits (prime exhibit fabrication and sign contractor); Pacific Studios (prime subcontractor, tactile maps, model radar exhibit, interactive exhibits); Pacific Studio/Armor Systems UK (glass display cases, light, climatic controls); Systeme Huntington (perforated digital powder graphics); Winsor Fireform (porcelain enamel panels); Advance Corporation – Braille-Tac Division (zinc etched panels/signs); Aardvark Graphic Solutions (fused-polycarbonate panels); Independent Finishing (powdercoating); Matthews International (bronze plaques)
Photos: Ben West