Karns Teen Creates Greater Access to History Museum

Photo by Jennifer Warren

Karns High School senior Mia Warren helped open the doors to the Museum of East Tennessee History a little wider recently. A project she undertook for her Girl Scout Gold Award makes the museum’s exhibits more accessible to people with impaired vision. 

Her inspiration was family friend Campbell Rutherford. Only able to see light since birth, Campbell had to rely on a sighted person to read her the information at museums. The girls brainstormed a solution and came up with one that’s easy and inexpensive: QR codes which visitors can access on their smartphones.

Mia approached the history center with her project, and Adam Alfrey, assistant director for historical services, says they were impressed with how well thought out her project was. They gave her the green light to proceed at the end of 2021. 

The time-consuming part of the project was entering all the artifact descriptions at a website created by the museum. It took Mia the better part of two summers to complete the task. Included in the descriptions is information to orient someone to their surroundings and navigate through the space. 

In all, six large (six-inch square) QR codes are positioned throughout the museum. Each one covers the content of the room in which it’s located. Someone entering the room just has to activate the QR reader on their phone to pick up the information, which is read aloud. Campbell, who is able to listen to the descriptions at a much higher speed than most people, can absorb the information in exhibits at her own pace. 

The project was unveiled at an open house on Jan. 3, and was well received by members of a group of reduced- or non-sighted people Campbell knew. “It was amazing to see them experience the museum and interact with the system,” Alfrey says. Visitors also are given gloves to allow them to touch certain artifacts, including the streetcar in the Voices of the Land exhibit. “A mom and her son toured, and he was able to put on gloves and get a sense of the scale, the textures, of what streetcars were all about.” 

The museum surprised Mia by naming the project after her: Museums Increasing Accessibility, or MIA for short. Alfrey hopes to share the project at conferences and encourage other institutions to get involved. “The beauty of this is that it’s not a huge financial or technological hurdle to jump over. And we’re looking at the scalability, too. We can use the same platform to translate information into other languages as well.”

Mia would love to see the project spread. “When museums change or add to their exhibits, it’s easy to enter updates in the website,” she says. “I think schools could use it to help students navigate around them, too.”

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