2004 Conference Proceedings

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ACCESSIBILITY AND VIRTUAL EXHIBITIONS

Presenters
Valérie Chartrand
Canadian Heritage Information Network
Phone: (819) 994-1200 / 1 800 520-2446
Fax: (819) 994-9555
Email: valerie_chartrand@pch.gc.ca

Jillian Deevy
T-Base Communications
Phone: (613) 236-0866
Fax: (613) 236-0484
Email: jdeevy@tbase.com

The Virtual Museum of Canada (VMC), developed by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), brings Canada's rich and diverse heritage into Canadian homes and schools. The VMC dramatically increases the ability of its member museums to reach all Canadians via the Internet. This initiative generates a whole range of cooperative efforts and exchanges between museum professionals, educators, multimedia industry professionals and others working in the heritage field. With over 6,500,000 visits from more than 140 countries since its launch in March 2001, the VMC is now established as one of the world's premier heritage gateways.

CHIN is a world leader in virtual exhibit development. Since 1995, we have produced more than 35 virtual exhibits in cooperation with hundreds of Canadian museums and heritage related institutions - involving partnerships with more than 25 countries. These partnerships have provided CHIN the opportunity to garner unique experience in creating and exhibiting prize winning digital content.

The Canadian heritage community holds in trust countless treasures on behalf of communities, provinces and the nation. Through the production of virtual exhibits for the VMC, CHIN uses its expertise to ensure that multimedia knowledge and skills are available to Canadian museums, providing them with the tools needed to effectively use technology within their own organizations. The cooperative environment in which CHIN's executive produced virtual exhibits are developed generates cutting-edge results. Sharing our experiences within our membership and internationally has earned CHIN, and its collaborators and members, worldwide recognition for excellence.

Experimentation with new technologies, educational approaches and management practices ensure that CHIN's executive produced virtual exhibits go where no one has gone before! By sharing knowledge and stimulating innovation, CHIN is committed to ensuring that executive produced virtual exhibits enable museums to gain invaluable experience that is transferable to the production of their own virtual exhibits for the VMC.

In February 2004, a new virtual exhibit: Valentine's Day: Love and Romance Through the Ages was launched by the VMC (http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/Exhibitions/Valentine). This virtual exhibition consists of an exploration of the history of Valentine's Day and its celebration around the world through museum and archive collections from Canada and abroad. The goal of this project was to produce a high quality Web-based virtual exhibit on the subject of Valentine's Day that would provide an educational online experience for a general public audience, inclusive of people with physical disabilities. The exhibit is intended to be compatible with a broad variety of Internet access technologies. Embracing diversity, through research and rigorous testing, the project aimed to result in the first fully accessible exhibit presented on the Virtual Museum of Canada.

Capture of the home page prototype for the Valentine's Day project

Prototype of the homepage for Valentine's Day: Love and Romance Through the Ages.

For many people, accessing Web content is more complicated than clicking a mouse and operating a modem. Some people rely on assistive technologies such as text readers, audio players and voice-activated devices to overcome the barriers presented by standard technologies. Others may be limited by their own technology. But old browsers, non-standard operating systems, slow connections, small screens or text-only screens should not stand in the way of obtaining information that is available to others.

The Government of Canada demonstrated its ability to produce a modern and inclusive window of service when the Treasury Board ministers approved the Common Look and Feel Standards (CLF) for Government of Canada Internet websites about three years ago (http://www.cio-dpi.gc.ca/clf-upe/index_e.asp). Department and agency Internet websites were to be compliant with the Standards by December 31st, 2002.

CLF Standard 1.1 provides for accessibility through the adoption of Priorities One and Two of the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). In this way, Government of Canada ensures that information content and web designs will accommodate diverse communication styles, geographical location and technology preferences of internal and public audiences. VMC virtual exhibits do not have to conform to CLF Standards, however, in the case of the Valentine's Day project, we strove for compliance. To achieve this goal of creating a universally accessible virtual exhibition, the development process was followed closely by a Web accessibility working group and an accessibility evaluation service. This resulted in a unique accessible virtual exhibition as well as a working document to be used as a tool by other museums wishing to create accessible content.

T-Base Communications (http://www.tbase.com/) was our collaborator throughout the project. T-Base was responsible for following the development process and worked closely with the web team to ensure the virtual exhibition would be as accessible as possible.

Throughout the various phases of the project, accessibility testing was implemented as part of the standard process. A variety of adaptive and portable communication devices, along with different user preferences and technology platforms, were used to examine the outcome of the template designs. After evaluations were performed, ACES provided coaching sessions to the development team to illustrate areas that presented barriers to accessibility and to explore the many possible solutions that could ensure those barriers were eliminated. The sessions enhanced the web teams knowledge and increased their capacity to not only build an accessible exhibit, but to maintain one into the future.

Capture of the home page prototype for the Valentine's Day project as displayed by a text only browser

Testing the prototype site with a text only browser (Lynx).

A few highlights of the testing that ensured the exhibit would be cross-platform compatible were:

In addition, CHIN recognized that it was key to ensure accessibility was not considered at the end of the project. Meeting the timeline and budget for our Valentines project meant that accessibility had to be incorporated into the very planning stages. This approach resulted in avoiding retrofitting activities and expensive associated costs.

Accessibility online plays an important role in our future. The technology that supports this modern communication medium has the potential to provide equality of services to our diverse society like no other communication tool in our past.

Where we used to design our communication strategies based on differences in how we communicate, we are now provided the opportunity to focus on our commonalities. In this case the commonality is the technology that renders information via sight, sound and touch - or our 'common senses'. Historically we only reached approximately 50% of our targeted audience, using this new communication methodology we can now reach more people than ever before.

This means we can design our products, programs and services to reach more people, more responsibly. It means we can better engage society in issues of governance, participation, health, employment, sciences and cultural arts. It means we can better share our cultures, languages, histories and the design of our integrated futures. Most importantly, this means we can now provide a universal environment of global scale; one of inclusiveness rather than segregation.

The Virtual Museum of Canada, as one of the world's premier heritage gateways, strives to increase the ability of its member museums to reach all Canadians via the Internet. By creating accessible content and providing the tools to member museums to pursue this enterprise, we are going a step forward to ensure equitable access to Canadian museum content for everyone.


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