Podcast: Political Machines — Innovations that let people be heard

Laurel Fritzsch interviews Rachna Choudhry for our podcast series.

A lobbyist and a Congressional staffer walk into a dinner party. It sounds like the start of some sort of inside-the-Beltway joke; instead, it’s an invention story. Rachna Choudhry and Marci Harris found common ground on a vexing issue–when constituents write in to Congress, there is no way of the writer knowing if the message has been received or for Congressional staffers to know that it’s coming from a real person. The result of that conversation is Popvox, a web tool that verifies, aggregates, and simplifies communication with Congress.

Rachna sat down with Laurel Fritzsch to talk about the process behind developing Popvox in our latest podcast. Click here to listen in.

Note: This post is not an endorsement of any product.

Igniting a Spark in the high desert of Nevada—sounds dangerous, right?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Sarah Gobbs-Hill, an Education Program Coordinator at the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in Reno, Nevada. A member of our Spark!Lab National Network, The Discovery has been home to the first Spark!Lab off the National Mall for just over a year.

Here in Reno, Nevada we like to do things a little different. So when a group of people decided to bring a discovery museum to the downtown area just south of the casinos, critics were a bit skeptical. “Who’s going to bring their family down there?” they said. But after seven years of fundraising, planning and construction, the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum (The Discovery) was born. The Discovery boasts 26,000 square feet of gallery space including a two-story climbing structure, a glass wall for the ephemeral painting made by fingers, an 85 foot-long river, and a lab for sparking the innovation held within the minds of those living in, and visiting, Northern Nevada.

The Spark!Lab Smithsonian at The Discovery has had an estimated 115,000 visitors in the first year, which is a lot for a city of just under a quarter million residents. In the museum’s first year, 10,000 students visited Spark!Lab as part of a school fieldtrip; for those interested teachers we created a specific fieldtrip class focused on collaboration and the principles of invention. Children and parents have shrieked with delight at the most shocking of our exhibits in Spark!Lab—Ben Franklin is a popular person in our space. We have added circuitry dough to our collection of activities, which allows us to create electric sculptures. We have invited our visitors to invent or redesign shoes, housing, transportation, and toys. A few of the best inventions by visitors so far have been a fan extravaganza (15 fans running off of snap circuits!); bionic biology (a robotic horse game that can be used to teach about anatomy); and a  toy-suck-a-rooni (a vacuum cleaner that sucks up toys without damaging them to leave a clean room). We never cease to be amazed by the creativity of the members of our community.

As with all new organizations we are learning the best way to support and work with our community. With the Spark!Lab at The Discovery, we aim to support the creative minds living here who are pushing the boundaries and creating a different vision for our community. We have big plans for The Discovery’s Spark!Lab moving forward and we believe, by working with our community and providing experiences that make people say, ”what will they think of next?,” we can not only spark their interest in innovation, but ignite the fire that will lead to “Reno-vation” and contribute to continued changes in the cultural landscape here in Northern Nevada.

Stanley Moves In

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the National Air and Space Museum’s blog. The author is National Museum of American History curator Carlene Stephens. 

On October 24, Stanley, winner of a historic robot race, left its home at the National Museum of American History aboard a flatbed truck and arrived safely at its destination, just seven blocks away. For the foreseeable future, Stanley will be here at the National Air and Space Museum, a centerpiece in the exhibition “Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting From Here to There.”

Stanley, an autonomous vehicle that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, hitches a ride from NMAH to NASM

Stanley hitches a ride to the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Richard Strauss. 

The irony of the situation escaped no one. Stanley, a driver-less vehicle that had navigated 132 miles on its own to win the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Grand Challenge, needed the help of scores of people AND a truck ride to get from there to here.

Frankly, moving Stanley is nerve-racking for me. I collected Stanley for the National Museum of American History’s robot collection. I feel responsible for Stanley’s safety and the safety of everyone involved with wrangling such a big, heavy car. On moving day, it turned out, there really was no cause for worry. Everybody—the National Museum of American History’s experienced vehicle mover Shari Stout, the skilled riggers from the artifact handling company, and the welcoming National Air and Space Museum staffers—knew exactly what to do to put Stanley in just the right spot for long-term display.

Now that Stanley is securely in place, though, there’s a moment to reflect. It’s worth thinking more deeply about the car’s place in “Time and Navigation” and the reasons for collecting contemporary objects for the Smithsonian in the first place.

Stanley moves into the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Mark Avino.

Stanley moves into the National Air and Space Museum. Photo by Mark Avino. 

Some have already wondered: what’s a car doing in the National Air and Space Museum? In “Time and Navigation,” we link Stanley directly to satellite navigation, a subject clearly within the museum’s scope. The car’s ability to drive itself is a new application for satellite navigation, made possible when computers combine GPS coordinates with other kinds of data to construct an image of the road ahead, complete with obstacles. And there’s another connection: Stanley operates on the ground in much the same way that UAVs, that’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, operate in the air. Stanley moved into the museum right under the UAV exhibition on the west end.

When Stanley won the off-road DARPA race in 2005, the achievement was a giant technical step forward for autonomous vehicles, the vehicles like Stanley that drive themselves. Now, seven short years later, numerous car makers and Google are testing self-driving cars. Three states—Nevada, Florida, and California—have passed legislation permitting them on state roads. Advocates foresee a future where such cars will relieve congestion on highways, reduce traffic accidents, and provide transportation for those who otherwise cannot or do not want to drive. No point going to the showroom to shop for your robot car just yet, but insiders predict the technology will be commercially available soon.

Nevada license plate issued for testing autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads. Photo by Wayne Wakefield.

Nevada license plate issued for testing autonomous vehicles on the state’s public roads. Photo by Wayne Wakefield. 

Predicting the future, like moving Stanley, makes me nervous. My training and interests make me passionate about the past. I’m a historian and a curator, not a soothsayer. Making decisions about what to collect from the long-ago past, a curator stands on pretty solid ground. Often there’s a body of existing research and documentation that verifies the importance of an object from long ago. That’s collecting from inside a comfort zone.

But collecting contemporary objects like Stanley comes close to predicting the future. It’s a risky business. Curators have to make educated guesses that today’s technical innovation will be tomorrow’s historic milestone. Curators who do contemporary collecting take the risk that an object making headlines today will remain representative of some important event or illustrative of how Americans absorbs new technologies. Such an object might even carry material evidence that inspires our successors to dig deeper into research we haven’t even imagined yet. Or maybe collecting such an object won’t have any of those useful outcomes. Maybe it will simply lie fallow forever after in storage. As I say, it’s a risky business.

An important indicator of an object’s historical worth is whether it yields rich insights. So far Stanley does not disappoint. On display at the National Museum of American History, Stanley represented the latest in a long line of wheeled robots, a history that can be traced back to Renaissance automatons. At the Air and Space Museum, Stanley’s technologies let us see inside the “black box” of navigation and consider emerging technologies that are likely to change the ways we get from here to there. Whether there will be more insights down the road, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Carlene Stephens is a curator at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. She is currently working with a team of curators, designers and restoration specialists at the National Air and Space Museum to develop the “Time and Navigation” exhibition.

Debating the Candidates, Family Style

On November 2 and 3, the Lemelson Center will be exploring the innovations that enable our democratic system to work and the technologies that have featured prominently in past campaigns and elections in our annual symposium, Political Machines. In the following post, which originally appeared on the National Museum of American History’s
O Say Can You See?, associate curator Debra Ann Hashim shares how televised debates spurred conversation amongst her family.

Federal government and politics have surrounded me for most of my life. I grew up in Washington, D.C., the hub of the nation for topics of national importance, where people tend to respond to the events in the national news. Even though I didn’t really start thinking about politics as a participant until I reached high school age, in the early 1970s, I have some vivid earlier memories of hearing conversations about politics at the dinner table.

The photograph of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon is from the debate held in Chicago on September 26, 1960, at the CBS studio. This was the first Presidential debate in history and it was televised, attracting 60% of American households with televisions.

Sometimes these conversations were lively. At first they were especially so when friends or out of town family members joined us; later on, I was often the one who stirred things up when I started asking questions. My older brother generally sided with my parents in these conversations, while my two younger brothers were too young to get involved. I was the “bleeding heart liberal,” so named by my father, and was usually alone in the views I held. However, that never stopped me from opening my mouth.

One of the activities we always enjoyed in an election year was discussing the candidates. I think the televised presidential and vice presidential debates offered the easiest way to get informed and made for the most immediate family conversation, whether in person or over the phone. Yet for us as a family who thrived on point-counterpoint, for quite a period of time we had to rely on the regular news and TV spots for information. There were no televised debates after 1960 until 1976.

I was too young to recall the very first presidential debates in 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. My first strong memories of talking about issues of the candidates were in 1972 when I was a junior in high school. I was against the Vietnam War and supported George McGovern—even though I remember feeling sad for his first running mate for Vice President, Thomas Eagleton, with the disclosure of his past health history. In terms of family conversation, we actually had some accord this time on certain issues, if not party preference. My older brother, who was of draft age, had filed for conscientious objector status and lost. We were worried sick.

By 1976, at the age of 21, I was right there by the television, anxious to watch and listen to the debates between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. That was the first year I would be able to vote in a presidential election, so it was especially important to me to become as informed as possible. I felt important, too. I would finally begin to understand the feeling of being a citizen who could vote.

Today, I can’t wait to watch these debates; they are one of my favorite parts of any campaign cycle. They offer an opportunity to hear the candidates address the issues in their own words, however rehearsed they may be. I look forward to being able to “get into it” with friends and family even though, as far as the family is concerned, I’m still their bleeding heart liberal.

The Division of Political History is fortunate to have in the collections some objects associated with presidential debates. Below are just a few:

These two chairs were used by Kennedy and Nixon in the televised debates. They are the same chairs that you see in the above photograph.

This photograph of then Governor Jimmy Carter and President Gerald Ford was from the 1976 debates. These were the first presidential debates since 1960 and they were sponsored by the League of Women Voters. 1976 was the year of the Bicentennial and the sense of history was very much in the descriptions of the debates given by political commentators. About 53.5% of American households with televisions watched.

This photograph, taken from the 1996 exhibition We the People: Winning the Vote held at this museum, depicts the podiums and chairs used at the 1976 debates.

Debra Anne Hashim is an associate curator in the Division of Political History.

Universal Design and the Museum: Technological Developments

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

My last two posts covered the topic of Universal Design in the museum in terms of structural features, such as ramps, and educational features involving sensory information. In this post, I am going to discuss some of the technological features of accessibility at the National Museum of American History.

You may remember from my first post on America on the Move  that the exhibit has a number of computer kiosks at each major site.

These kiosks are an example of Universal Design because they provide the same information in several ways – through interaction with the screen, text, and audio of the text, and in different languages. This means that international visitors can access the exhibits, and that if one kind of display, such as text or sound, is not accessible, another type is available.

A new exhibit, American Stories, uses a crowdsourcing app to help visitors understand how objects are important to the way that we talk about the history of the United States.

Upon entering American Stories, a sign tells you in both English and Spanish that an app is available for the exhibit. The large, oval-shaped, red and yellow sign has information on how to download the app on your smart phone, if you have one. The sign tells you how to participate in using the crowdsourcing functions of the app, or how to just listen if that is what you would rather do. This app was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Accessibility Program, using existing open-source software and adapting it for museum use.

You may notice that the sign does not say anything about this app being a feature for disability access. This is because as a Universal Design feature it is usable by a range of people seeking information in the exhibit. What makes this app interesting and significant, however, is the fact that it is accessible to people with disabilities, who can record their own perceptions and experiences with the objects of the exhibit for other people to hear. Including the voices of people who are often excluded from accessing spaces where knowledge is shared, like museums and schools, in the exhibit itself shows that people with disabilities are valuable parts of the public and have important things to say about the history of the United States.

How does the app work? When you download the app, the first screen you see asks whether you want to “listen” or “speak.” You can also record feedback on the app and the exhibit by clicking the yellow “i” icon at the bottom of the screen.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

You can choose to listen to the stories about the objects recorded by the museum curators or members of the public.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

You also have the choice of recording something about one of the objects, describing something else that should be included, talking about your experience in the exhibit, or responding to someone else’s recording.

You may notice from the above image of the menu that it is a clear and easy to read interface. The text is in a sans serif font. The parts of the menu with text feature high-contrast text, with the text itself in white and the background in either black or dark turquoise blue. This is another Universal Design feature – it helps make the text more visible and readable.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

This slide of Step 3 of recording through the app uses high contrast text, this time with black sans serif text on a white background. It also uses large, intuitive, and easy to understand icons that are explained within the menu. Using this menu, you may record and upload commentary on an object.

Another feature of the app is a map, again in high contrast, with white text on a black background, that shows the layout of the exhibit. You can choose which part of the exhibit you want to talk or hear about through the app using the map. This is both a part of the function of the app itself, and a way of helping with wayfinding within the exhibit.

Image courtesy of Beth Ziebarth.

There are, of course, access issues that are raised any time technology is used. For example, not everyone has access to smart phone technologies. However, the museum is working on a pilot program that involves checking out iPhones and iPads to visitors on a provisional basis. (Apple technologies are designed with Universal Design in mind – and have been around almost as long as the company itself has existed.) Designing an app that is usable on these technologies also makes it possible to use voice recognition, screen readers, and screen magnification to enhance the accessibility of the experience.

Individual technologies like smartphones are making it possible to provide information to visitors in museums in a range of ways. Whereas some exhibits must build accessibility into their structure – by placing placards at certain heights and making sure to have kiosks with sound or screens with captioning – smartphones are now becoming able to provide multiple sources of data (text, sound, and even haptic feedback) to users. They can be mounted on stands, attached to arms, and used without a lot of upper body strength. Most importantly, these devices move through exhibits with the visitor. If a sign is not at the right height, the device can still provide the same information. If audio is unclear, it can be replayed.

Both software and hardware developments allow users to choose how they receive and provide information. (For more information on accessibility research on wireless devices, such as cell phones, see the work of Universal Design advocates, James Mueller and Mike Jones, at the Wireless RERC at the Georgia Institute of Technology.)

It will be exciting to see how this app is further developed to incorporate usability for languages beyond English and Spanish, and also whether it will set a standard for interaction and accessibility in other exhibits. Future versions could have text transcription of the audio, or incorporate video and other kinds of crowdsourced information.

One last bit of Universal Design: American Stories, like many of the museum’s exhibits, has a website, where you can access images and information about many of the things in the exhibit no matter where you are.

Intern Perspective: A Summer of Real Work

Kevin Borow spent the summer as a Lemelson Center video intern. He is currently a junior at American University.

Kevin behind the camera.

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation: “Such a long name,” I thought, when reading the list of internships offered through American University’s School of Communication’s Dean’s internship program. Little did I know, such a big name translates into big things going on here at the National Museum of American History. For an office that is planning its own exhibition in the Museum (set to open in 2015), runs a program inspiring young people to invent and innovate, and has published several books (look for another to be published in September), all the while coordinating interns and fellows to conduct research, one would never fathom this office consists of about 15 people.

The employees of the Lemelson Center are a unique group. Educated in fields from history to new media, they are a huge contributor to the Smithsonian and the National Museum of American History. And for the summer of 2012, I was able to count myself as one of them.

Kevin mans the camera at the Rodney Mullen interview. Photo by Laurel Fritzsch.

As a junior at American University studying film and business, I was humbled by the opportunity to intern at the Smithsonian during my first summer staying in D.C. I was treated as an employee, given responsibilities that actually held weight in the office, a rare occurrence in the life of the unpaid intern. I learned motion graphics and edited promo videos to be shown to other museums. I filmed Rodney Mullen, a pro skateboarder on the same level, if not above that of Tony Hawk and Stacy Peralta. Actual employees of other institutions don’t even get to have this much fun!

On the more serious side, I am truly grateful to the Lemelson Center and the Smithsonian to affording me this fantastic opportunity. I learned so much and worked with some of the most intelligent and passionate people I’ve ever met. I made it through the heat, the humidity, the tourists, and the metro system, all to come out on the other side richer for the experience. (And the networking opportunities were a plus…)

Universal Design and the Museum: Sensory Features

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

In my last blog post, I discussed different Universal Design strategies used in the America on the Move exhibit at National Museum of American History. Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. Because museums have so many visitors and have to represent information to a range of people – of all ranges of ability, ages, and cultural backgrounds – they have adopted some very innovative Universal Design strategies.

In this post, I am going to discuss some of the design features of museum exhibits that incorporate sensory information appealing to sight, touch, sound, and even smell! Providing information through different senses is one way of doing Universal Design, because it takes into account all of the different ways that people perceive and learn.


This image from America on the Move shows a cast iron of food with a sign that says “sniff” on the lid. You can turn the handle on the pot to smell the food inside. This provides information about the food, as well as the vessel in which it would have been cooked.



One of the most important ways of designing for multiple senses is to provide haptic information – information that you can touch. Touch can help us understand how something feels, how it is shaped, and how its parts relate to one another. If a person has low vision, but can touch something, they will be able to get a more complex understanding of the object that is being seen. Throughout the Smithsonian, there are a number of objects that ask you to touch them in order to get more information. These are usable by anyone, and, for many of us, provide information that the text of the exhibit does not.

Here is a map that you can touch from America on the Move. It shows the layout of a house, with raised walls. If you touch more than one part of the map at once, you can think about how the rooms are spatially related to one another. At the bottom, there are railroad tracks that are also raised. Inside of each room, there is text that tells you what the room is. This text is unfortunately not raised. If you have low vision or your eyes are closed, you may be able to feel the words but you will not be able to read them necessarily. Even though some aspects of the design are accessible, others may not be necessarily.

The above sign from the National Museum of American History exhibit, The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, shows a haptic map of the exhibit with a block of Braille text to the left. A person wanting to know what is in the exhibit can look at the map, touch it, read the Braille, or do all of the above! To understand how to move through the space, there are raised tactile arrows leading from one area into another. The text inside of each space is also larger than in the previous map, so that it can be touched and read. Haptic maps such as this one make the layout of the exhibit clearer and establish better wayfinding

This image shows a red plastic model of a house in the Within These Walls exhibition at the American History museum. By touching the model, you can get a sense of the dimensions of the house and where the windows and doors are. You may not be able to read the placard below or get information about what happens inside the house, however.

The above image of a haptic model from the Wright Brothers exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum shows how a tactile map can display different kinds of information that are useful to people with different abilities. The bronze map has raised text and Braille text. It shows the details of a journey, complete with land, mountains, and a railroad. When I visited this exhibit on several occasions, the space around the map was the most crowded part of the exhibit. Adults and children were both touching the various parts of the map to get different kinds of information.

Here is a model of the Big Bang from Explore the Universe at the Air and Space museum. It is the most interesting of all of the models I have seen because it not only represents an image in three dimensional form, as the others do, but it also conveys a sense of time. On the side of the image furthest from the viewer in this image, the Big Bang begins and the bronze on the panel is relatively smooth, with small dimples and bubbles. As it moves to the left, the bubbles grow larger and more complex, demonstrating the way that matter in the universe became more complex over time. By feeling the contours of the model, as well as looking at its appearance, we get a very interesting story about how matter changed over time as the universe expanded.


Have you ever been to an exhibit where there was a lot of text that was hard to see? Maybe there was low light, or the font was too small? This image, also from the Air and Space museum, shows a high contrast display. This means that the image background and text contrast with each other so much that the text is clear. In this case, the white text on black background makes it easier to see if you have low vision, or if you have been inside of a dark exhibit for a few minutes and you are straining to see. The images of various space rocks are also backlit to make them easier to see.


As you go through the Air and Space or American History museums, you may notice that the videos have captions on them that describe the sounds being made and also tell you what words are being said. This serves many purposes. For people who are hard of hearing, it provides the information visually. It also is helpful for people who have hearing but may be in the exhibit at a time that is very busy.

These are only a few examples of sensory-based accessibility at the Smithsonian. As you can tell, these features are useful for everyone – not only people with particular disabilities, but also people who benefit from having information displayed in multiple ways. Visiting these exhibits and imagining what they would be like without these features helps us understand that accessibility is not an issue about individual people needing accommodations to help them get into the space, but a collective issue that benefits a broader range of people.

Stay tuned for Aimi’s final post on technological developments at museums.

Universal Design and the Museum

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts by Lemelson fellow Aimi Hamraie. Aimi is a PhD candidate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation examines Universal Design and disability. Her blogs will discuss accessibility features at the Smithsonian, particularly the National Museum of American History.

Universal Design is the idea that spaces and products should be intentionally designed to be accessible to as many people as possible. The idea grew out of disability access – the design or retrofit of buildings and technologies to be accessible to people with disabilities, such as wheelchair users, people with low vision, or people who are hard of hearing. Most of the time, features of the built environment that are accessible to people with disabilities are retrofits, meaning that they are added on after a design is already planned.

When a wheelchair ramp is added as an afterthought, often to the back of a building, it means that wheelchair users cannot enter in the same way as other people. Often, this means entering through an alley next to a garbage dumpster, or needing to call someone to turn on a wheelchair lift. This reinforces the notion that having a disability means that a person is disqualified from public life and community.

Photo via Creative Commons.

In the above image, a concrete ramp has been paved on top of brick stairs on the exterior of the building. The building was inaccessible to people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices with wheels. It was also inaccessible to anyone pushing a stroller or cart. These kinds of retrofits are often less desirable than better designs that take into account the effects of a design feature before the space, technology, or product is even built.

Blusson Spinal Cord Center in Vancouver. Photo by Aimi Hamraie.

In contrast, this image shows the interior of the Blusson Spinal Cord Center in Vancouver, British Columbia. This ramp is an example of Universal Design because it is the central design feature of this building and accesses every floor in the building. It is flexible and can be used by anyone – not just wheelchair users – to get to the upper floors.

Accessibility at the Smithsonian Institution

Since 1968, federal disability access laws have required the accessibility of various spaces and technologies, including buildings, public spaces, information technology, and transportation systems. Federal buildings were the first structures required to be accessible. Because the Smithsonian Institution is federally funded, it began its efforts to make museums accessible as early as the mid-1970’s. As a result, Smithsonian sites have not only been retrofitted to be more accessible, but the Smithsonian itself has developed innovative accessibility strategies and policies, including design features that follow Universal Design.

As a Lemelson fellow, I had the opportunity to look at the Smithsonian’s institutional archives on accessibility as a case study for my dissertation project on Universal Design. I am interested in how museums in the Smithsonian system use Universal Design and accessibility to disseminate knowledge and educate the public. Because the group of people visiting any Smithsonian museum is incredibly broad, I was interested to learn more about how the museums took this range of people into account in designing exhibits. The features I discuss below are in addition to those offered by the museum, such as docent tours or wheelchairs, that are in compliance with accessibility laws but do not have to do with exhibit design.

America on the Move

America on the Move is a transportation exhibit at National Museum of American History with a number of Universal Design features. These features are significant because they are so seamlessly integrated into the design of the exhibit that you will not notice them unless you know what you are looking for. For this post, I am going to focus on mobility features – meaning how the space is designed for people with disabilities, particularly wheelchair users, to move through it.

The above image shows ramps descending into a long hallway, with various vehicles on either side. From the slope of the ramps and the rails on them, you may be able to tell that this is the kind of space that may have previously had stairs. The ramps serve as elevated platforms that give you access into seeing inside of the window of the house on the right and the trailer on the left. When you get to the bottom, you can read or hear information about these parts of the exhibits on the kiosk.

The kiosks and displays, you may notice, are about two to three feet from the ground. This puts them at eye level for people who are seated in wheelchairs, people of short stature, or children who may be using the exhibit. The screens are tilted up to make them easier to read from a range of heights. The kiosks are also interactive, providing information in both text and voice for museum visitors in different languages.

Some of the other ramps are so subtle that you may miss them if you are not paying attention. This image shows a ramp that approaches a Chicago transit system bus in the exhibit. The ramp is so slight that it just appears that the floor slopes slightly upward to meet the bus. On the left, you can see a handrail that shows that it is indeed a ramp. Also notice that there are no stairs in this area. The ramp is usable to everyone.

Above, you can see that when the ramp reaches the bus, there is a flat entrance into the bus. Someone in a wheelchair can easily enter the bus without needing an additional ramp.

Now you can see inside of the bus. Although this bus was probably not accessible at the time that it was used, people using wheelchairs or strollers can easily enter the space because the first few rows of seats on the right side have been removed. When I was visiting the exhibit, I even saw a few tourists with rolling luggage enter the bus! This shows what a little bit of spatial reconfiguration can do for accessibility. Putting these features directly into the exhibit encourages multiple ways of using the space by different people.

One last design feature worth mentioning is this small theater area. Facing the screen are two rows of seats. The first row has three seats, while the back row has five. The spaces in the first row that are open are places where people in wheelchairs can join the theater and have a view from the first row. Many theaters have similar spaces, but in back rows in places with less than optimal viewing access. In this theater space, though, accessibility is privileged in the design of the space. Of course, if no one sits in these spaces, you cannot even tell! This is all part of the seamless integration of Universal Design into the exhibit.

Stay tuned for Aimi’s next posts looking at sensory features and technological developments.

Words from a Lemelson Center Intern

Joel Pelovitz spent the summer of 2012 as a Lemelson Center intern. He is currently a senior at Muhlenberg College.

Joel Pelovitz

It is hard to believe that the summer has already come and gone right before my eyes. Over the last two months, I have had the pleasure of interning with the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center, located within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The primary concern of the center itself is the conveyance of information regarding innovation and invention, while also sharing the story of inventor and co-founder Jerome Lemelson. As I stepped onto a busy metro car on June 4th (my first day), I was not sure what to expect upon my arrival. As this was my first professional experience within a museum, I was not entirely aware of what my role would be or what impact it would have. On top of it all, I was scheduled to start right after my orientation. Talk about jumping right in!

Once I had attended a brief yet informative orientation, I made my way to the Lemelson office located on the first floor of the museum. No sooner had I walked through the door then was I greeted by a team of friendly and accommodating co-workers. It was immediately apparent to me that the office space was a direct reflection of what the Lemelson Center stands for, that is it was an ideal representation of innovative and collaborative qualities at work. It is no wonder that all of my best ideas and contributions have taken place in this very office, amongst this dedicated group of individuals. What’s more, I found it gratifying that my ideas were given due consideration. I felt especially privileged by this because it showed me that the team really wanted me to feel and be treated as a professional.

It was not long before I started work on the Places of Invention project. POI, for short, is an exhibit set to debut in 2015, which will incorporate six different case studies. Each case study is representative of a time and place, either past or present, in which invention and creativity were prevalent. The objective of the exhibition is to instill in the minds of visitors that place matters in terms of invention and that individuals, in accordance with their communities, are usually responsible for technological breakthroughs. When I was brought on as a researcher, I knew I would be assisting in the collection of information, yet I never could have guessed how much more involved I was going to be in other aspects of the center/exhibition.

Not only was I reading through certain texts indicated by the curators, but I was actually making important connections within the readings, for which the curators expressed appreciation. I was also, on multiple occasions, able to locate new textual and visual media representations. I was glad that the information I provided was useful to the curators. Working alongside them really opened my eyes to thinking about invention in new ways, from Albert Pope and Samuel Colt in Hartford to Grandmaster Flash and DJ Kool Herc in the Bronx. After only a week of being there I was able to attend the POI Affiliates Project Workshop at which representatives from all museums involved in the project were present. I participated in two of the floor design meetings with Roto (the exhibition design firm hired on to build the space) and contributed three different potential interactive ideas. I could literally see the design phase progressing and materializing before me!

One of the interactive ideas that I designed was a simplified version of a talk box. What a talk box does is channel sound frequencies from an electronic source such as a musical keyboard, guitar amplifier, or a computer into a tube which is then placed in the user’s mouth. The mouth then acts as an acoustic prism, which by changing its shape effectively achieves sound modulation by manipulating wavelengths. What this means in English is that by connecting a sealed-off apparatus equipped with a tube to the top of a speaker, it leaves nowhere for the sound to exit but through the tube. One then simulates forming words with their mouth and the speaker talks! I was personally able to prototype a working model in the office with Steve Madewell (the Interpretive Exhibits Coordinator), who expressed great interest in potentially using it for the center’s acclaimed Spark!Lab. The Spark!Lab is a hands-on workshop where children can put their creativity to work in designing their own inventions.

Aspiring curator, inventor and guitarist at work

The experience I had while interning at the Smithsonian was better than I ever could have imagined. As museum curation has been a strong consideration of mine for a career path, my time here has given me true insight into the behind the scenes operations within a museum setting. It has perfectly aligned my interests in both history and technology. My father is an engineer and I had also considered engineering in the past. My father’s work connected him with long-time family friend and business associate, Ralph Baer, inventor of the original “Brown Box” videogame console, the Simon light game and other commercial products. Having been raised in such a creative environment — in which even my childhood toys could be inspiration to Ralph and my father — I developed a fascination with technology. Memories of my childhood exposure to their collaboration have resurfaced and in working with the Lemelson team I have only reinvigorated that fascination. Thank you to all in the Lemelson office for making me feel like a true member of the team!