Editor’s note: This article was written by Joe Hiland, a web content specialist at IU Libraries.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — For Carey Champion, director of Indiana University Libraries’ Wylie House Museum, accessibility has always been at the forefront of the museum’s mission to support student and faculty research, and to provide the broader community with an important link to Bloomington’s past.
Yet the realities of maintaining a 19th century house in historically accurate condition can make physical access challenging.
For instance, in 1835 the Wylie House was built with steep and narrow staircases connecting the ground floor to the first floor, and an even more steep and narrow staircase connecting the first floor to the attic. For many visitors, these staircases make the upper floors difficult or impossible to access physically.
Fortunately, with the help of students and faculty at the IU Kelley School of Business, Wylie House now offers a 21st century solution.
In 2019 and 2020 Champion worked with the Indiana University IU3D Team to create a Matterport virtual tour of the historic building. This not only provided virtual access to the upper floors for patrons with mobility issues, it also proved to be an indispensable tool for continuing the museum’s academic mission when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
“The tour launched shortly before IU Bloomington classes were forced to go fully remote, allowing the Wylie House to provide alternative curricular support to instructors, and virtual access to both students and community members.
More recently, expanding the virtual tour allowed the Wylie House to better share its newest permanent installation — an interpretation of the attic bedroom occupied by Elizabeth Breckenridge. Elizabeth was a Black woman who lived with and worked as a paid domestic employee for IU professor Theophilus Wylie’s family. Wylie House was built in 1835 by his cousin, Andrew Wylie, the first president of IU. Elizabeth eventually purchased a home of her own in Bloomington, which she lived in for a short time prior to her death in 1910.
Breckenridge’s mother is widely believed to have been a leader in the local Underground Railroad.
“We will never be able to offer an elevator, but we can offer everyone a look at the upstairs spaces with a virtual tour shared via the museum’s iPad or patrons’ personal devices. It is wonderful to be able to provide an option to overcome the physical challenge that stairs can present,” Champion said. “Last year, I learned how much more we could and should do to accommodate even more people.”
Keith Neidermeier, clinical professor of marketing at the Kelley School, attended an online meeting where Champion shared the virtual tour with faculty, and approached her with an idea to help make the visitor experience even more accessible.
While the first iteration of the virtual tour opened the upper floors of the museum to patrons with physical mobility limitations, it also raised its own accessibility issues. The Matterport platform didn’t interact well with screen readers, and the navigation could be hard for users who experience difficulty with fine motor skills or sensory processing.
Niedermeier put Champion in contact with AVA Inclusivity, a Los Angeles-based tech firm specializing in website and app accessibility. He had done consulting work for them before coming to IU and knew they were looking to expand their services to include virtual tours for museums and historic sites.
AVA Inclusivity consulted with the Wylie House and agreed to take on its virtual tour as the first beta test of their virtual accessibility plugin, which would address these issues through integration with screen and multiple forms of interaction with the tour, for example, keyboard control, for users who have difficulties navigating traditional webpages or using a mouse.
Niedermeier knew the Wylie House and AVA Inclusivity would be a good match, given their mutual commitment to accessibility in public spaces. “At an institution like IU,” he said, “When you have a digital space it’s always also a public space. And public space needs to be accessible.”
Leads to a cross-campus collaboration
As AVA Inclusivity was developing the accessible virtual tour, the Kelley School became involved in the project again, this time through the American Marketing Association at Indiana University, an organization co-led by Niedermeier and Jennifer Riley Simone, lecturer of marketing. The organization has long promoted the importance of community engagement for Kelley students with a focus on pro-bono projects supporting local non-profits.
After learning about the Wylie House’s accessibility efforts, a group of students decided to get involved.
They applied for and received a grant from the IU Chapter of AMA. The grant sought funding to create a marketing plan to help the Wylie House promote the new accessible tour to faculty and other community members. It was an ambitious undertaking, but Riley Simone knew the students would be up to the challenge.
“What’s remarkable about Kelley students is their drive,” she said. “When they get excited about a project, they really sink their teeth into it. And the students involved with this project were thrilled to help a non-profit organization that has such a direct impact on their local community.”
Both Niedermeier and Riley Simone emphasized the importance of teaching students in the Kelley School to understand how impactful the skills they learn in their classes can be to non-profit entities such as the Wylie House Museum. Engagement with projects of this kind fosters a sense of community that stays with students long after graduation.
Riley Simone teaches a course, Creating Digital Content Practicum, that has brought other students together with local non-profits such as Monroe County CASA, CanopyBloomington and Girls Inc. of Monroe County.
For the Wylie House, the students’ contributed highlighted the fundamentally collaborative nature of any accessibility efforts, not the mention the fact that such efforts are always ongoing, and always evolving to address the needs of more and more people.
“Through our collaboration with AVA Accessibility and the Kelley students, we created an accessible version of our virtual tour that addresses challenges people face with fine motor skills, vision impairment, and sensory processing,” Champion said. “I used to say that the museum’s audience was ‘everyone,’ without realizing how many people we were potentially leaving out. The advanced features on the accessibility version of our virtual tour make me feel much more confident that when I say that now, it is much closer to being true.”