The focus group in conversation: “It was like seeing something that others can’t see.”

Translated excerpt from the German publication: Elke Gryglewski/Hans-Christian Jasch/David Zolldan (Hrsg.): Design für Alle. Standard? Experiment? Notwendigkeit? Das Making of zur 3. Dauerausstellung. Berlin: Metropol, 2021. p. 139-169.

© GHWK Berlin
The focus group during a workshop dealing with the minutes of the meeting at Wannsee and the language used by the perpetrators, German Resistance Memorial Center, Berlin, 2017.

For three years, a group of “experts in their own cause” worked on the content and design of the new exhibition following a “Design for All” approach. Right from the beginning, the focus group worked as a committee to achieve an inclusive exhibition. The intention was to meet as many needs as possible that arise from physical, mental and sensory impairments. In the course of the process, a total of ten people from associations for people with disabilities participated as representatives for the aspects seeing, hearing, moving, understanding and feeling. The work was supported by two experts on accessibility, Hilke Groenewold and Christiane Schrübbers. The tasks of the advisory and co-planning group included orientation aids in and around the building, text styles, furniture design, technical and digital aids and the colour concept, as well as more abstract questions concerning the visibility of inclusive measures or compromises between accessibility, listed building requirements and aesthetic design. In a conversation with the project leaders, Elke Gryglewski and David Zolldan, they review their impressions. The conversation, in which most of the group took part, is reproduced here in abridged form.

Elke Gryglewski: We deliberately wanted to create an exhibition that followed the “Design for All” approach. Do you feel that what can now be seen on the ground floor is a design for all and is also good?

Elke Janßen (Accompanying Marion Herschel, Lebenshilfe Berlin): A design for all? I think that many things are possible, but a design truly for all is probably utopian. But the exhibition definitely reflects the will to achieve it.

Andreas Liebke (Psychologically affected): I think so, and I would also almost say that it’s definitely an exhibition for everyone. From my perspective, pretty much everyone was thought of as much as possible. My wish, for example, was to make it significantly less text-intensive, and that was done.

Andreas Krüger (Visually impaired): “Design for All” and a barrier-free, inclusive exhibition – these are buzzwords that are always tossed around lightly. We have, of course, also discussed this. And as a community we’ve often said that it’s an important indication for us when attention is drawn to such elements and access for our groups, even if not everything is barrier-free as one would imagine and is perhaps also stipulated by law. Nevertheless, the intention is clear, and that ultimately indicates the attitude of the museum.

David Zolldan: I would like to talk about accessibility in terms of your needs. When you go to a museum or look at an exhibition somewhere, what barriers do you see? What makes it difficult for you to understand the content?

C. Pargmann (Learning impaired): If there’s no guidance system or headphones to tell you where to go. There are many museums that are very unstructured. Or the language, for example in history: Where’s the beginning? How did everything start – you often can’t understand that.

Krüger: The biggest problem for me is actually disorientation, finding my way around a strange building. How can I relax and get to my actual reason for visiting the museum, the exhibits? How can I protect myself, how can I protect the exhibits? And meanwhile it no longer gives me any pleasure at all to go to an exhibition with big barriers. This relates to aspects such as colour and lighting design. Or inadequate provisions for, say, blind and visually impaired users, such as floor guidance systems, tactile media or descriptions of pictures. In the end, it’s also about being appreciated as a visitor with your needs or limitations. Being accepted, both by the museum staff and by the other visitors.

Cordula Schürmann (Learning impaired): If there’s a massive amount of text somewhere, and, on top of that, hard to read. Maybe there are people who read all of it. But there are also people who think: “Yeah, come on, you might as well not bother.”

Gryglewski: And can you see that a group of accessibility experts worked on the exhibition, that you were involved as a group?

Anja Winter (Blind): It’s clear that a quite diverse team of “experts in their own cause” was involved in the exhibition design, as this is reflected in the wide range of approaches.

Fritz-Bernd Kneisel (Hearing impaired): I would confirm that. We can definitely see it. Whether the visitors can in the end, I don’t know.

Andrea Mattern (Hearing impaired): We have the tactile elements. We have the guidance system for the blind, the listening stations with inductive elements and the media guides with easy language. I certainly think you can already see it.

Janßen: And wheelchair-accessible exhibition tables.

Krüger: The aspect of inclusive access is dealt with openly here. You can also see it in the colour design and the equal juxtaposition of the different text and connecting elements. And then, of course, it’s also evident on site, within the memorial, that there have been training sessions for the staff, who now have a confident approach to dealing with diverse groups. Nothing is concealed. And so education is also done here. The visitors without disabilities know what is happening here and also who else visits the memorial.

Gryglewski: How would you describe the atmosphere of the exhibition?

Janßen: The character of the rooms has been preserved. The exhibits and media stations are clearly arranged and there’s enough space between them.

Schürmann: I also think it looks much more spacious now. Before, you came in and were immediately overwhelmed by the sheer number of exhibits. But now you have the plan to feel your way around, you can stand there and look, ah, that’s the way! At the beginning you come to the big video wall with the typing sounds, and then the tiles. The tiles, I think, with their blue shade really come into their own now. Or the fabric [on the wall]: I think it fits.

Krüger: I don’t really want to make a final judgement, because unfortunately I haven’t been there since the opening [due to the pandemic]. On the one hand, the exhibition elements, i.e. the exhibition architecture and arrangement, draw more curiosity and more concentration on the main themes. And I can decide for myself whether and how I want to focus on which topic. If I want to delve deeper into the subject matter, I have to do this and that. And that’s more obvious now than in the old permanent exhibition, where all the information was on an equal footing. And then there’s indeed this somewhat airy atmosphere that the rooms radiate now, so that I feel the architecture of the building even more.

Zolldan: I would suggest that we move on to the next set of questions, namely questions about the work together. I sometimes recall the first meeting. There we did pretty much everything wrong that could be done wrong. For example, we kept forgetting to introduce ourselves for the visually impaired before speaking.

Krüger: I remember the first meeting. There was still a considerable amount of reticence there. It was certainly noticeable that people were very reserved. But after people got to know each other and introduced themselves, and proved how important it was for them to work on the process, that settled down. And we really were a team that also discussed the contents of the exhibition in detail and used different language levels to really bring everyone with us. That’s what I found most impressive.

Gryglewski: Yes, finding a common language was a problem at first. We sometimes didn’t know if the language we used among ourselves was OK for everyone.

Janßen: There’s the technical jargon used among curators and museum professionals, that’s so ingrained that it was difficult for museum experts to let go of it. I was particularly pleased that we did manage to speak simply in a group with many intellectually trained people. At times I thought that was impossible. After all, many contexts were complex. I was also impressed by how the staff from the House of the Wannsee Conference, the curators and other participants got involved in these constructive discussions.

© Foto: GHWK
The focus group testing the permanent exhibition at the Anne Frank Zentrum, Berlin, January 18, 2019.

Zolldan: During the meetings, the question arose several times as to whether the accessibility of one person becomes a barrier for another person. Where did the accessibility of another person in the group become a barrier for you or vice versa?

Krüger: This mainly affects outdoor space – i.e. conflicts between people with visual impairments and people with limited mobility, as we visually impaired people rely on tactility and different floor conditions. And wheelchair users are of course happy about flat surfaces, while for us a spatial demarcation is better. And given this situation, I found it a pity to note that the wishes of the respective group couldn’t be met within the scope of the listed building protection.

Kneisel: From the point of view of the hearing impaired, provision is often made for deaf people, for example videos with sign language, but often little provision is made for the hearing impaired. If you use aids for the deaf, they often don’t help us, but it’s not a barrier.

Mattern: It’s important that FM systems are used during the tours. Otherwise we have the advantage that we can, of course, usually read a lot. Here it’s nice that subtitles are available for the films at the exhibition and that you can use the listening stations with induction loops. You notice that something is happening in many institutions. Recently, more effort has been made to take sensory impairments into account. Before it was only about limited mobility – as it’s commonly known.

Zolldan: Would you say that you’ve learned something new about museums and memorials through our collaboration?

Krüger: I’ve learned a lot about memorial sites. For example, about picture captions or the accessibility of certain exhibition contents: How can they be made accessible to the blind and visually impaired? Especially when it came to historical visual material, where I actually pleaded for equal participation. What sighted people can see should also be communicated to blind and visually impaired people. Including the inhuman and violent scenes. We have of course discussed whether this can and should be done to the same extent. A sighted person can quickly look away, but how can a blind person deal with this impression? Or that moral aspects have to be taken into account in the design and communication. Those were the moments that I found very important in the process. That there’s still so much to learn, actually looking behind an exhibition concept, at your work, at the communication work.

Mattern: For me, it’s very important to be able to find out via the internet what support is offered in museums for hearing-impaired people in preparing a visit to a museum. I’ve already had many negative experiences. For example, when they can’t give you help with the technology, or show how the equipment should be used. Yes, because it’s so complicated and so complex with the technical means, and everyone has different prerequisites, a different degree of hearing loss or uses different technical devices. For me, it’s also important that the staff are trained to support people with disabilities when they visit the museum, i.e. the staff must be familiar with the support services and how they can be used.

Gryglewski: And what else would you wish for the House of the Wannsee Conference in the future?

Mattern: I would recommend that the House of the Wannsee Conference also create offerings for the hearing impaired in the library and education department. There are still areas where improvements can be made to make content accessible for the hearing impaired.

Winter: Tandem tours also for blind and visually impaired visitors.

Krüger: Yes, and then I recommend that we indeed maintain the approach and continue to build on other aspects that make up an inclusive, diverse society. Yes, that’s my great wish.

Zolldan: We share that! We will try very hard. To all of you, thank you for the excellent collaboration!