Reich+Petch creates accessible exhibit for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Case Study by Edmund Li RGD, Reich+Petch Design International


Mounting evidence and extensive research at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) linked human adaptation to the earth's environmental changes. In 2007, NMNH decided that it was time to share this knowledge and engaged our team to design a new exhibit. The Hall of Human Origins is a 15,000 sq ft (1,400 m2) permanent exhibit about Human Evolution and was completed in 2010.


Accessibility is particularly important to the Smithsonian because their target audiences are families, school groups and tourists from all over the world. Visitors to the Smithsonian are extremely varied in their physical, visual and cognitive abilities. The exhibit design therefore needed to be rigorous in striving to meet different people’s specific needs, so each visitor can have an enjoyable and equal experience of the exhibit, content and key messages. The Smithsonian is keenly aware of the importance of universal accessibility and has developed its own accessibility standards for their galleries. RPDI's designs have been guided by that standard since our first project with the Smithsonian in 2000.



Accessibility Considerations

When people think about accessibility they tend to only think about type sizes, visual contrast and wheelchair access. We believe those features are a baseline requirement that must be followed on every project. In this project, we adhered to all the dimensional requirements noted in the Smithsonian’s own accessibility guidelines.

The more complicated aspects of accessibility are the ones that people don’t usually think about but that are also critical to the philosophy of universal accessibility. These include:

  • the specific details of how physical components are created
  • delivering content in a variety of methods, some less tangible than others, so that it is accessible and understandable to a wide range of visitors' abilities
  • how the message / content is organized within the exhibit hall to make navigation intuitive and understandable regardless of the direction from which it is being accessed 


In this project some of the specific details used to deliver the physical components of the exhibit include:

  • the use of non-glare information carriers
  • placing information in accordance with different viewing angles and eye levels
  • providing content in a variety of media including print, physical interactive exhibits, touchable artifacts, visual icons, images, video, subtitles and descriptive audio



Some of the less tangible techniques used to deliver the content include the distillation of the storyline, the placement of artifacts in a contextual setting and simplified graphics to help communicate the most complex aspects of the exhibit.

To distill the storyline, we worked closely with an interpretive planner and curator to carefully craft the messages to ensure that key ideas would be just as clear to a child as they would be to an adult, considering how it would be perceived by people with a range of cognitive abilities.


Small artifacts like bone fragments are hard for people to understand without the right context. A multi-layered graphic approach was created to place fossilized bone fragments on a body form within an outline of the bone structure, emphasizing the fact that most of the evolutionary evidence that exists lies right inside the human body. The placement of each fragment within the body outline helps clearly define what is a jaw bone versus a knee bone, without the need for additional descriptive text.



Simplified illustrated timelines were developed to visually describe the critical evolutionary milestones of humans, spanning a period of over six million years. The visual nature of the timeline translates numeric years into a physical span of time, making it easier for viewers to interpret. While English is the main language of the exhibit, the use of graphic visualizations helps visitors who do not speak or read English to understand key messages.



The layout of the exhibit hall provided multiple access points for the content. Our challenge was to organize the narrative so that it could be easily understood whether a visitor entered from one end of the Gallery or the other. From our observation of visitors we found that they often tend to take unpredictable paths within exhibits and ‘ping pong’ between areas.
To address this, the introduction for the exhibit with clear definition for the different zones was provided at both ends of the gallery. We then used large sculptural iconic graphics to draw people instinctively to the different areas of the exhibit. The narrative of the exhibit did not depend on visitors following a specific order, as each area illustrated the key qualities shared amongst the human species and could be understood alone or in the context of the rest of the space. 



The result has been a successful, popular, award-winning exhibition which is always packed with visitors of all ages and abilities.


Exhibition Design 

Accessibility often falls under signage, print or web. Exhibition design is  different because it combines all of the above together with artifact, objects and multimedia presentations. Accessibility standards often focus on specific elements of design (i.e. environmental graphics, signage, etc.), and must be combined with additional resources when thinking about designing a fully accessible experience. Exhibits are like a book where signage is the catalogue system. The book/exhibit should be expressive, content-driven and subject-specific, interesting enough to create a sense of surprise. The catalogue/signage system needs to be regimented and easily understood. 




For a gallery as large as this one, we did not have any large iconic artifacts to build the exhibit around.  A dinosaur gallery for example is impactful even without exhibit elements just because of the sheer size of the skeletons.  Human fossils however are much less dramatic. The challenge was to give the small specimens context and make them understandable and relatable.


Similar to other environmental graphics disciplines, our design process follows the architectural design model which divides a project into concept design, design development, documentation, pre-production and fabrication. Accessibility needs to be addressed at all stages, both in the design of the physical components and in the development of the interpretive plan and content layout.

Before the design began we worked closely with the client and curators to organize the content and craft the key messages upon which the design would be built. 

During each phase, we reviewed the design of both the physical and the graphic elements of the exhibit with the client to confirm assumptions, review options and gain an in-depth understanding of the facility, visitors and operations.

During the design development stage of the project, we created full-size mock-ups of key elements and, along with the museum, conducted visitor evaluations to test their success before finalizing details.




Understand that accessibility is not just about the physical space, font size, contrast and wheelchair access, but also about delivering content and messages clearly to resonate with a variety of people who have a variety of abilities.



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