University of Manitoba, Faculty of Architecture—October 2018

Design Within Reach


Interpreting for Disability in the Human and Natural Disaster Museum

The museum

world is experiencing change as global influences shift to demonstrate a stronger stance on human rights, among many other influences. As public institutions, most have legal obligations to provide and maintain accessible environments. While some museums embrace this necessity, others meet the minimum standard requirement, and some evade the issue entirely. If museums have a mission to preserve and share of knowledge with the public, the audience cannot therefore be segregated to include some but not others—this is particularly problematic with most artifact and visual based museums. While impossible solve all issues related to accessibility and the museum, this practicum was intended to suggest improvements to yield a more inclusive environment, and for this designer to be more acutely aware of the issues related to disability and in the museum context.

The practicum title, design within reach has multiple meanings. First, it suggests that better design is achievable for everyone when considering the needs of all users: we are capable of better design, it is within reach.

From another perspective, design within reach was an apt title given the three disability groups—the blind and people with low vision, the deaf and hard of hearing, and people with mobility issues—and their needs related to proximity. Generally the space immediately around us, the elements of the built environment that are within grasp are important for persons with disabilities. Research provided the foundation for scrutinizing the experience for all museum visitors.

I began this project with a supposition: the museum experience has similarities to that of a story. The exhibition is a sequence of experiences in a curated and, at times, heavily narrated environment. The notion of sequential spatial experiences with undertones of communication led me to employ theories of narrative as a means to frame my discovery process and reach a design outcome. As the research progressed, however, I realized that a mere sequencing of experiences may not be enough to conclude that exhibitions are narratives, in the strictest theoretical sense. While theories of the narrative did not directly improve my ability to address disability and in the context of museum, the three areas of personal interest when combined—a building typology (museums), an undeserved audience (disability in the museum context), and a theoretical framework (Narratology) to tie all three together—resulted less in a collectively exhaustive triad of topics and more so in mutually exclusive pairings. Thus, this journey of discovery through design, while not as predicted, yielded an outcome informed by a research and design process that arguably made for a better experience for all.

The practicum centres on The Human and Natural Disaster Museum, a fictitious museum located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Maritime calamities are a way of life for many living in coastal communities: loss of livelihood due to environmental change, loss of life to natural and man-made disaster, and other all-too common tragedies related to scouring the land and ocean for resources.

Delving into the history of narrative theory is the notion of a fable; the purpose of the fable is intended to reveal something about humanity, or to teach a lesson. According to David Herman (the Department of English at Ohio State University), “fable is a brief narrative told in order to provide moral instruction or to transmit an ethical point of view” (Herman 2010). To reveal something about humanity rings particularly strong when thinking of both museums and disasters; more so when considering the exhibit experiences as a narrative environment.

From another perspective of the narrative, according to Todorov, a story is structured as: equilibrium, disruption, resolution, and new equilibrium. Choosing disasters as a topic was deliberate and purposeful. Disasters, man-made and natural, are based on a disruption; an unforeseen event with tragic and / or costly consequences. These four terms formed the parti pris for this practicum, and informed most every decision from the design of the logo to the sequencing of exhibition halls.

Of particular relevance, from an adaptive reuse perspective, is the notion of a new equilibrium. The site, a former coal-powered electricity generation station, was chosen primarily for its scale. The decision forced me to consider the origins of the building and site. From a cultural heritage perspective, it would be remiss of me not to address the ecological repercussions of coal mining, both in the design of the exhibition programming and in the structure itself. The visitor experience within the museum was also, therefore, part of the interpretive experience.

In summary, my research of narrative theory provided a guiding principle for a cohesive design; my investigation of disability allowed me to design a more accessible visitors experience for all users, not discrete user groups. Ultimately however, this designer is more acutely aware of the issues related to disability for any environment, and continues to employ theories is of the narrative


Herman, David. Routledge encyclopedia of narrative theory. London, Routledge, 2010.


October, 2018

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