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  Tactile Exhibits: A Model Maker's Perspective

by Rebecca Fuller, RAF Models & Displays

The goal of Universal Design is to make information and experiences accessible to as wide an audience as possible. This audience will include people with varied intellectual and physical abilities, people of different sizes and ages, as well as people with different backgrounds and interests.

Tactile exhibits fill an important role in providing a multi-sensory experience for all museum visitors by providing a "hands-on" experience for everyone. Additionally, the tactile exhibit may be the primary tool that provides access to the information being presented to the audience with visual impairments.

When setting out to create "tactile exhibits" there are a number of questions to ask yourself: Questions such as, "What do you want to accomplish with a tactile exhibit, what type of information are you trying to convey - and what level of information are you trying to get across?"

Tactile exhibits vary widely but some broad categories of their function are Orientation, Interpretation and Comparison.

This is a photo of the Brazo's Bend State Park tactile map.
Brazo's Bend State Park tactile map.


One possible goal for a tactile model is orienting people to the physical layout of your site. The Brazo's Bend State Park model is an example of a "Tactile Orientation Map."

By providing a tactile, or raised graphic map, you give the visitor a method, through touch, of understanding the relationships of the different elements of the site. The Brazo's Bend map conveys information such as, "if I leave the Visitor's Center and travel west on the Loop Road, when I reach the point where I can turn left on the trail, I will be half way to the fishing pier."

This is a photo of a model of Pecos Natinal Historical Park.
Model of Pecos Natinal Historical Park.
It is important that an orientation map keep the information clear and concise. There is no need to know that you pass 32 trees between the Visitor's Center and the fishing pier.

Another possible goal of an orientation map is to locate the Park within a larger geographic area. A model such as Pecos National Historical Park tells the visitor that the park is located below the bluffs and that both the Interstate and the Santa Fe Trail pass through the park. All visitors get a "bird's eye view" that would only be possible if they were in an airplane.

This is a photo of the Natural Tunnel State Park tactile map.
Natural Tunnel State Park tactile map.

Other tactile models are designed to give a greater understanding of a site to the entire audience. A highly realistic "tactile" model of a tunnel passing through a mountain - such as the model of Natural Tunnel State Park - allows children to reach into the tunnel on one side of the model and touch the fingers of someone reaching from the other side.

Along with interpretation provided by the naturalists, it enables people to feel and understand how a tiny stream found it's way through a crack in the mountain and eventually eroded away so much of the mountain that a train can now travel through the passageway.

Some sites, such as the prehistoric cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, take a great deal of physical effort to reach. In this type of situation a large portion of the audience may not have the ability to make the climb, or may not have the desire to go to the height necessary to reach the caves. A tactile model of the cliff dwellings will provide an understanding of the site to all visitors.


Tactile models can be used to facilitate making comparisons between different things. One example is an exhibit that discussed how the physical structure of a jawbone allows one to draw conclusions about the diet of an animal.

This is a photo of the moose, wolf, and mouse jawbone exhibit.
Moose, wolf, and mouse jawbone exhibit.
This was illustrated by: increasing the size of a mouse skull, decreasing the size of a moose skull and recreating a wolf skull at its actual size; thus making it possible to compare the shape and locations of the teeth and jaw, and to see that each animal was "built" to handle a completely different diet.

Another important example of using tactile models to make comparisons is the exhibit of Bath House Row at Hot Springs National Park. Here the designer has worked with the Park to use four different scales to increase the visitor's understanding.

This is a photo of a bird's eye view model of Bath House Row at Hot Springs National Park.
Bird's eye view of Bath House Row.
The "bird's eye view" model uses texture to distinguish and locate the area of the Park within the surrounding landscape. In this model the buildings in Bath House Row are approximately the size of sugar cubes, and the entire row of buildings is perhaps 6 inches long.

This is a photo of Bath House Row.
Bath House Row.
In the next larger model Bath House Row is 6 feet long with individual buildings ranging from 4 to 9 inches wide. At this scale the texture of the roofs and the indentation of the windows and other architectural details are distinguishable both by sight and touch.

This is a photo of the Indian head above the front entry of Bath House.
Indian head above front entry of Bath House.
The third enlargement shows the facades of two of the Bath Houses at a scale large enough (one façade is 14 inches wide, the other is 24 inches wide) to include a high level of textural detail. It is possible to distinguish the carving of the Indian head above the door of one of the buildings - and then make a comparison to, in the fourth step:

This is a photo of a full-scale replica of Indian head.
Full-scale replica of Indian head.
An exact, full-scale replica of the Indian head architectural detail which was made by creating a mold of the actual architectural detail, casting it and putting it inside on the wall where all visitors can explore the intricacies of the carving.

The exhibit at Hot Springs National Park is an excellent example of using the comparison of different scales to give all visitors a clearer understanding of the rich architectural detail of the Bath Houses. It is also a perfect example of Universal Design deepening and enriching the learning and experience of every visitor.

The possible applications of tactile models are limited only by the imaginations of exhibit designers, model fabricators and site interpreters. The wide range of durable materials now available; from bronze, which has been used for thousands of years, to plastics and space age polymers, allows for an endless variety of tactile models.


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