The Georgia Aquarium commissioned this joint research and redesign project for a particular problem area on the 550,000 square foot campus. The evaluation and design proposal for the River Scout exhibit, sponsored by the Southern Company, begins an ongoing initiative to increase accessibility.
identifying problem areas
The first step was assessing the accessibility of the exhibit in its entirety, evaluating compliance with ADA Accessibility Standards. Through examination and field research over a month-long period of observation, three specific problem areas were identified for potential redesign.
An open area in front of the albino alligator tanks that acted as a large funnel through the exhibit with a narrow opening. The architecture of the space forced visitors to gather in a large group in front of the small viewing window, effectively blocking the flow of traffic and preventing those with mobility problems from reaching the designated “handicapped” spot.
Narrow openings to the second half of the exhibit forced visitors to flow around a central non-vital support column. Three smaller tanks in a corner off the divide are missed by 67% of visitors. Those in wheelchairs and small children are unable to view the tanks, which sit about 4 feet off the floor.
Following the narrow split is second open area with little indication of important content. After the press of the previous areas, this open space serves simply as a waiting area as visitors are funneled into the third space. An instructional cart is intended to provide a message on conservation and preservation, but is either not in use (70% of time observed) or bypassed (80%).
After the initial research stage, we set out to propose a set of short-term recommendations and redesigns that can be completed in the near future (within the next year). These included minor architectural modifications, striping and replacement of decorative barriers, and an overhaul of existing visual and interactive materials.
New additions included:
An opened pathway for unique viewpoints of Georgia river animals by modification of the existing tunnel system to allow those with mobility restraints greater access.
A scavenger hunt with tips for reducing water consumption hidden throughout the exhibit, Handouts are made available at the entrance, and completed forms can be redeemed for “Conservation Hero” badges it the informational station.
Removal of decorative (non-structural) tree elements are replaced by a projected video of albino alligator activity and information.
Open Floor Plan
This open floor plan funnels visitors through an introductory hallway before directing them into an open “fishbowl.” Eradicating prohibitive elements and introducing physical space features that conform to ADA standards solve a primary issues in accessibility to the exhibit’s features.
Physical elements and structure with embedded digital interfaces lend a new sense of interactivity that was previously absent. Children’s energy is transferred from climbing on existing architecture to interacting with informational elements, emphasizing meaningful engagement.
The redesign highlights the conservation message of the exhibit to become prominent through compelling narrative and interactions. The theme is presented at the entrance and reinforced throughout with modifiable digital materials, allowing the content to change and evolve over time.
Problem: A challenge of displaying slow-flowing river and lake inhabitants is that they tend to be physically more lethargic and display shades of grey and brown. This creates a inherent lack of visual interest, and visitors tend to speed past the uninspiring local fish.
Solution: An interactive tabletop brings fish up close and personal. Young children can interact with the river fish by playing simple games (chase the finger) while older children and adults can learn more by tapping different elements in the fish’ environment.
Four tabletops scattered in the open space feature different fish, inviting visitors to bounce back and forth between tabletops for sense of completion. This also allows the aquarium to feature fish that might be difficult to keep captive or are endangered, as a method of furthering the message of conservation.
Problem: Three small tanks nestled in a corner get bypassed by most visitors (87%), who instead are guided around a decorative column into an empty space. Children are unable to see the small tanks and often have to be hoisted up onto a small ledge by their parents..
Solutions: A central, column-shaped tank as the focal point of the room allows visitors to view the small fish from all angles and heights. The circular shape among the similarly formed tabletops encourages a busy flow in and around the informational stations, keeping slower traffic to the perimeter tanks.
Problem: The message of the instructional cart and video is lost on visitors, who tend to glance quickly at the (caption-less) video and then move on. In additions to this, the conservation video is only playing an estimate 25% of the time.
Solution: A small, sit-down theater at the entrance of the exhibit emphasizes the message of conservation through a brief, 10-minute documentary that emphasizes the importance of habitat preservation. The exhibit’s sponsor, the Southern Company, and its message are introduced in a narrative-driven, easily consumable medium that additionally allows for a moment of rest for young children and those with disabilities.
Problem: One major obstacle to those with physical limitations in this exhibit are the tunnels and inaccessible viewing nooks with offer a unique perspective on tank inhabitants. At 3 feet high or lower, these nooks prevent children and adults with mobility challenges from entering.
Solution: Build into the perimeter of the room or standing and sitting nooks which not only allow one to step out of the flow of traffic and observe, but also provide benches for rest. Rather than being sequestered, visitors to the nooks are surrounded by curving tank walls that both increase the visibility of shy river inhabitants and provide a similar immersive experience to tunnels.