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Cultural Collections

UMSI students provide Arab American National Museum invaluable community accessibility and usability expertise

Fiddler on the Roof in Concert, featuring the orchestrations of John Williams. Promotional illustration courtesy: UMS

The halls of the stately Arab American National Museum (AANM), usually echoing with the patter of feet and expressions of awe, have sat silently awaiting the return of patrons since March 2020.

With the pandemic necessitating the temporary closure of AANM’s physical space, the institution turned to University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) students for assistance and expertise in improving the digital accessibility of the museum’s collections.

Located in Dearborn, Michigan, AANM is the only museum out of the nation’s 35,000 that is dedicated to preserving, celebrating and sharing Arab American culture. The institution has long been a champion of curatorial accessibility; however, ensuring that its tens of thousands of annual in-person visitors have the same intimate and meaningful interactions with its online collections is a new challenge.

While the museum was closed due to the pandemic, staff hosted an online music festival, in their pajamas, from Yasmine Nasser Diaz’s “Teenage Bedroom” installation. Video by AANM. 

“The pandemic and our inability to have visitors come to the museum really forced us to ask who’s accessing our things online, who do we want to be accessing them and whether they’re getting the full experience that we want them to,” says Matt Jaber Stiffler, the research and content manager at AANM and lecturer within the U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts’ American Culture department.

To answer these questions, Master of Science in Information (MSI) students William Cheng, Michelle Torby and Angel Caranna met regularly with Stiffler as part of the fall 2020 SI 547: Engaging with Communities course, led by clinical associate professor David Wallace. The class is client-based, meaning that companies, nonprofits or organizations host student teams that work to address real-world information challenges.

UMSI’s Engaged Learning Office helps recruit projects for the course that facilitate community partnerships and allow students to make an impact while building their portfolio through real-world experiences. In SI 547, students are challenged to examine the principles, methods and ethics involved in community collaboration.

The Arab American National Museum, located in Dearborn, is the first and only museum in the U.S. that is devoted to Arab-American history and culture.

Wallace says, “This type of experiential, hands-on, client-facing work is fundamental for professional development as it explicitly joins course theories and concepts to pragmatic, real-world problem solving and shaping positive client outcomes.”

At the start of the semester, each student submitted a questionnaire surveying their skills, experience and interests. The students were subsequently matched with projects where they could make a meaningful impact.

Cheng, who graduated from the MSI program in spring 2021, was excited to be a part of AANM’s project because he could exercise both his technical user experience (UX) design skills and his empathetic objectivity.

“I’m an international student, so I can relate to the way that Arab people feel in U.S. society in terms of status and suffering,” Cheng said. He came to UMSI after growing up in Taiwan and earning both a BA and MA in library and information science from National Taiwan University.

The students worked with Stiffler and the team at AANM to set realistic goals. AANM had just migrated to a new website for the first time in 13 years during June 2020. Around the same time, the museum had been forced to lay off nearly two-thirds of its staff due to pandemic budgeting constraints.

The museum’s website contains object, archival, art and library collections in addition to born-digital collections that preserve online content. AANM started the partnership with the intent of making the museum’s digital space more accessible specifically for those with hearing and vision impairments.

Through a series of user interviews, students discovered that people with sensory impairments were not the only users having trouble accessing information on AANM’s new site. The students determined the website needed a stronger structure before it made sense to solely concentrate on audio and visual accessibility.

Entrance to the exhibit “Coming to America” at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

“We expanded the project’s scope to focus on general accessibility that could benefit everyone,” says Torby, a second-year MSI student.

Her advice to those taking client-based courses is to “be open to changing the scope of the project and working with the organizations to voice your concerns, because if you don’t, then you can’t best pivot to meet the needs of everyone.”

The students spent four months engaging with the website to create a usability report. During their regular meetings with the team, AANM was receptive and often implemented the students’ suggested changes on the spot.

AANM found the experience of working with the students so useful that when an opportunity arose to continue the partnership during the winter 2021 semester in the SI 622: Needs Assessment Usability course, they seized it. A new group of MSI students, including Austin Zielinski, Jordan Graves, Qinchi Chen and Shujie Li, picked up the project.

In SI 622, students utilize a variety of methods — including observation, surveys, interviews, performance analysis, evaluation in the design/iteration cycle, usability tests and assessment of systems — to provide clients with recommendations for performance improvement. The winter 2021 course was taught by clinical assistant professor Mustafa Naseem.

“The AANM project goal was to better understand how to bring users to the website and how they access information,” says Zielinski, a second-year MSI student.

Epicenter X, a timely exhibition of Saudi Contemporary Art in Dearborn, Michigan opened at the Arab American National Museum (AANM) on 8 July 2017, and ran until 1 October 2017.

The interdisciplinary team assessed the website and held interviews with users and stakeholders. They also conducted comparative analysis assessments with other museums and did usability testing. At the end of the semester, the students sent a report to AANM along with a final video summarizing their findings.

“The recommendations were very clear: Change the wording of headings for clarity, adopt color contrasts to make screen reading easier and run tests to understand how screen readers are picking up the information,” Stiffler shares. “We had really good suggestions, so it’s just a matter of implementing them now.”

Stiffler and his colleagues at AANM were impressed by the final product. “It was very professional, very useful. Throughout our conversations, the team understood what we were trying to do, and the end product will be very helpful for us as we move forward.”

AANM recently reopened to the public and hopes to continue implementing the changes to their website for those interested in exploring the museum’s digital collections. The institution plans on sustaining its relationship with UMSI in the future, too.

“I think it’s great that UMSI is so invested in these projects. It’s really nice that we don’t have to seek out ways to get help, that they’re always there,” Stiffler says.

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