The British Museum in London is a really great place to hold the Jodi Awards and we (Jodi judges, presenters and committee) are always thrilled each time the lights go down and the presentations start. There’s a palpable sense of tension – not least for me this year as we had a few tech glitches before things kicked off!
Once things got going, guests, presenters and project staff involved with nominated sites all got into the swing of things. Kevin Carey, Vice Chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), called for renewed effort to make UK digital culture accessible for all.
In a typically passionate speech Kevin outlined a new reality for culture creators, publishers and producers. He called for the setting up of a national Centre for Excellence for Accessible Media funded by the public, commercial and third sectors.
“If we go on training disadvantaged people, including those with impairments, in a fragmented accessibility and usability ecology, to acquire what are called ‘basic’ skills in accessing and processing information, we will doom them to be poor,” he said.
Andy Minnion, Director of the Rix Centre in London, opened our eyes with some recent creative work he’s been doing with learning disabled creators in museums. Some excellent and really witty stuff was seen: a visit to the Hadrian exhibition at the BM started some artists photographing themselves and then using Photoshop to re-appear as Roman characters. My favourites were the people who morphed their features onto Roman coins!
Then it was time to get on with the serious business of giving out the gongs. The Jodi Awards are for museums, galleries, libraries, archives and heritage venues that use digital technology to provide access to collections and learning for disabled people. This might mean building websites, interactives in galleries, audio guides, content for PDAs and virtual reality shows of various kinds.
Remembering the life and work (she was a member of the BM’s web team) of Jodi Mattes (1973 – 2001) is the core at the centre of the awards, and every year we welcome Harry and Esther Mattes at the BM. They arrived early with a big brown box containing the awards, all carefully wrapped up. The statuettes are handmade each year by an artist friend of the Mattes family.
It was great to meet Jodi’s sister, Sara, this year at the awards. We talked at length after the ceremony about new plans for the Jodi website, and also ideas for development.
Highlight of the evening for me is the chance to take a big picture of the winners, guests and Harry and Esther. There’s a friendly feeling to this evening, every year, and it always gives impetus for the next year’s work, putting things together for the next set of awards.
There was a brief comedy moment as the group picture was snapped. There was a sudden rush of BM security staff chasing down the stairs, where we were all arranged, to the basement where they’d heard a report of an intruder!
It was great to welcome Lord Low, Chair of RNIB, this year too; and there were lots of representatives from shortlisted museums and galleries. The awards, sponsored by RNIB and supported by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, were presented by Kevin Carey, assisted by the Jodi Awards chair of judges, Ross Parry.
2008 Jodi Awards – the winners
Our first award was for excellence for people with a learning disability, in association with the Rix Centre, London. This is a new award, and it could be for success using any sort of technology. Winners were Outside In Pathways, for their project in which a group of people with learning disabilities made films using digital technology at the V&A museum, London.
We had a glimpse of the Outside In Pathways film made at the V&A and, again, like The Rix Centre work that Andy Minnion showed, there was humour at work!
Next up was the award for excellence in accessible digital media – basically in-gallery inter-actives, or multimedia, or a guided tour, or whatever. The National Trust won this, for their virtual tour pilot project. 12 virtual tours have been put together and four more are in production.
Judges were really impressed by the way this national organisation involved disabled people in making accessible media that could genuinely improve the experiences of disabled visitors. It’s now possible that the National Trust will take this pilot project and make it available nationally to many of its other sites.
Here’s a glimpse on the site of contractors Corvidae;
Third award category was for website excellence on a low budget. In this category, the judges discussed at length entries from the National Year of Reading and the Thackray Museum in Leeds. A commendation was awarded to the Thackray Museum in Leeds, for their website redevelopment project. The museum consulted young visually impaired people from Henshaws College in York and incorporated a range of their recommendations into the design.
Why a commendation and not a full award? Though judges appreciated the Thackray Museum’s excellent work in general, and in particular in consulting user groups, there were some technical infringements of accessibility guidelines that remain important factors. It is advancing standards of technical compliance, as well as inspiring creative connections, that the Jodi Awards are about, after all.
Last – and not least. The award for excellence in web accessibility was awarded to the British Museum for its BSL Schools Web Project.
In this project young deaf people produced signed curriculum resources for young deaf people, working with Frank Barnes School and media company Remark.
This was an outstanding project; well thought out, carefully framed and cleanly presented, bringing together a creative and appropriate mix of users, artists and designers with expertise in the area of BSL.
The Jodi judges were so impressed with the way staff from Frank Barnes school worked with Carolyn Howitt and the team from the BM, that a Jodi statuette was also awarded to the school.
On a personal note, while judging this year’s Jodi Awards, it struck me how the same errors and technical infringements of WCAG and WAI guidelines keep on coming up, year on year.
While the sites that are nominated each year continue to be rich, surprising and creative cultural experiences, it is striking that occasionally, projects continue to be put before the public with core infringements of the basic rules: we’re still encountering missing ‘alt tags’, confusing pathways for screen reader users, contrast and colour issues, and most basic of all, confusing site architecture.
It is for this reason that we felt unable to make an award for web accessibility on a low budget. While each year Jodi judges call for creative approaches to be kept in mind, the core standards and qualities of the Awards are important to us – Helen Petrie and her team at the University of York carry out automated testing of nominated websites, and we carefully visit and user test non-web projects.
Are we seeing a pattern in the nominations submitted to the Jodi awards? Is it possible that the recent changes in our cultural world have meant that accessibility for all has slipped down the agenda for some?
2008 was, for many in the culture sector, a year of transition and re-alignment. MLA has been in a state of considerable organisational change, and policy areas such as digital futures are now being worked out in concert with external partners closely allied in aims – the Collections Trust and Culture24.
In closing the evening on Friday at the British Museum, I briefly made the point that in 2009, a key job for the Jodi Mattes Trust will be to enthuse and advocate about digital accessibility in concert with MLA, the Collections Trust, Culture24, UKOLN, Museums Computer Group and the Scottish and Welsh cultural bodies.
While it could be that accessibility has slipped down the agenda, in the current economic and organisational climate, the exciting growth of socially networked digital audiences and new tools that work across most digital platforms, means we need to advocate for access even more strongly – to keep all of us connected, and to welcome more of those currently excluded.