How museums can remove barriers to access for blind and partially sighted people
January 20 2022
By Tim Deakin
We tend to think of museums and galleries as visual spaces, but it’s important to remember that a visit to a museum can be just as worthwhile for blind and partially sighted individuals as it is for visitors who don’t live with visual impairments.
Over the years, the issue of accessibility has, rightfully, garnered more attention within the museum community. Taking steps to ensure that exhibits offer value to blind and partially sighted individuals has become essential rather than optional for institutions around the globe. In 2022, this means ensuring that both on-site and online programming always caters for those unable to participate visually.
Making accessibility intrinsic
Even the simplest changes and provisions can make a big difference to the museum experience for a person living with visual impairments. Comprehensive audio guides and audio descriptive displays can instantly make works more accessible to those with visual impairments, while tactile options like 3D printing help to bring other senses into play within the museum setting.
At a time when there is huge progress being made in the interactivity and immersiveness of installations – thanks in large part to the ready availability of suitable digital devices and technologies – museums find themselves equipped with more tools and solutions than ever before to stimulate all the senses and make exhibits accessible for all.
‘Do Not Touch’ was once a regular theme within museum walls, but disregarding this mindset can help institutions to better cater for those less able to simply view from afar. As well as visual works, there are many examples of museums exploring ways to enhance experiences through touch, sound and smell.
This is an approach utilised particularly well by Spain’s Museum for the Blind, which was founded back in 1992. The museum includes exhibitions specifically tailored to the visually impaired, including models of famous buildings complete with tactile paintings, sculptures and textile art. It also heavily features art made by blind people, as well as installations of art related to blindness.
Including tactile works within museum spaces is also well established in many institutions today. Indeed, the likes of London’s V&A has been offering tactile sessions for blind and partially sighted visitors since 1985.
The museum hosts special events catered to the visually impaired throughout the year, focusing on a wide range of museum collections. They offer detailed pre-visit information on their website (available in audible form), which is essential for maximum accessibility, and there are many tactile objects located throughout the museum. Audio guides can also be used to help blind visitors locate these objects.
Offering tailored museum tours
While audio-descriptive guides are widely implemented in museums in order to support exhibitions, some museums are going one step further by providing enhanced guided tours that are specifically designed for visually impaired visitors.
The Smithsonian is one such organisation. Twice a month, the American Art Museum offers ‘InSight’ tours, led by trained individuals who take blind and visually impaired visitors around the museum, offering interactive experiences and vivid descriptions.
This kind of personal touch can make blind and partially sighted visitors feel more valued and at home in the museum environment, rather than isolated and potentially disillusioned with their experience.
Utilising technology for inclusivity
There are, of course, instances, where visual art is difficult to translate into touchable or audible form. And, as any gallery team will know only too well, many works of art must be kept securely behind glass screens and at a safe distance from museum visitors in order to preserve their integrity.
However, recent advancements in digital solutions means that there are an array of alternative options available to museum teams looking to engage a visually impaired audience – both online and in-person. In particular, the digitisation of artworks has made it possible for online visitors of all abilities to get up close and personal with their favourite pieces, virtually. Enjoying the Mona Lisa at one’s leisure without jostling against other tourists is a revelation that many museum lovers of all types have discovered over the course of the pandemic.
Elsewhere, innovations like 3D printing are becoming widely used both inside and out of museums, providing a means for blind and non-blind visitors alike to get closer to incredibly accurate replicas of museum objects and artefacts.
Back in 2016, the Virginia Historical Society teamed with Virginia Commonwealth University to create 3D models of some of the museum’s existing artefacts, including a 1622 iron breastplate and even George Washington’s signature. This gave visitors a chance to handle objects whose shape and size were virtually indiscernible from those kept firmly behind glass.
Likewise, in 2018 the National Gallery of Prague created a Virtual Reality (VR) experience called “Touching Masterpieces” which allowed visually impaired visitors to “touch” some of the museum’s most famous sculptures, including Michelangelo’s David. Ultimately, technology can bring us all closer to art, whether we are visually impaired or not.
With so many examples of museums exploring new ways to exhibit with a blind and partially sighted audience in mind, it’s exciting to think what future exhibitions may hold for the visually impaired community.
Find out more about the most recent accessibility and inclusivity initiatives taking place in institutions today at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.
About the author – Tim Deakin
Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.