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Making websites accessible: adventures in alt text with the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Michelle Padilla and Peggy Speir explain to MuseumNext how their museum, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, has expanded its Disability, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) work by undertaking a large-scale alt text program to better serve the community.

Like many museums and cultural institutions, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art has made a concerted effort to develop an online experience that is accessible and inclusive in recent years. And at the core of this project is a particular focus on alt (alternative) text that makes for a more effective digital presence.

This initiative, which has so far seen more than 500 art assets updated with alt text, will expand over time to incorporate thousands of the museum’s most interesting and noteworthy pieces. The goal of the project is not just to simply meet the minimum requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) but to provide a comprehensive solution for the museum’s audience.

The implementation of this initiative began in early 2022, when the museum’s Digital Content Strategist, Michelle Padilla, and Manager of Access Programs and Resources, Peggy Speir, began to research, write and plan for the inclusion of alt text across many of the museum’s non-collection images.

Michelle explains, “Our website was rebuilt in September 2019 with expansion work taking place through the end of 2021, all with a clear focus on accessibility and mobile-first. Peggy and I were tasked with implementing an alt text plan in early 2022. The museum had already been focusing on accessibility for in-person visits for a while, and the time was right for us to focus on online accessibility as well.”

Peggy adds, “Accessibility is certainly something we have been placing a lot of emphasis on for several years but at the start of the pandemic we really pushed to increase this. For example, we started requiring closed captioning on all videos. So, we were starting to turn a mindful eye to building up our visual descriptions and accessibility tools online.”

Image of the amon carter museum of american art website

In order to build up the catalogue of descriptions required for the initial 500 artworks in the program pilot, Peggy and Michelle set about creating a team of writers who would be responsible for providing the content on the project.

A rigorous process was established with writers, editors, tech support and evaluation all combining to ensure that the first 500 texts met with the necessary standards. Peggy says,

“We have a strong group of writers – some of whom had some existing expertise in this area and others who had no art historical background. We knew this could actually be very helpful in writing alt text because they would be more likely to describe artworks in simpler, less technical terms.”

Achieving accessibility with appropriate expertise

A crucial aspect of the museum’s accessibility program was to bring in the support of external experts – organisations able to identify best practice and present ideas that could inform more effective user engagement. This involved collaborating with community partners to test and gain feedback.

One such partner was Lighthouse for the Blind – a local organisation serving those in the community with low or no vision. Peggy says

“We wanted to partner with them because we wanted insight into what our end users needed for the best online experience.

“They shared with us their knowledge of how readers could be used and, most importantly, what resonated with people. We were very conscious that the language used by those with a background in art history might be very different to the language that is most beneficial to a visually impaired audience, for instance.”

Peggy explains that, through their work with Lighthouse for the Blind, live training sessions were developed to help the writing team create effective content. The training session incorporated discussions around the pros and cons of different terms and approaches, as part of a constructive critiquing session.

Both Michelle and Peggy also note that they gained a lot of information by researching what other museums and cultural institutions were doing in their accessibility programs. Michelle says,

“We took a lot of inspiration and guidance from the likes of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. I also looked beyond the museum industry for information on how alt text might be developed and applied.

“One thing that became clear was that we needed to be decisive, make choices and simply be aware that we might not get absolutely everything right first time. But the beauty of the web is that we have the power to change things as we learn.”

The challenges of description in alt text

Going deeper into the mechanics of the project, Michelle suggests that one of the most difficult aspects of the project and of any descriptive initiative is how to approach certain themes and issues.

“For example, how do you appropriately describe images featuring people of different races and ethnicities for those who are visually impaired?” she says. “How do you describe artwork featuring disturbing elements? And how do you explain a very abstract artwork that has unusual patterns and colours?”

Peggy adds, “We  created a style guide to give our writers a helpful steer on how we had agreed to handle certain terms or present numbers. It certainly helped that we already had quite a reputation as an institution for our work on accessibility and that discussions around some of the challenges weren’t entirely new or unfamiliar to our team.”

The team acknowledge the importance of being able to admit where the sticking points are and be candid about sensitive topics that warrant internal and external consultation.

Michelle and Peggy are now in the process of preparing for the next phase of alt text development. They say there are some clear areas where they will aim to provide their writing team with more guidance and support – particularly around areas such as abstract art and describing race.

“Overall, I think we’ve learnt the value of being as precise as possible,” Michelle explains. “Alt text should be short and so there is a need to use descriptive words very carefully.”

Peggy adds, “I think the training and the process of testing our approach has been invaluable. Over time you almost begin to see things in alt text. You become more adept at speaking precisely and concisely.”

It is these learnings that will help to carry the team at the Carter forwards as they roll out this project over thousands of pieces in the coming years.

Find out more about how museums are utilising the latest strategies, technologies and tools to enhance the work they are doing for their audiences and communities at May’s Digital Museums Summit.

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