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Museums have a duty to cater to people with a wide range of needs and this includes visually impaired people. This is not a small section of society and it is vital that they are not overlooked. Globally, there are approximately 1.3 billion people living with some form of blindness or visual impairment. In the USA alone there are around 25.5 million people experiencing vision loss.
For many, a visit to a museum has the potential to make them feel excluded. The traditional museum experience of objects behind glass does not offer much to a person who is blind or partially-sighted. But museums are evolving to meet this need and to make a visit an enjoyable experience for all.
There are many ways that an institution can make a visit more interesting for a visually impaired person. This starts with audio guides and audio descriptive displays. But it can also mean more innovative approaches such as tactile exhibitions and even 3D printing. Museums all over the world are now catering to more than just sight. Multisensory displays appeal to sight, sound, touch and smell. These projects can make displays come alive for everyone.
This Spanish museum throws the ‘do not touch’ signs out of the window. The whole concept is that visitors explore with their hands. This museum for the blind exhibits artistic works that are experienced through a sense of touch. The museum showcases models of famous buildings, alongside paintings, sculptures and textile art. It also focuses on art made by blind people and documents the history of people with visual impairments. The museum hosts temporary installations of topics and art related to blindness.
The museum was founded in 1992. It came out of a desire to offer blind and visually impaired people the chance to access a museum in a standard way. Many of the people behind the idea have a personal understanding of living with visual impairment. This means that the design of the museum puts the user’s needs first. The artwork is specially crafted to provide a fascinating tactile experience for the visitor.
Elin Johnson has a son who was born blind. In this review she speaks about how a visit to this museum was a positive experience for him. Describing the visit she says “My son was absolutely thrilled to find a space which felt so welcoming and set up for his needs. For once he was “the mainstream visitor” and we did not have to ask for special permission to touch a couple of things”
Being able to touch museum displays is not a new concept. The V&A has been offering tactile sessions for visually impaired visitors since 1985. The museum runs special events throughout the year which cater to this audience. The programme changes often and focuses on a variety of the museum’s collections. This encourages people to come back for repeat visits and enjoy new experiences.
Besides these events, the V&A is a great example of a museum which offers a whole package of tools. For many people, one of the key issues is the availability of information. Visitors often need to know what facilities are available beforehand. This helps them to plan their trip and to be independent. The V&A is committed to accessibility and provides detailed pre-visit information online. The museum offers a dedicated guiding service that can be pre-booked. They also have tactile books and audio descriptions available. There are many tactile objects located throughout the museum. Visitors can pick up a touch tour audio guide to help them locate these.
The V&A also caters to children and families with visual impairments through the use of a sensory backpack. It allows younger visitors to explore the museum through multisensory activities. The backpack contains lots of objects to touch, such as ceramic models and different materials.
Audio descriptive guides can be a great tool. But the Smithsonian adds a more personal element with its twice-monthly ‘InSight’ tours of the American Art Museum. Trained docents lead small groups of blind and visually impaired visitors around the museum. The tours are interactive, and they invite the participants to experience the displays through vivid descriptions.
Unlike a standard audio guide, visitors can stop, ask questions and clarify points. The tours move slowly around the museum, giving people a chance to take in the artwork in their own way. Some take in the words of the tour guide to paint their own visual image. Others use personal magnifying equipment. Some pieces are even available to touch. Docents create rich pictures with their words. They talk about the colours, smells and sounds which might be taking place in the scene. The tours reach out to the visitors’ other senses to help paint a mental image.
The museum wants to use the tours to show that there are other ways to experience art, apart from the standard visual experience. There are 12 volunteer docents, trained by Carol Wilson, Lunder Education Chair. Wilson stresses the importance of catering to other senses in their descriptions. “Sight isn’t the only pathway to understand art,” she says.
Technology can play a part in making visually impaired people welcome in museums too. There are many museums around the world doing innovative things with 3D printing. One of the key benefits of this new technology is that is can give visually impaired people a chance to experience museum objects in a new way.
The Virginia Historical Society teamed up with Virginia Commonwealth University in 2016. Together they created some 3D models of the museum’s existing artefacts. Dr Means, from VCU’s Virtual Creation laboratory, scanned and produced replicas. This included a wheel from a Conestoga wagon and an iron breastplate from 1622. The team also managed to produce a 3D model of George Washington’s signature. This allows people to get a sense of history while talking about some of the important documents Washington signed. For a visually impaired person, the opportunity to ‘see’ such an important piece of history provides a whole new experience.
Andrew Talkov the is vice president for programs at the museum. Although he intends the 3D printing projects to cater for visually impaired people, he acknowledges that this technology can enhance the museum visit for everybody. He says, “Who doesn’t want to be able to handle the [artefact] that’s behind the glass, even if it’s just a reproduction.”
In 2018, the National Gallery of Prague launched ‘Touching Masterpieces,‘ a VR experience that allows visually impaired and blind visitors to ‘touch’ some of the museum’s most famous sculptures, including the bust of Nefertiti and Michelangelo’s David.
Created with help from Geometry Prague and NeuroDigital, in collaboration with the Leontinka Foundation for the blind and visually impaired, the virtual reality experience features haptic Avatar VR gloves, that gives three-dimensional feedback to mimic the feeling of touch.
In 2010 Ferens Art Gallery devised a museum experience that was truly multisensory. Using funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council the project developed a new type of tour, to help visually impaired people make a meaningful connection with the museum.
Nikki Mellors, heritage learning enabler at Hull Museums and Art Gallery, describes how the idea of a multisensory tour came about. “We simply closed our eyes and imagined how it would feel to step inside the world of a painting that we could not see. What elements would we need to take us there?” She says. The tours combine many different approaches to speak to different senses. Alongside the standard audio guide and braille description, the museum provides human tour guides. They are trained to give vivid descriptions of the paintings. This means there is a personal, story-telling feel to the tours.
Besides audio, the museum also uses tactile prints of the paintings. There are replicas of some of the objects featured in the scenes available to touch. To continue layering a complete mental image of the picture, the museum targets other senses. Visitors can hear sounds that are evocative of the scenes. They can smell scents that capture what is happening in the painting. This multisensory approach paints a full picture and adds more dimensions to the experience.
Many museums use low lighting to preserve their collections. This can present an extra challenge for a visually impaired person. It would not be practical to raise the light levels permanently. However, the Mary Rose museum provides a way around this. Once a month it holds relaxed opening mornings in order to cater to a wider audience.
During these two-hour sessions, the light levels are higher than usual. This makes the museum more accessible to visually impaired visitors. The sessions can be useful for people with autism or dementia too. The sound effects are low, and trained staff and volunteers are on hand to guide people. The Mary Rose museum also makes use of tactile materials such as plans of the ship. Visitors can handle a selection of artefacts and replicas.
The RNIB has some useful resources for museums. These help institutions to make sure that blind and partially-sighted visitors can get the most out of a visit.
VocalEyes is an organisation dedicated to providing opportunities for visually impaired visitors. They champion the fact that everyone has a right to experience the arts. They provide listings of available events, as well as working with museums to create audio descriptions. The VocalEyes team also provide visual awareness training. Matthew Cock is the Chief Executive of VocalEyes. He talks about the four principles of accessibility which museums should be aware of. These are that content should be perceivable, operable, understandable and robust.
The museums above have worked to remove some of the barriers that these people may face. The key is to recognise that sight is not the only sense with which people can experience and enjoy cultural institutions. There is a wealth of fascinating material behind the doors of each museum waiting to be discovered in new ways.
Audio and braille descriptions are good signposting tools. They can help people to understand more about the displays. But catering to other senses too, such as touch and smell, can add an extra element to the experience. A personal approach works well, with guided descriptive tours that are able to paint vivid mental images. Providing key information to people before they visit is also vital, so they know what services are available.
Museums need to communicate with visually impaired people. They need to listen to and work with them in order to understand what their needs are. These examples show how small changes and extra services can make all the difference. With these changes, museums can make blind and partially-sighted people feel truly welcome.
Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.
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