Living right outside of Washington DC means that I am just a short Metro ride away from visiting one of the coolest places in the United States. Some of my favorite places to visit are the Smithsonian museums, which have free admission and are amazingly accessible to people with disabilities. I’ve decided to put together a guide to the many different Smithsonian museums and their accessibility for guests with special needs, with a special emphasis on low vision. So without further ado, here is my guide to visiting the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum with low vision.
These two museums are in the same building and are a bit farther away than the other Smithsonians. After getting off at the Gallery Place/Chinatown stop on the Metro, visitors can access the museum through the 9th Street exit. There are several entrances into the museum, some with low stairs to climb. The handicap/stairs free entrance can be found facing G street.
Large print and Braille exhibit guides are available for visitors who request them. For travelling exhibits, the large print guide can often be found hanging on the wall next to the entrance. These guides have the statements that accompany each of the portraits written out in accessible text.
The staircases throughout the museum are winding and spiral shaped, and can be difficult to walk with a cane. There are also very small cramped staircases to access upper level exhibits in the National Portrait Gallery. All exhibits can be accessed by elevators found throughout the museum.
In the indoor courtyard area, where the Courtyard Cafe is located, there are fountains on the ground that are very easy to walk into. They aren’t deep (it’s like someone spilled water on the floor in terms of depth), but I’ve walked into them nearly every time I’ve visited the area.
The Electronic Superhighway exhibit is a map of the United States that contains flashing videos featuring different characteristics of the United States, as well as red, white, and blue flashing lights. Some travelling exhibits may also use strobing effects- check with the front desk about specific exhibits. The last time I went, there was a moving pictures exhibit that featured lots of strobing effects- I had my friend check the exhibit beforehand for flashing lights, and I just waited in another hallway away from the lights.
Compared to the other Smithsonian museums, this one is very quiet and has lots of places to sit down and relax. There are no loud noises or excessive amounts of stimuli in the permanent exhibits- travelling exhibits may vary.
Audio tours are available for many exhibits. In addition, America InSight tours are for guests who are blind or have low vision and are offered at least twice a month for visitors. They do not cover the entire museum, rather go in depth about certain exhibits. Check out the schedule here.
High-resolution images of the different pieces in the gallery can be found on their website. This is only for permanent exhibits, though. I would recommend viewing these images on a larger device such as an iPad, instead of on a phone.
My favorite exhibits
My favorite exhibits at the museum are the 20th Century Americans and Contemporary Art. The 20th Century Americans exhibit is awesome, as there are a lot of familiar faces (the photo of Buddy Holly inspired this post here). The Contemporary Art exhibit is very colorful and has many different mediums of art that go beyond simple oil on canvas. Just a warning on the Contemporary Art exhibit- it can be very easy to accidentally set off a security alarm with a blindness cane, if the cane crosses any of the lines on the floor.
I love visiting this museum, and consider it one of my favorite Smithsonians. That says a lot about how accessible Smithsonian museums are for people with low vision, because even though there is a high emphasis on visual art, I don’t feel left out at all because of my low vision. I highly recommend visiting!