While attending college outside of Washington DC, I set a goal to visit all of the Smithsonian museums during my time in college. One of my favorite museums that I visited was the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which is dedicated to indigenous culture throughout the Americas, and my friend and I still talk about some of our favorite exhibits there years later. Here are my tips on visiting the National Museum of the American Indian with low vision, and general museum accessibility information.
Traveling to the National Museum of the American Indian
Since neither of us have access to a car on campus, my friend and I traveled to the museum via Metro, using a free shuttle from campus to get to the nearest station (which is on the Orange line). The nearest Metro station to the museum is L’Enfant Plaza, which is a major transfer point for several lines. From there, we exited the station following signs for Smithsonian Museums and it was about a two block walk from the Metro station to the museum entrance, and we passed by the US Capitol Building on our way there- this was a great landmark to remember since the museum entrance faces the Capitol building. From the Metro station to the museum entrance, it was about a 10-15 minute walk.
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Navigating the museum building with low vision
Compared to other museums that have several exhibits in one space, NMAI has around 1-2 exhibits on each floor and wide walkways for each of the exhibits- all museum spaces and exhibits are wheelchair and mobility aid accessible as of the time we visited and can also be accessed by elevator. There were no exhibits with strobe or flashing lights, or lighting effects such as lightning, except for one video that was playing in a covered area that was easily avoided.
Options for viewing exhibits
While I could see some of the items on display without the use of assistive technology or magnification aids, there were several options available for guests to get a closer look at various items on display. This is outside of the Smithsonian Access Program, which provides tours at several different Smithsonian websites for guests who have vision loss.
Some of the built-in options for exhibit accessibility include:
- Large print touch screens that display high-quality images and large print descriptions of items on display- some can even be magnified further
- Exhibit/artifact numbers on display so visitors can look up items in the online archive
- Some exhibits feature audio and read displayed text out loud at the press of a button
- Museum staff can also answer questions and provide exhibit descriptions
To my knowledge, there is no large print or Braille exhibit guide like there is at other Smithsonian museums and there is no official audio tour or audio description track available.
How I used smartphone apps to improve my museum experience
In addition to traveling with my iPad, I tried a few different apps on my Android smartphone to read information and get additional details about items on exhibit, as I found my phone nuch easier to hold than my iPad (though I did try out some iOS apps too). The most helpful apps I tried out are listed below, along with another app I’ve used at other museums that became available at NMAI after our visit.
SeeingAI for iOS and Google Lookout for Android provide similar functionality in that they allow users to have text read out loud in real time by positioning their device camera over text. These apps do not augment text to be displayed in large print or otherwise magnify content, but is great for reading signs or exhibit descriptions.
Google Lens differs from SeeingAI and Google Lookout in that it requires users to press a shutter button within the app to get information (the image is not stored in the camera roll). Google Lens was my favorite app because I could use it for several different things, including:
- Looking up high resolution images of items on display using the Search feature
- Converting text to an OCR format that can be read out loud, copy/pasted into another app, or displayed in large print
- Translating text from one language to another
Image descriptions from camera roll
If I took a picture of something on display or wanted to read text from an image more easily, Google Lens and SeeingAI both allow users to upload images to the app to get a basic image description or to extract background text. I like to use this feature in museums when examining signs such as museum directories and menus for restaurants.
Collections page shortcut
To save time and avoid having to open several browser windows, I created a shortcut for the virtual collections page so that I could view items on display. Users can do this by bookmarking or adding the icon for the NMAI Virtual Museum website to their device’s homepage, or by adding a pinned tab in the web browser. There are also transcripts for audio content as well as descriptions of items that can be read with large print or text-to-speech.
Since our visit, NMAI has also become an Aira Access site, meaning that blind and low vision users can access the Aira service free of charge to get directions around the museum, have exhibit information read out loud, read menus in the museum cafe, and more. There is no time limit to how long Aira can be used in the museum, but I recommend connecting to the museum wifi to save battery/data. Aira can be used everywhere except in bathrooms per federal law.
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- Google Lens Review For Low Vision
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- NMAI Virtual Museum
Visiting Mitsitam Cafe
One of our favorite parts of the trip, my friend and I visited the onsite Mitsitam Cafe for lunch since there aren’t a ton of food places near the museum. The menu rotates often and has different stations for various regions and traditions. We had Indian tacos with fry bread and a side of pineapple fresca, which was super delicious. Guests with food allergies or sensitivities will want to contact the museum in advance of their visit to get information about what food is available as well as ingredients for individual items- while the menu information is posted online, specific ingredients lists are not.
- Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian National Mall (mitsitamcafe.com)
- Going To Restaurants With Low Vision
Other tips for visiting the National Museum of the American Indian with low vision
- Use the Popular Times feature on Google to get information on current and projected crowds- this is great for people who prefer to go at off-peak times
- Most exhibits are quiet and do not have many loud sounds, with the exception of the “Circle of Dance” exhibit which has several drum noises
- The NMAI map lists audio description as being available, but does not provide any additional information on where it is used or how to access it. I recommend visiting the Welcome Center/Visitor Infromation for more info on this