Even though I have a vision impairment, I love going to visit art museums, and my visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City was no exception. My brother and I both spent hours looking at the gorgeous artwork, as he used his eyes and I used my ears to listen to audio descriptions of the art on display. Today, I will be sharing my visitor’s guide for visiting the Museum of Modern Art with vision impairment, inclusive of low vision and blindness.
What is The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)?
The Museum of Modern Art, also known as MoMA, is an art museum in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. MoMA is dedicated to developing and collecting modern and contemporary art in various forms, from the late nineteenth century to today. Works of drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, prints, illustrated books, film, electronic media, architecture, and design are displayed inside the beautiful 53rd Street building. The museum originally opened in 1929 and features over 125,000 square feet of gallery space.
There are a few different options for getting to the Museum of Modern Art. One option is to take the E or M subways to Fifth Avenue/53 Street or the B, D, F, or M to 47-50 Streets/Rockefeller Center and then walk from there. It’s also possible to walk to the museum or take a taxi depending on where you are in the city. Since my brother and I didn’t feel comfortable trying to get across traffic, we used a ridesharing service to get to the museum.
The Museum of Modern Art has six floors, with floors 2-6 being dedicated to exhibits. Each floor has different exhibits separated by artistic medium, meaning all of the drawings are in one area, all of the illustrated books are in another, and similar. Paintings and sculptures take up two floors of the museum, and there is a store on the sixth floor along with a rotating selection of special exhibitions. Each floor can be accessed by stairs or by elevator and the museum is completely wheelchair accessible.
Here are the accessibility resources I use when visiting the Museum of Modern Art with low vision:
There are Braille and large print gallery maps available for navigating around the museum. I liked having access to a large print map so that I generally knew where the exhibits were located.
If desired, guests can also schedule a touch tour where guests are able to feel different pieces of artwork and learn about different aspects of art and design from a professional tour guide. Alternatively, there are audio described tours for guests with vision impairments that are held monthly that go into more detail about specific art concepts.
My personal favorite resource was the audio description for the artwork- more on that in the next section.
Requesting audio description devices
To request an audio description device (audio tour guide), go to the audio tour desk on the first floor or the ticket counter. The device will then be configured into an accessibility mode so that it can be used with VoiceOver. Audio tour devices are free for everyone to use, no proof of disability required. Many descriptions are written for people with vision impairment, though people of all sight levels can benefit from audio description.
How the device works
The audio description devices are iPod Touch devices inside a protective case and on a lanyard. Users can type in a number found on the exhibit signs and listen to a 4-7 minute description of the artwork or design concept presented. Additional audio tours available include a tour for kids that provides more vivid descriptions and tours in foreign languages.
MoMA Audio app
For guests who prefer to use their own devices, the MoMA Audio app has the same audio tours. Just like the device, users listen to descriptions by typing in an exhibit number or by browsing different exhibit categories. This option would be great for someone who wants to use their own headphones or their own device.
What to expect from descriptions
Descriptions include information about colors, textures, patterns, materials, history, and more. This allows the listener to fully immerse themselves in the art. Some exhibits also include interviews with the artists and art historians in addition to descriptions. I found the interviews to be incredibly fascinating and I was able to learn about different forms of art. I was most fascinated by the descriptions of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and the description of Water Lilies by Claude Monet, who also had a vision impairment.
Using Google Assistant
One of my favorite ways to view art is by using the Google Assistant camera on my Android phone. I take a picture of the art, and Google Assistant displays several high-resolution images from the web. I can then save the images on my phone and then magnify as needed. Alternatively, users can run a web search for the title of the artwork and filter HD images.
Visiting the MoMA website
The MoMA website has an online collection of almost all of their pieces that anyone can access for free. I preferred to look at images on my iPad whenever possible. This gives me access to a larger screen and color filters to provide sharper contrast for gray and white images.
Using Seeing AI
Microsoft’s Seeing AI app was great at identifying colors and objects in images and sculptures. However, it did not identify specific artwork by name. I liked using Seeing AI for sculptures because they were simple and I didn’t need a detailed description. I found that I preferred to use the official MoMA apps for identifying artwork.
Since I use Aira through their back-to-school program, I decided to see how it would help me navigate the museum. I found that exhibits with darker lighting were harder to describe, which makes sense because the image isn’t transmitted clearly. The agent amazed me when describing artwork with vivid colors and abstract patterns. I also appreciate that they noted when a piece was intentionally blurry or had other visual effects.
My brother and I had a great time visiting the Museum of Modern Art. I never felt left out because of my vision impairment, and I would even dare say that I had more fun than my sighted brother, thanks to the audio description of art and high resolution images. I highly recommend visiting the Museum of Modern Art with vision impairment, and look forward to returning in the future.