There has been a huge increase in the amount of museums offering virtual museum experiences for visitors all around the world, and I’ve had a lot of fun checking out virtual museums for places I have visited in the past, as well as places that I have dreamed of visiting but haven’t been able to until now. Recently, I received an email from a reader asking how to make virtual museums accessible for guests with visual impairment (inclusive of blind/low vision), so today I will be sharing my tips for curating accessible virtual museum experiences, from the perspective of a person with low vision.
Reminder: vision loss is a spectrum, not a binary
Individual experiences with low vision and blindness can vary from person to person, and some people who use the term blind still have some usable vision, or they may prefer audio/nonvisual access to information over having large print or screen magnification. What works well for me as an individual with low vision may present a conflicting access need for another person, but I have done my best to encompass a variety of perspectives from people with vision loss when considering how to curate accessible virtual museum experiences.
For those wondering about my usable vision, I experience double and blurry vision as the result of a dual eye/brain condition. I also have reduced peripheral vision, no depth perception, and can only see things that are a few feet away. I use a mix of different assistive technology tools to access visual information, and talk about these more in-depth throughout this post. I do not read braille due to limited sensation in my hands from the brain condition, and instead use large print or have text read out loud.
- Learning To Explain Usable Vision
- How I Respond To Questions/Comments About My Glasses
- How I Respond To Questions/Comments About My Eyes
- My Thoughts On Visual Descriptions With Low Vision
Have high-resolution images of exhibit items available online
One of my favorite strategies for visiting museums in-person and virtually is to look up exhibit items in the virtual archives or on the museum website, which often provides a high-resolution graphic and detailed text-based description of the item, along with the occasional 3D model. This is really helpful for me, and I recommend that curators add links to items in the museum catalog/virtual archives when creating virtual exhibits.
When searching for images in the virtual archives, I typically write the name of the art or artist, followed by the museum name. As an example, if I wanted a better view of the Barack Obama portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, I would type “Barack Obama National Portrait Gallery” into a web search program or search for Barack Obama on the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian website.
- Visiting The National Museum of the American Indian With Low Vision
- Tips For Visiting Art Museums With Low Vision
Include audio content such as audio description, audio tours, and podcasts
Does your museum offer an audio tour or audio description for exhibits? What about podcasts or other audio content? Make sure to link these things in the virtual exhibit and on the museum website so that users with vision loss have an option for getting information in a nonvisual format. When visiting a museum virtually, I played a podcast produced by the museum on various exhibit items that provided detailed descriptions and interesting historical context that went beyond the information on the exhibit label, and thought this was awesome for enhancing the experience. As an additional bonus, I was able to access the podcast on Spotify and play it with my Amazon Echo Dot.
- Visiting The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Museum With Low Vision
- Visiting The Museum of Modern Art With Vision Impairment
- Visiting The Met With Visual Impairment
- How Amazon Alexa Can Help You With Art
- How Amazon Alexa Can Help You Listen To History
Give users the option to open images in a new tab
Instead of trying to zoom in on an entire web page, I prefer to open images in a new tab so I can zoom in either with a screen magnifier, browser zoom, or pinch-to-zoom gestures. Alternatively, I’ve seen museums that will add a hyperlink that says “open image in full size” that will allow users to view a high resolution image of a given exhibit.
Provide alt text and/or image descriptions for images
Alt text and image descriptions are text-based descriptions of visual details in an image written primarily for people who are visually impaired (inclusive of blind/low vision). If an image fails to load on a website, alt text will be displayed in its place, and alt text is also used for search engine optimization.
I have an entire guide to writing alt text and image descriptions linked below, but wanted to add that image descriptions are especially beneficial for virtual museum exhibits because they can be read by anyone, not just screen reader users, and many guests will benefit from the additional description when learning more about the visual aspects of a piece. For example, when my brother and I visited an art museum, he was the one asking me the most questions about visual details of a piece because I had a more detailed description pulled up online than the one that was on display in exhibit.
- How To Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired
- How To Create Image Descriptions For Red Carpet Looks
Add audio description to YouTube videos with YouDescribe
Releasing video tours or content on YouTube? Consider adding audio description with the free YouDescribe tool, which allows for volunteers to create audio description tracks for any public YouTube video. I recommend linking the YouDescribe video(s) in the video description on YouTube and on the museum’s accessibility page, and interested guests can search for or watch videos on the YouDescribe website.
- How To Create Audio Description For YouTube With YouDescribe
- Creating Audio Description For Crafting Tutorials With YouDescribe
- Creating Audio Description for Music Videos With YouDescribe
Include content warnings for items that include strobe/flashing lights
I experience photophobia and photosensitivity, also known as a sensitivity to bright and strobe/flashing lights. While I can mitigate the effects of bright lights by wearing tinted glasses, strobe or flashing lights can leave me disoriented and lead to a migraine. I benefit a lot from content warnings that tell me if a video contains strobe or flashing lights, and most virtual museums I have encountered that provide content warnings will add them to the video description, in a caption, or have a warning at the beginning of a video.
Host content using a service like Google Arts and Culture
I’ve used Google Arts and Culture multiple times to view virtual exhibits with low vision, and have been pleased with the ability to zoom in on images and view text in large print. I prefer to use a platform like Google Arts and Culture to access museums when possible over having a museum create their own virtual platform, because I am more familiar with the controls and how to navigate the application with assistive technology. Of course, if museums want to create their own platform that incorporates additional assistive technology and accessibility supports, I will be very excited to check it out, but these experiences are not very common.
- Accessible Virtual Field Trip- Rijksmuseum
- Accessible Virtual Field Trip- The 9/11 Memorial and Museum
- VR For VI: How Visually Impaired Students Can Use Virtual Reality
Partner with professional visual interpreters
Several visual interpreting services like Aira offer professional visual interpreting services for creating virtual museum experiences and video content- I’ve had a lot of fun exploring their virtual tours on their YouTube channel. While I don’t have any personal experience working with them to create professional audio descriptions for museums, I have been thrilled with the results of their product and have been very satisfied with their virtual museum experiences as someone who benefits from the service.
Provide ISBN values when recommending books for further reading
When I visited a history museum on a class field trip, the museum had a list of books and other content that they recommended for further reading on a topic. When possible, include ISBN values for books so that people with print disabilities can easily search for titles using accessible library services like Bookshare, or locate a digital copy on OverDrive or another eBook platform.
More tips on how to make virtual museums accessible for visual impairment
- When organizing online audio description tracks, organize them into a playlist so that users can advance between tracks more easily. This is especially helpful on platforms like Spotify
- Break down tours and experiences by exhibit, gallery, or section of the museum so that people can more easily navigate between multiple sections
- Link to transcripts for audio and video content when possible- most museums I have encountered host transcripts in an HTML format on their website, which works well with assistive technology