Visiting the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum

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.

Getting inside

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.

Exhibit Guides

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.

Flashing lights

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.

Sensory friendly

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.

Accessible tours

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

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!


How Do People With Low Vision…Go To Museums?

Being just a short Metro ride away from the Smithsonian, I have been able to go to many different museums with my friends.  My two favorite Smithsonian museums are the Natural History and the American Art museums.  People who don’t know me well are often surprised that I love those museums so much, because they are so heavy on visuals.  However, I have found many ways to enjoy those and other museums in the area, and learned a lot by volunteering at another museum in my hometown.  Here are some of the things I have learned.

Go with a friend

It’s far more fun to travel with a friend than it is to travel alone.  I tend to use human guides in addition to my blindness cane when traveling because it’s helpful to have an extra pair of eyes with me.  Some things my human guides do include reading signs, letting me know where exhibit boundaries are, and locating items such as elevators and stairs.

Ask for a large print guide

At the Smithsonian, all museums have a book in large print and Braille of all the signs in the museum.  Some museums may have a heavy book with every sign throughout the museum, and others might have smaller guides for that particular exhibit hanging on the wall.  Other museums may have Braille on their signs or high contrast labels- the museum I volunteer at back in my hometown has labels for all exhibits at a font size of 36, so large print is not necessary.

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Example of museum guide for traveling exhibit

Disability-specific museum tours

The National Portrait Gallery offers specific tours for people who are blind or that have low vision at least once a month.  The art is available on high resolution digital images and an interpreter helps guide the visitors around the museum.  Check to see if the museum has specific tours for people with low vision, or can give access to high resolution digital images.

Flashing lights or loud noises?

If this is a concern, ask if there are any exhibits that have a high amount of strobe or flashing lights or loud noises when you arrive.  If the front desk does not know, maintenance would be a good resource as well, since they often spend lots of time in these exhibits. When I volunteered at a sensory-friendly event, I warned parents of guests with sensory integration about some hidden buttons in exhibits that made loud animal noises, another machine that made loud croaking noises, and a light that was temporarily flickering in another exhibit.

IMAX/Museum Shows

Because I have no depth perception, I find IMAX shows to be weird because I can’t wear the 3D glasses.  However, many museums offer descriptive audio devices that can describe what is on screen without obscuring other dialogue.  These devices should be requested when tickets are purchased, and some may require a safety deposit.

Interactive exhibits

When going to exhibits where visitors can touch objects, it helps to specify that a visitor has low vision.  When I went to a museum where staff were throwing around an inflatable Earth, I didn’t realize what direction it was going in, and it hit me in the face.  Staff can help by describing items thoroughly before offering it to a visitor to touch, and also warning them of any sharp sides there might be.  If it is a live animal display, ask before grabbing the person’s hand, and then move their hand in the appropriate area.

Audio tours

Often free, museums offer audio tours that describe items around the museum from a certain perspective- for example, Civil War history.  These can be a great addition to other accessible materials, and often describe the exhibits well enough so that people can close their eyes and imagine what it looks like.


I’ve heard friends say that getting lost in a museum is “so romantic,” but as a person with low vision, I find it incredibly terrifying!  In order to help prevent this, get a large print map, if available, from guest services prior to entering the museum.  If all else fails, try and find museum volunteers or staff, and mention that you have low vision.  At the museum I volunteer at, we have had many lost kids and people with disabilities, and as volunteers we are trained to bring them to a central point in the museum, the front desk, and then help them be reunited with their party.

Online tours

Want to go to a museum, but can’t seem to get there?  Or do you want to see high resolution images on your device?  Google Arts and Culture has virtual tours of many famous museums, and high resolution artwork that is easy to enlarge and search for.  Available on iOS and Android, it is an excellent companion when traveling.

With these tips, visitors of all vision levels will be able to enjoy the educational and cultural opportunities that museums provide.