Here are three fun facts about me:
- I love visiting art museums
- I use a blindness cane
- I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery at least once a week when I had an internship close by
When a lot of people hear these three facts, they assume that this is a game of “two truths and a lie”, because it seems illogical that someone who uses a blindness cane would have a strong interest in visual art, or that I would miss out on a lot of information due to vision loss. However, there are a ton of awesome resources for making art museums and exhibits more accessible for visitors with low vision, and I’ve had the amazing experience of visiting various art museums both in-person and virtually. Here are my favorite tips for visiting art museums with low vision and sharing art education resources with people with vision loss, inclusive of low vision and blind.
Reminder: vision loss is a spectrum, not a binary
When I first published this post in 2017, I received an email from a reader telling me how it was misleading for me to say I use a blindness cane when I have some usable vision. Blindness canes are a helpful tool for people who have low vision or some usable vision, and are not just used by people who experience total blindness or no usable vision. Without my cane, I would not be able to safely travel independently or visit my favorite museums without running into things.
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
Go on a tour specifically for blind/low vision visitors
A lot of the larger art museums I have been to offer tours specifically for blind and low vision visitors a few times a month. Curators will guide a small group of visitors around an exhibit or do an in-depth lecture on a few pieces, incorporating in additional description as well as tactile models or replicas of various pieces that are not traditionally on exhibit. Tours are typically free with admission, and information can be found on the museum’s website.
Some examples of names I have seen for these types of tours include:
- InSight tours
- Descriptive tours
- Descriptive talk
- Touching Masterpieces
- Touch Gallery
- Touch Tour
- Access Programs
- Accessible art
- Low Vision and Blind tours
- Verbal description tours
- America InSight: Verbal Description Tours | Smithsonian American Art Museum
- 10 Accessible Art and Museum Experiences for People who are Blind or have Low Vision (bemyeyes.com)
- School Field Trips And Low Vision
Search for high-resolution images in the virtual archives
One of my favorite strategies for visiting art museums and galleries with low vision is to search for high-resolution images of items on display, and enlarge the details on my phone or tablet. This is helpful when I am at an exhibit that does not have very good lighting, or if there is a gate keeping me from getting close enough to view the item on display.
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
- Art Classes and Low Vision
- Barack Obama | (si.edu)
If available, get a large print or braille exhibit guide
Several popular art museums offer large print or braille exhibit guides that can be requested at the front desk, or offer digital guides that can be downloaded online and enlarged/read with a refreshable braille display. Most guides do not provide in-depth exhibit descriptions, rather tell readers the names of items on display and where they are located in a museum.
When I went to a university gallery, the large print exhibit guide had been paired with QR codes next to the names of items on display, with the option to scan QR codes and view high-resolution images of individual items. I thought this was really awesome and it made it easier for me to view exhibits.
Besides hosting links and documents, QR codes can also be used to display:
- Phone numbers
- Contact cards/vCards
- Email addresses
- Plain text
- Wifi passwords
- Events/calendar links
- Video links
There are a few different options for creating a QR code, including:
- Using the QR creator shortcut in the iOS Shortcuts app
- Accessing a free online QR code generator- I love QR.io because it has multiple options for linking content
- Bing’s search engine has a built-in QR generator that can be accessed by searching “QR code generator”
- There are several free web browser extensions for generating a QR code from a given website
- Creating Take-Away Documents With Microsoft Office Sway
- Creating Accessible Bulletin Boards For College Dorms
- How To Write Alt Text For Amateur Art
Use Google Lens to identify items
Another strategy I’ve used at museums is to take a picture of items with Google Lens and search Google for that image so I could enlarge it better or read more information. If I can see an item on exhibit but not the label next to it, I can take a photo of the sign with Google Lens and have text enlarged or translated.
Google Lens can be accessed with the Google Lens app, with the built-in Lens option for select Android camera applications, or by pressing the “Lens” option in the phone gallery.
Ask if any exhibits have strobe or 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. For this reason, I ask at the museum’s front desk or contact them ahead of time to ask if there are any exhibits with flashing lights I should know about. Some museums will put signs out in front of exhibits warning guests about strobe/flashing lights as well.
Pair museum tours with podcasts or audio guides
Art museums have a lot of awesome resources for helping guests get a better understanding of art on display, including free podcasts, audio guides/audio tours, and audio description. I strongly recommend checking out these resources, as they can help tremendously with enhancing the museum experience. Some museums offer dedicated audio description devices, while others link tours online so that users can play them from their own device.
At an art exhibit I visited, there were podcast episodes about the most popular pieces on exhibit, where the hosts would give a detailed visual description of each piece and provide more information on the artist and historical content. This was really interesting to listen to, both at the exhibit and at home.
- Mainstream Technology and Low Vision: MP3 Players
- 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
For additional reading, check out art content on Bookshare or OverDrive/Libby
Want to read more about an artist or particular exhibit/art style? Bookshare is an accessible online library for people with print disabilities that offers a ton of awesome books on classical and contemporary artists, including books that are available at museum gift shops.
Another helpful resource is OverDrive/Libby, which allows users to check out eBooks and magazines using their library card. My library offers several art magazines, including Art In America, which covers art museum news, galleries, and other interesting happenings in the world of art.
- Reading Magazines With The Libby App And Low Vision
- Ten Ways Vision Impairment Influenced Classic Artists
- Ten Cool Things You Didn’t Know About Bookshare
More tips for visiting art museums with low vision
- Another option for viewing art at a distance is to use a monocular, binocular, or similar ocular device for distance magnification. I recommend talking to a low vision specialist to determine if this would be a good option for accessing information
- Some art museums offer sensory-friendly events that feature different lighting- some museums will increase or add additional lighting for these events, while others will decrease lighting
- My favorite exhibits are ones that feature art with saturated, vivid colors and that are more abstract, as these types of art often rely a lot on color to convey imagery and emotion