Expanded museum audio descriptions help the sight-impaired envision the art

Edgar Degas, “Seated Bather Drying Her Neck,” circa 1905-1910, is one of the works in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent collection with an expanded audio description for the vision impaired. “With the perspective of a voyeur, we look down upon an unclothed woman seated on a low chair,” the description reads in part. “She’s facing away from us, toward the right side of the image. Whitish fabric – perhaps a towel – is draped over her chair, concealing her lower back and buttocks. She bends her head forward, raising her left arm to hold up her long red hair, as she dries the back of her neck with another white towel held in her right hand. The towel drapes down toward the floor, hiding her knees and lower legs.” Photo: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

“Look, but don’t touch” has long been one of the tenets of interacting with fine art, from great works of painting to sculpture, for obvious reasons. But where does that leave museumgoers for whom seeing is limited or impossible?

Expanding the descriptions of artworks on museums’ websites and audio tours is perhaps the most significant way these institutions are becoming more accessible to people with a range of vision conditions, from partially sighted to completely blind. At the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which includes the Legion of Honor and de Young Museum, a traditional artwork audio description runs about 250 words, while the expanded texts may be as many as 330. In several Bay Area museums, work on making those descriptions more inclusive is a priority.

“When we started the process, we had a blank slate,” said Karen Berniker, FAMSF’s manager of access programs. “The challenge was we only had so many words to do it in, so they needed to be the right words.”

These texts need to address specific elements to help vision-impaired museum visitors create a picture of the work in their minds — and having a member of that community involved in the process is key.

To that end, Berniker enlisted museum volunteer Dr. Stanley Yarnell to evaluate the existing audio descriptions. Yarnell, 74,  began losing his vision when he was 20. By the time he was 50, Yarnell, for whom “visual art has always been an important part of my life and travel,” had completely lost his sight. He retired from his specialty in physical medicine and rehabilitation a few years later.

Stanley Yarnell has worked with the group the Blind Posse to create new aids for the vision-impaired at Bay Area museums. Photo: Victor Rowley

For years, Yarnell depended on general audio tours at museums, and found that while they would discuss the context of the work, they often lacked a description of the work’s content.

But Yarnell, who began volunteering with the museums in 2017, said, “I was really engaged in spite of the fact that I couldn’t see, but it was because my partner was being forced, on the spot, to create a kind of audio description (for me). Not everyone has that.”

To better address these needs, in 2015 Yarnell started the Blind Posse, an informal network of people connected through social media working to improve access for the vision-impaired in Bay Area art museums. In addition to the de Young and Legion of Honor, the Blind Posse has worked with the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Craft and Design, and Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco as well as the Palo Alto Arts Center and Cantor Arts Center and Anderson Collection on the Peninsula.

The Blind Posse has five primary objectives:

  • Encouraging museums to create audio descriptions of works in their permanent collections as well as in temporary exhibitions, then making the descriptions accessible by mobile device, app and/or as part of docent-led tours.
  • Increasing opportunities for haptic (touch-based) experiences with three-dimensional art, or 3-D replicas of art.
  • Ensuring that museum websites are compatible with technological tools for vision-impaired visitors and that accessibility resources are easy to find for patrons.
  • Improving large-print signage, including braille, tactile maps and audio directions.
  • Educating front-of-the-house staff and security guards about accessibility accommodations and basic disability courtesy training.
Thomas Hovenden, “The Last Moments of John Brown,” circa 1884. “In this exterior scene, a crowd of people surround abolitionist John Brown as he descends a flight of stairs and pauses to kiss a baby,” the expanded description reads in part. “Brown emerges from a red brick building and stands near the bottom right of the stairs. He leans over a railing to the right to kiss an African-American baby being held up to him by a barefoot African-American woman in ragged clothing whose head is covered in a bright red scarf. Brown is rail thin with a shock of gray hair and a long beard.” Photo: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Yarnell and Berniker point to criteria for enhanced descriptions that can best help museumgoers visualize a work of art in their minds. After providing the basics of artist, medium, materials and size, a general description of what the work depicts and from what perspective it is presented helps set the scene.

For example, a portion of an extended description developed by the Blind Posse for FAMSF’s Edgar Degas’ charcoal drawing “Seated Bather Drying Her Neck” reads: “With the perspective of a voyeur, we look down upon an unclothed woman seated on a low chair,” then describes the subject’s position “facing away from us, toward the right side of the image. … She bends her head forward, raising her left arm to hold up her long red hair, as she dries the back of her neck with another white towel held in her right hand.”

When describing the colors in a work, using adjectives that refer to familiar objects with specific hues can help people make associations, Yarnell notes. So the Degas description refers to both “peachy pink skin,” “a dark, salmon-pink bathtub with spots of blue gray and glints of white along the rim” and “rich fiery tones of yellow, orange and red, mixed with white and pale gray.”

Descriptions should also consider how the artist conveys volume (is an object solid or transparent?) and whether or not figures in a work — or a sculptural work itself — cast shadows that are part of the experience of a work. It’s also OK to offer a degree of interpretation, like what you believe the artist wants to convey, Yarnell said. Referring to other senses like smell or touch can also be helpful. Examples the Blind Posse guidelines provide suggest evoking the way the wood in a room depicted in a painting would smell, or discussing how a coat in a painting looks like it would feel scratchy because of the quick brushstrokes of the artist.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Berkeley #3,” 1953, is one of the works in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent collection with an expanded audio description for the vision-impaired. “The most important thing about this painting is that it is completely abstract,” the expanded description reads in part. “But some of the abstract elements come together and could be read as a landscape. The work features large patches of soft peachy and pink areas accented with dark lines, distinct circles, a few patches of blue, and small bits of red.” Photo: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Yarnell acknowledges that between limited museum staffing and the limits of the human attention span, it’s unlikely all works in a museum or exhibition will receive expanded descriptions. But he believes getting descriptions for select works from museums’ permanent collections and temporary shows is an important step forward in expanding who can participate in museums.

Yarnell also points to “the curb effect” this effort is having in visual arts, citing how for years sidewalk curbs have been cut for wheelchair accessibility. Now, most people use those cuts when stepping on and off the sidewalk. It’s just one example of a resource intended for the accessibility of one group that has become a benefit used by all.

“For sighted people, expanded description can direct their eye around the canvas in such a way that it brings their attention to detail that they have completely overlooked,” said Yarnell. “These descriptions benefit people beyond the vision-impaired.”



Expanded museum audio descriptions help the sight-impaired envision the art