Commentary: A Different Way of Seeing Museum Exhibits

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is commemorating the anniversary with Sight Unseen, an exhibit showcasing works from photographers who are blind. Patrons with vision loss can enjoy the exhibit thanks to 3DPhotoWorks, an organization that makes tactile renderings of pictures and paintings. They’ve also enhanced the experience by including special sensors on the photographs that will give users more detailed audio descriptions when they run their hands across the photos.

I often see news stories about things museums and other cultural institutions are doing to make their facilities accessible to people with vision loss. By providing audio description or tactile representations of artifacts, these places are striving to make sure everyone can enjoy and learn from the various exhibits. I am particularly impressed with the Sight Unseen exhibit because of the technological approach being used to make all aspects accessible.

I have gone to museums and art exhibits that claim to be accessible, only to find that accommodations are minimal at best. While I might get somewhat of a picture by tracing my hands around statues or sculptures, I still cannot fully appreciate all the details. Museum staff does their best at describing key features, but I would still love to have the freedom of exploring artifacts on my own like everyone else. The inclusive nature of the 3DPhotoWorks technology allows people who are blind to do just that.

If more museums adopt this or similar technology, it will benefit both patrons with and without disabilities. Those of us with visual impairments could enjoy and appreciate exhibits more fully thanks to the audio and tactile components. People with 20/20 vision might be able to appreciate previously overlooked details if they could feel paintings and sculptures. Simple things like feeling the smoothness of a marble sculpture could help them get a better picture through their other senses.

There is much more to the Sight Unseen exhibit than the accessibility features. The fact that it showcases work by blind and visually impaired photographers communicates a very important message to the general public. When people talk about photography, blindness or photographers with vision loss are rarely part of the conversation. I hope this exhibit will help demystify the persisting misconceptions about people with visual impairments.

It is very fitting that the exhibit is part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is a powerful way of conveying the important message that everyone has a right to equal access. It also gives the general public a better understanding of what can be done to make things accessible, and how everyone can benefit from it.

Kudos to 3DPhotoWorks for their innovative approach to making exhibits more inclusive and accessible. As someone who is blind, I believe this approach has a great potential in cultural institutions throughout the world. While people like me might not be able to appreciate visual details of paintings and statues, the audio and tactile enhancements will definitely allow us to see a better picture in our minds.


How can museums be made more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired?

More and more museums throughout the United States and the world are striving to make their facilities and exhibitions more accessible to those of us with disabilities. In this post I will talk about some of the accessibility features that can help people with visual impairments learn from and enjoy museums. These suggestions come from an article in AccessWorld, a publication from the American Foundation for the Blind as well as from my personal experiences.

One of the most important aspects museum personnel should consider when making their facilities accessible to those of us with visual impairments is the ease of travel. In other words, features to help guide the person and direct him or her to the various areas of the building should be provided. This can be as simple as providing a Braille or large print booklet with directions to the various locations.

Specialized audio devices can also help individuals who are visually impaired orient themselves to their surroundings in museums. Besides being of great help in exhibits, these devices can be programmed to verbally describe the locations of different areas throughout the museum.

Thanks to today’s technology, museums can implement these audio instructions easily and at a very low cost. Several institutions, such as San Francisco Airport recently began using beacons throughout their facility to help guide blind and visually impaired individuals. By using a Smartphone and a special app, the phone verbally announces the locations and directions to places such as bathrooms, terminals, restaurants, gift shops, etc.

Whether providing specialized audio guides or the technology for people to use their Smartphones as audio guides, it is important to allow users to easily navigate through the guide. So, if I’m standing near the entrance but wish to explore other parts of the museum to get somewhat familiar with the various facilities, the guide should allow me to skip back and forth between descriptions. Also, if the museum is frequently visited by people from different countries, museums might want to consider making such audio guides in several languages.

Audio description, or the narration of visual elements, is also helpful to those of us with visual impairments. It can easily be pre-recorded and incorporated into electronic audio devices. However, a disadvantage to this is that in places like aquariums or zoos, the blind or visually impaired person would not be able to appreciate the real-time actions of animals. In these instances it might also help to provide docents or volunteers to describe these actions to the person should he or she request such service.

Another simple but useful accommodation is Braille and large print signage throughout the museum. This includes bathrooms, elevators and any other signs that are available to the general public. Museums should also take great care in insuring that the signs are formatted correctly and placed in easy to find spots.

Using signs near exhibits with large, easy to see fonts with contrasting colors can be of major help to individuals with low vision. The same applies to electronic signage and visual displays. In addition, exhibit objects, such as sculptures should be placed in areas with high contrast backgrounds. Lighting should also be designed to reduce glare on both exhibits and works of art.

As a blind person, I very much enjoy using my other senses – touch and sound – to learn about exhibits. I think that if more museums made tactile exhibits or – at the very least – provided a tactile replica – patrons with and without visual impairments would have a better understanding of the exhibit. Of course, this should only be done when it is safe to do so. I personally would not be willing to touch a live shark at an aquarium! This article from The New York Times talks about how the Museo del Prado in Spain has made tactile representations of famous works of art for the blind to enjoy

Perhaps the most important tip is for museum employees to be familiar with all the accessibility features available for people with disabilities. Knowing how to operate electronic audio guides or other devices provided by the museum is also a plus for whenever you have to instruct an individual on its use.

Finally, know how to interact with individuals with visual impairments. You can read more about this at:

This post has only touched the tip of the iceberg in regards to accessibility of museums for people with visual impairments. We hope these suggestions have helped you understand the importance of making cultural institutions more accessible for individuals with vision loss. If you somehow reached this post in your quest to make your museum more accessible, congratulations!! We sincerely hope this information will help you make your institution a place that is enjoyable for all visitors.

The following article from AccessWorld provides more suggestions and helpful resources: What have your experiences been as a blind or visually impaired individual in museums? Please comment! Yu can also email any blindness or visual impairment related questions to Thanks for reading!

Commentary: Museums improve art programming for people with disabilities

Check out this article about how the Museum of Modern Art in New York is developing specific programs and features to increase accessibility for patrons with all types of disabilities. Kudos to this and other institutions that are working hard to make their facilities and exhibits accessible to those of us with disabilities!

People with disabilities also want to enjoy and learn about everything there is to see at museums, and it is completely possible with today’s technology and simple adaptations. All museums and similar institutions should continue providing accessibility not only to comply with the law, but also because it’s the right thing to do!

You can read the article at the following page:

Thanks for reading!