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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.