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How a Podcast Brings Museums to the Visually Impaired

Verbal descriptions bring art to life!

Verbal descriptions have been used by museums for years to connect visually impaired art lovers with their collections. But the descriptions are usually written for in-person tours, and finding them on their websites can take a lot of digging. Some even require downloading and learning a new app.

A Long Look Podcast uses verbal descriptions to deliver art lovers a unique way to enjoy art anywhere and anytime using apps they already know. Each 10-minute episode begins with a description of a work of art, followed by its back story–the history, mystery or controversy of the work or the artist. Since it’s a podcast, it can be easily accessed on its website alonglookpodcast.com and on popular podcast apps and streaming services like:

It all started on a plane

A Long Look launched in 2017 after I binge listened to several podcasts during a long flight. Two shows were big influences: The Memory Palace and Stuff You Missed in History Class. In The Memory Palace, Nate DiMeo spent several episodes talking about works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His thoughtful narratives, written primarily for onsite visitors, bring works in the American Wing to life.

In Stuff You Missed in History Class, Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson share oddball and lesser-known stories from around the world in an entertaining way. Their easy-going style showed you could talk about history in a fun, non-academic way.

When I was coming up with ideas, I remembered my first visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC where I spent 45 minutes looking at a painting called The Mill. It’s a scene of a Dutch mill sitting on a hilltop with a curving river below it. It’s evening and there are a few people standing on the riverbank approached by a man in a rowboat. I had never looked at a work of art for that long. I just sat in front of it, letting my eyes roam all over the scene, and experienced a sense of slowing down and began noticing more details, like how the beautiful silvery evening light playing over the water and how it contrasted with the warm earth tones of the riverbank. 

The Memory Palace proved a visual experience could be translated into audio in a compelling way. But I wondered if I could reproduce that experience with The Mill by talking about what happens when you spent minutes instead of seconds with a work of art? Would people even listen to a description of looking at art?

After writing my first description–about The Mill, of course–I realized that wouldn’t be enough and remembered something from when I read Michelangelo’s letters for an art history class. Michelangelo was an Italian artist who lived during the Renaissance and he often worked for important clients like the Pope. He wrote about being frustrated at not being able to get marble for a major project because the quarry workers had gone on strike and his client was getting annoyed about the delay.

I realized that story could’ve happened anytime, even a few years ago. And that’s what gave me the idea to include backstories, to provide a way into art that wasn’t all about art jargon but about the flesh-and-blood people who made these incredible works. 

Another inspiration was The Slow Art Movement which first introduced the idea of taking time with a work of art. 

The National Gallery of Art became homebase for the show because of its enormous collection and loads of copyright-free images and resources to help me find those stories. Plus it has free admission!

Related Links

The Memory Palace

Stuff You Missed in History Class 

Slow Art Movement

An unexpected result

The show originally was geared toward sighted art lovers and the art curious–people who are interested in art but feel intimidated or overwhelmed by museums. But shortly after the launch, a former colleague who has been visually impaired for years left an amazing comment on Facebook. “Even with limited vision and without looking at an enlarged photo of the painting being described, I could see it in my mind’s eye!” she wrote. “You point out details I would have missed just because I wouldn’t have seen them. The energy I now require to really LOOK and study something visual is an immense expenditure of energy and your descriptions have made art appreciation, once again, a joyful experience for me. THANK YOU!!!”

This was a wonderfully unexpected result of the show. To make the descriptions even more useful, I looked for verbal description training resources and found Art Beyond Sight, an organization dedicated to making arts and culture accessible to people with disabilities. And The National Gallery of Art invited me to participate in training for their fantastic in-person program, Picture This. Both taught me ways to enhance my descriptions, making them even more vivid. 

A Long Look is now in Season 6 and because of the shutdown, I’ve gone on a virtual road trip to visit museums around the country that also offer copyright-free images. So far I’ve done long looks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum and there are a few episodes left til the season ends back in DC. I hope you’ll join me!

Related Links

A Long Look Podcast

The National Gallery of Art

The Mill 

Art Beyond Sight

Picture This

Author: Karen Jackson

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