Part 10 | Audio Guides and Museums

by John Rae | August 2020

Editor’s Note: In his first nine articles for the OHS Bulletin, John Rae explored a variety of access issues for museums and heritage organizations. In his tenth installment of this series, John returns to the subject of audio tours at art galleries and museums, and offers his critique of what he has discovered and experienced. John Rae, an OHS member and volunteer, is also a member of the Inclusive Design and Accessibility Committee at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg.

This article first appeared in the August 2020 OHS Bulletin (Issue 214).

The audio tours at Casa Loma offer guided direction through the grounds, and comprehensive information on the features and exhibits (Photo - Courtesy of Casa Loma)
The audio tours at Casa Loma offer guided direction through the grounds, and comprehensive information on the features and exhibits (Photo – Courtesy of Casa Loma)

At this time when many museums, art galleries, and historic sites are trying to diversify their approaches and reach out to new patrons in their communities, many are introducing audio tours. These tours take various forms and have different goals. Some audio tours are mainly intended as self-directed tours when there are no docents or guides available, while others provide a considerable amount of background information on many of the items on display. Are they also intended to increase access and inclusion? Some of them do promote greater appreciation
of displays for patrons who are blind or partially sighted and wish to appreciate the remains from the past that may be on display.

Some of these tours are delivered in a rather canned manner with a sterile voice, while others project real enthusiasm and life.

The most comprehensive example that I have experienced was at Toronto’s Casa Loma. The device served as a guide, directing visitors through the building, providing fairly brief descriptions of the most important items on display in each area, but the device also offered an additional link that the visitor could press to obtain more extensive information on many of the items that were on display.

But audio guides are only one approach to enhancing access and engagement. Technical innovations are increasing opportunities for patrons who have low or no vision. There are four primary approaches being used by organizations that are interested in becoming more accessible to blind visitors—touch tours, beacon technology, audio description, and adding applications to the visitor’s personal device.

Offering opportunities for guests with low vision or blindness to touch original objects or 3D printed copies of works in the collection is a time-tested approach to providing access. Touch gives blind visitors the opportunity to gain a better understanding of materials, texture, shape, and form. Some facilities have developed a dedicated touch gallery, while others include some objects that can be touched throughout their galleries.

A growing number of facilities are offering audio tours to groups on a scheduled basis, and some also offer individualized tours by appointment. During these tours, docents or volunteer guides describe sculptures or paintings, and they often include the other senses—hearing, taste, and smell — to help fully describe scenes and colors. Such descriptive prompts and language can easily be included in audio tours allowing low-vision and blind patrons to have access to museums whenever they wanted—not just once a month when a tour is scheduled.

Beacon technology can be used to guide visitors through museums using smartphone apps. Beacons can also notify patrons of nearby works of art, provide descriptive dialogue, and include answers to frequently asked questions.

Museums are also developing applications that users download onto their personal smart devices that aid in navigating the museums. For example, the Warhol Museum developed “The Warhol Out Loud” to enhance engagement with blind and low-vision patrons particularly in mind. The Out Loud app — designed for iOS devices — provides users with stories about Warhol’s life and works on each floor of the museum, including information about 3D-printed reproductions. Beacons placed around the museum send Bluetooth signals to patrons’ devices to present stories based on their location in the museum.

“Smart Braille” is an app available for Android devices through Google Play that not only allows users to communicate more quickly by tapping combinations for braille figures, but also reads descriptive text to Out Loud users.

Museums and art galleries can incorporate new and emerging technology, allowing blind and low-vision patrons to access the collections at their leisure.

While various options can help improve accessibility and engagement within museums, even the liveliest audio tours can seem hollow to blind patrons like me if there aren’t a number of items available to touch. There is simply no substitute to tactile access for blind visitors to any museum, art gallery, or historic site – none whatsoever!