E-Accessible Culture

Part 3. From the visual to the textual - describing the arts in a digital world

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Part 3. From the visual to the textual - describing the arts in a digital world

VocalEyes: Increasing opportunities to experience and enjoy art and heritage through digital technologies

By Matthew Cock, Chief Executive, VocalEyes

Matthew Cock is a graduate in Art History (Edinburgh) and Fine Art (Glasgow School of Art). He joined VocalEyes in 2015, having worked for many years at the British Museum, as an editor, digital content manager and then head of the web team, responsible for the museum's websites and digital projects, including gallery and mobile technology projects. Prior to that, he worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a curatorial assistant. Since 2008, Matthew has been a Trustee of the Jodi Mattes Trust that champions the accessibility of digital culture in the museums, libraries and archive sectors.

The art of experiencing culture

VocalEyes is an access organization working to increase opportunities for blind and partially sighted people to experience and enjoy the arts and cultural heritage in the UK.

When I stand in a room before a sculpture made in the fifth century BC, a painting made 500 years ago, or a film installation made by a living artist, nothing stands between me and the original maker. I feel the form and weight of the object in a shared space, the vibration of colours on the canvas, the sweep of the brush, or the contour of the line on the sheet of the paper....

... The experience of observing and sometimes even holding an object is visceral, haptic and spatial. We situate ourselves in space and in time through the vision of another creative being. Cumulatively, museums offer thousands of small and large epiphanies. ”

Sir Nicholas Serota, Foreword, Treasure Palaces (London, 2016)

Serota's description of the experience of standing in a room with art is very powerful because it is inclusive of people who have visual impairments: descriptive language and guided touch can bring those visceral, haptic and spatial experiences and epiphanies to life just as powerfully as visual observation. And this gets to the heart of what we believe at VocalEyes: that blind and partially sighted people can get as much meaning, pleasure and epiphany from the arts as a sighted person.

Each year, our network of specialist audio describers, consultants and trainers delivers around 180 audio described (AD) theatre performances at around 75-100 theatres, and work with around 30-40 museums on a range of projects enabling access.

Digital delivery runs throughout our work: for theatre, we produce ‘Audio Introductions' of 5-15 minutes for each AD performance, which provide a general introduction to the performance, including descriptions of the set, costumes and characters, along with venue access information.

We encourage museums to offer similar AD venue introductions - practical information, such as how to get there and what to expect when you arrive, with descriptive information about the appearance and layout of the building17.We also develop recorded audio-descriptive guides for museum exhibitions and galleries, often with descriptive directions from one stop to the next. These are delivered on a variety of hardware, from traditional devices with physical keypads to smartphones with specially designed apps with text-to- speech software. We also encourage venues to make AD content available to stream or download from their website and SoundCloud, so people can use their own device and take control of their listening.

State of Museum Access

In December 2016, VocalEyes published a report presenting the results of an audit of the access information provided on 1700 UK museum websites: based on the premise that a lack of information contributed significantly to lower attendance among disabled people18. We know, from a UK government survey, that there is ‘an attendance gap' of 8.5% in the proportion of disabled and non-disabled visitors that visit museums and galleries and theaters19.

When museum websites were first developed in the 1990s, access was interpreted predominantly in terms of physical access for wheelchair users. Over time, more museums have begun considering access needs more broadly, including those barriers faced by people who have visual impairments. However, our survey showed that there is still a long way to go:

  • 27% of UK museums provide no online access information at all.

  • A further 43% have online access information, but nothing relevant to blind and partially sighted people.

  • Therefore, only 30% of UK museums provide any access information online for blind and partially sighted visitors.

Supporting the cultural sector in the production of accessible digital content

Alongside the report, VocalEyes publishes guidelines for venues to help them create or improve their website access information, and create accessible content.

Describing images

A major part of our museum program involves training staff to deliver AD tours in the physical space of the museum or heritage site, but there is little discussion or consideration for providing descriptions of the millions of images of museum objects online. While we have guidelines for alt text, there is a need for guidelines for audio descriptions of art and cultural heritage artefacts and environments, whether delivered live, recorded as audio, or provided as text20.

It is important to consider two areas when creating audio description: Structure: AD is a linear, temporal exchange, with the listener building a mental image or understanding (the concept of a mental image is problematic, many blind people report that they do not do this) over a period of time. Thus the order and structural logic of the description is important to its success. It is important to start broad (a life-size sculpture of a man, a painting in a gold frame showing a winter landscape) before going into detail.

The details are best threaded into a narrative. It is not necessary to describe every detail or aspect of the work. There is no need to be too systematic or formal: more weight can be given to the aspects of the work that draw attention, and the characteristics that separate the artefact or work from a generic version21.

Multisensory language: One way of ensuring good audio description is to consider the many other senses through which the artefact, or the represented scene can be experienced. For example: a description of a seascape could include the waves lapping on the sides of boats, spray whipped up and crashing over a jetty, trees on the shore bent by the wind: all of these can be related to lived experience - through touch, hearing, balance, and even taste.

VocalEyes is currently a partner, along with the Museum of London and RNIB, in a University of Westminster PhD research project investigating museum audio description22. Current experiments involve sighted and blind or partially sighted people listening to recorded ADs (scripted following different approaches to the language used) about documentary photographs in the Museum of London's collection, and then completing a survey asking various questions about their recollection of the images and descriptions immediately afterwards, and one month later.

Good audio description is generally invisible, unobtrusive, and doesn't seek to impose a particular interpretation on the listener. But it will always be a subjective and personal interpretation. Two different describers will focus on different aspects, use different descriptive language and create different experiences. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago's Coyote project recognizes this and seeks to make it a feature of their open description project23.

Describing video

While some museums caption their videos for the benefit of people with hearing loss, very few provide access for blind and partially sighted people. If considered as part of the film-making process, the need for a separate AD track, which is not currently handled by mainstream video platforms, can be worked around: making sure speakers are introduced, or introduce themselves verbally, and that location and other important visual information are mentioned or described as part of the dialogue. This can be done elegantly and unobtrusively, without the need for commissioning a recorded AD track24.

Vocal Eyes' work on description, the findings of other research initiatives such as Coyote, and the huge knowledge of practitioners around the world, give us a firm grounding on which we can develop best practice and support the cultural sector in the production of accessible digital content.

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