Audio Guides as Visual Aides

In my Museum Education class this week, we discussed museum accessibility and what institutions are, or are not, doing in order to provide experiences for people of all abilities. Our class discussion was focused mainly on what the Capitol Building Visitor Center does in order to accommodate in a building that cannot be drastically altered because of its historical significance. What we learned was that there are two different tours, one for able visitors and another for disabled, that don’t necessarily see the same parts of the building. This is problematic in its own right, and well worth its own post but that isn’t my focus this week. While this was a truly enlightening conversation, it got me thinking about how museums are using technology to facilitate positive visitor experiences for disabled visitors.

Naturally, I went to Twitter with the hashtag #musetech so see what the museum community was talking about and came across a tweet from The Andy Warhol Museum located in Pittsburgh, PA. The tweet was a link to their latest blog post publicizing the launch of their new audio guide The Warhol: Out Loud. You’re probably aware that just about every museum offers an audio guide and if you’ve used one recently it probably wasn’t very exciting. So what makes this audio guide different? Well, it was designed specifically for blind and other visually impaired visitors.

The blog post explains that the production of this app was “truly the result of working directly with users, employing user-centered design and agile development processes to shape the final product.” As discussed in the post, as well as the video accompanying this post, the team in charge of creating Out Loud went straight to their visitorship to gain their perspective on what can strengthen a visitor experience. Once there was a prototype, or an idea, it was run by visually impaired visitors again and the feedback was taken into direct consideration on whether to continue with the idea, or scrap it all together. It was through this process, as well as testing the app at an Accessibility Meetup and the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference.

The Andy Warhol Museum’s commitment to being an inclusive and accessible space is evident in the creation of Out Loud because while it was created with the visually impaired in mind, its an app that can enhance any visitor experience. After reading this blog post, I immediately went and downloaded the app to see just what it had to offer. My first impressions have been positive ones. The app has the ability to pinpoint your location within the museum and bring the audio guides up for the works near you. Considering I am writing this from DC, not Pittsburgh, I can’t test the accuracy of this technology but if it works it’s an incredible way to personalize the audio guide. One of the downsides to the traditional audio guide is that it has either a set course for your visit or you have to constantly keep pressing buttons to listen. What this GPS tracking within the museum allows is the fluidity of movement through the gallery however you chose.

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Setting up the Near Me function on The Warhol: Out Loud

Out Loud has organized the audio guide into Stories, done thematically rather than chronologically. Within each Story are multiple audio files, and once you click on the Story all of the audio files will play automatically. From what I can tell, each Story is told by a different person, either with a connection to the museum or Andy Warhol himself. By using a variety of voices, Out Loud is able to give multiple perspectives on Warhol’s life and work in a way that can connect to the widest audience.

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The Stories on The Warhol: Out Loud

In addition to traditional background information, Out Loud includes descriptions of the Tactile Reproductions in the museum. These Reproductions are meant for the visually impaired so they can feel Warhol’s work, another wonderful use of technology to make the museum more accessible. The Out Loud Stories for the Reproductions offer a guided experience as the visitor is invited to move their hand across the Reproduction as well as a visual description of the primary work. The guided experience plays first and then it is followed by the visual description, allowing the visitor to feel what the visual description later describes. This method allows the visitor to connect more deeply with the work because they have felt the lines of the male figure in Reclining Male Torso even if they cannot see them. Within each Story are the transcriptions of the audio files, offering another way to experience the information available in the app.

The Warhol: Out Loud app has taken into consideration the needs and desires of often overlooked museum visitors without segregating them into a separate group. This app, available on iPhones and for rent at the museum, enables visually impaired visitors to have “a full and independent experience at the museum” without pointing them out as separate or different. I cannot wait to make a trip to Pittsburgh and test out The Warhol: Out Loud app on site. Even though it’s only in its early stages, I can see this having very positive effects on the museum’s visitor experience.

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