MCN Workshop: Seeing with Words – Visual Description for Museum Websites

This workshop was held at the annual MCN Conference on Tuesday, November 1, 2016.

In recent years, museums have begun to focus on making their websites accessible, not only to comply with federal regulations but also because an accessible site signals a museum’s commitment to welcoming visitors with a range of needs. For blind and low vision visitors, visual information is key to making a website useful; this is especially true for museum sites, with their image-heavy designs. And museums with image description projects find that these descriptions–many of them creative, lyrical, and profound–are useful to all website visitors, not just the blind. Unfortunately, describing images is rarely a part of a museum’s content workflow.

This hands-on workshop provided training in describing images using methods developed by the Art Beyond Sight Institute as a starting point for describing a shared set of images as a group. Attendees practiced authoring short (alt) and long descriptions together, analyzing with the facilitators what elements support a good and useful description.

The workshop reviewed the MCA Chicago case study to prepare attendees to implement a visual description project at their home organization. We looked at staffing, workflow, and technology models and needs, as well as questions of policy (including standards and vetting of descriptions) and how to develop local guidelines for descriptions of many image types–including collection, event, and exhibition images–as well as decorative and graphical elements. Furthermore, the group discussed other applications for visual descriptions and ideas about how to advocate for visual description projects with institutional leadership, boards, and funders.

The workshop was led by Susan Chun, Chief Content Officer at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Anna Chiaretta Lavatelli, Director of Digital Media at the MCA, and Sina Bahram, accessibility advocate, expert, and consultant. The three have recently collaborated to develop to implement visual description across the MCA’s website.