Striving for Universal Access: Image Descriptions at the National Gallery of Art

Tuesday, April 4th: 9:30am - 11:00am


Manager of Accessible Programs @ National Gallery of Art
User Experience Designer @ National Gallery of Art

Paper Abstract

Since the summer of 2020, more than 1,000 fully accessible textual descriptions of works of art in the National Gallery of Art’s collection have gone live, and they cover 60% of traffic to museum’s collection pages. Learn how we leveraged a large-scale, interdepartmental project to make this a reality, from documenting the process through publishing description guidelines, and focusing on all users through an inclusive design approach that supports the National Gallery’s mission for universal access.

Description is the cornerstone of scholarly interpretation, but in that context, description will be selective, and will always be in service to that interpretation. By developing a specific approach to composing descriptions for the sake of description (rather than interpretation), we linger even more in the visual qualities of a work of art rather than in what we know about it. We attend to and respect the artefact, the thing that the artist has left us.

Moreover, a relatively objective description provides an equitable experience of a work of art. For instance, a person even vaguely familiar with Western, Christian tradition will glean specific information from a gallery room displaying with fourteen paintings, all of which show a woman wearing a blue cloak holding up a baby boy, both against a gold background. Many may immediately recognize the works as depictions of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child, but how often do we slow down to really attend to the visual information, to wonder about and put words to what is found in that work – the way the woman looks, the way the child is shown, and how the gold is decorated in specific ways.

In order to achieve that kind of slow experience for listeners and readers with (and without) vision loss, we, at the National Gallery, developed an ongoing training system to bring in new authors, and we ensure that the finalized descriptions are available to everyone by making them public on our website. Learn how we developed

ID: 11077