Verbal description plays a crucial role in improving access to modern-day art museums. This article presents the results of a study of verbal description in art museums in France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. These results are of two types: one, the communicative features of the verbal descriptions offered by museums and two, the social features of the context in which these verbal descriptions are created and implemented. Previous studies have partially described these aspects, but they mainly followed a quantitative approach or focused on the most frequent practices regarding specific linguistic devices. The goal of this article is to offer a qualitative analysis of these elements in a large sample and to provide a comparative analysis and critical discussion of both the majority and the minority practices in verbal description in art museums. The results show that art museums follow various approaches to foster the access for blind people to their collections. Some of these approaches open new ways of comprehending accessibility in art museums and especially, audio description. A critical and creative discussion of these findings and further collaboration within and across borders could revolutionize verbal description and visitors' experience in art museums in the years to come.

1 Introduction

Museums have evolved to become valuable tools for social inclusion and the democratization of knowledge. The museum of today constitutes a multimodal text where objects, images, printed words, sounds, voices, smells, and architecture interact with each other to foster both individual and collective experiences, but these experiences are not accessible to everyone. "Verbal description" is a translation from images into words and is one resource used nowadays by museums and especially by art museums to make these experiences more accessible. This article offers a comparative analysis and critical discussion of verbal description in forty-eight art museums and exhibitions in France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This analysis and discussion focus on two dimensions: one, communicative features of the verbal descriptions and two, social features of creation and implementation of these verbal descriptions. To carry out this study, I collected and analyzed two types of data: (1) a corpus of verbal descriptions, and (2) contextual information on their creation and implementation. In order to collect this information, I used the following tools and procedures: bibliographical review, autonomous visit, visit in guided tour organized by the museum, semi-structured interview, and survey. The ultimate goal of this study is to foster a critical and creative discussion of current accessibility practices in art museums and further collaboration within and across borders in this field. This, in turn, could revolutionize verbal description of visual arts and visitors' experiences in the years to come.

To date, a number of studies have dealt with verbal description in art museums, but they mainly followed a quantitative approach aimed at determining the type and level of accessibility of museums for blind and partially blind people or focused on the majority or more frequent practices regarding very specific linguistic devices. These studies have been key to deepening our understanding of access to the visual arts in museums and exhibitions and of the specific features of verbal description in this context. However, it is equally important to carry out qualitative studies that offer comparative analyses and critical discussions of both the majority and the minority practices in this field and possible ways of improving them. The goal of this article is to offer this type of analysis and discussion of verbal description in art museums in four countries that have shown a growing interest in this accessibility resource. It is my belief that this study will expand and change our understanding of this intersemiotic translation modality both within Translation Studies and other relevant disciplines, as well as in organizations that currently use or produce this accessibility resource or would like to do it in upcoming years.

The main change in our understanding of verbal description resulting from this study is that verbal description is not necessarily done by sighted people for those who do not see or see less, and that it is not beneficial only for the experience of those who do not see or see less, but for everyone's experience of art. Thus, throughout this article, references to disabled people have been avoided to overcome the idea that verbal description of artwork is exclusively beneficial for a specific group of people. However, "disabled people", "blind people" and "partially blind people" are used when referring to previous research and existing accessibility practices that use similar categories. Likewise, these terms are used to specify the visual capabilities of some individuals when this information serves to highlight the lack of blind and partially blind people in the fields of museum accessibility and audio description. These terms are used not as scientific or legal concepts, but rather as looser concepts to encompass individuals who, given their visual capabilities, benefit from verbal description and other resources to access the visual arts. This identity-first language has been used because, as put by Barnes, it "mirrors our usage of other terms which pick out minority social groups" (6). Following this author, "disabled" and "blind" are used to object to and contribute to change the negative connotations that they commonly carry. Similarly, "partially blind" is used, instead of "partially sighted", to avoid "sighted" as the human standard.

2. Verbal description and museum accessibility

Verbal descriptions can be visual (if printed or shown on screen), tactile (if printed in Braille), or aural (if spoken, and sometimes recorded). When verbal description is aural, it is termed "audio description." An art museum "audio descriptive guide" consists of a variable number of audio tracks with two main types of contents. The first may be deemed general content—which typically includes a welcome speech, a description of the mobile device and user instructions, descriptions of the museum and the exhibition space, mobility directions, and a farewell note. The second type refers to content detailing each work of art discussed in the guide. It typically includes: (1) identification of the artwork (title, year, materials and other information provided in the exhibit's label) and (2) description of the artwork. These two are sometimes supplemented with (3) an explanation of the context in which it was produced, and (4) its interpretation by experts (Soler Gallego 2012; 2016). These four layers of content dedicated to one specific work of art is what existing guidelines and other publications have referred to as the audio description of an exhibit. However, from a linguistic perspective, the description of the artwork (number 2 above) is a new type of content that is added to an existing genre, namely, the audio guide for museums. The "audio guide" for museums may be defined as the oral, mobile version of exhibition labels (Serrell 2015), and typically contains the identification, contextualization and interpretation of a selection of exhibits, but not the description of the artworks. In this study, I use the term audio description exclusively to refer to the description of the artwork, which is the result or product of an intersemiotic translation process from images to words. Occasionally, the description of the artwork is not oral, but printed in large fonts or Braille and I refer to it as printed verbal description. Here, I use audio description when the acoustic channel is used to convey the message, either recorded or live, and the more general verbal description to encompass descriptions transmitted through aural, tactile, or visual media. Other terms used by organizations and museums to refer to audio description are visual description and verbal description. Audio descriptions are also incorporated into gallery tours and conveyed orally face-to-face, giving rise to the "audio descriptive guided tour."

To date, several studies have researched museum accessibility for blind and partially blind people. One study, carried out in 2011 (Mesquita and Carneiro 2016) analyzed 28 museums in London, Paris, Madrid, and Lisbon through observations and semi-structured interviews. The sample included art, science and technology, natural history, ethnography, and anthropology museums, although 75% of them were art museums. The study surveyed the implementation of 35 potential strategies, identified through literature review, to boost the accessibility of both the museum site and the exhibits. Results show that audio guides were used by 71% of the museums, but the study does not indicate whether these audio guides included audio descriptions. 43% of the museums also offered tactile images and the same percentage allowed visitors to touch original objects, while 54% of them used replicas. Olfactory and gustatory experiences were used in 21% and 7% of the museums, respectively. In the same period, the Audio Description: Lifelong Access for the Blind (ADLAB) project surveyed accessibility conditions for blind and partially blind visitors in various European museums. It concluded that in the United Kingdom, a large number of museums offered recorded audio descriptions and only some offered audio descriptive guided tours (ADLAB 2012). However, the study does not specify how many of them were art museums. Similarly, the study determined that audio description was widely used in Spanish museums. In Belgium, 16 art and history museums offered audio descriptive guided tours, while only one museum had an audio descriptive guide. In Italy, some art and archeology museums offered guided tours intended for blind and partially blind visitors and some offered autonomous tactile tours with recorded audio descriptions. In Poland, various museums—whose type is not specified in the study—had audio descriptive guided tours, while in Portugal, only one art museum had an audio descriptive guide and some temporary exhibitions had offered multisensory guides. Lastly, the provision of audio description in German museums was very limited at the time of the study.

In 2014, the Full Access to Cultural Spaces (FACS) project surveyed the accessibility services of 128 museums in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Greece, Portugal, Sweden, Belgium, and the United Kingdom (Raffi 2017). The most represented were archeological (15%), history (10%), science/technology (11%), military/war (7%), and ancient art museums (7%). The results showed that 15% of participating museums offered AD, 9% offered Braille on panels/posters, 7% offered Braille portable guides, and 18% offered large print on guide/brochures/leaflets and/or panels/posters. 23% of the museums also offered tactile materials. Between 2010 and 2015, another study analyzed the availability of audio guides in Portuguese museums (Martins 2017). This study determined that only 54 of the 353 museums in Portugal offered audio guides, of which only two included audio descriptions intended for blind and partially blind visitors. More recently, the AD provider VocalEyes analyzed the information on accessibility for this type of visitors provided on the websites of 1,700 British museums and concluded that the most frequently used resource was large print labels/guides (18%), followed by audio descriptive guided tours/handling sessions (i.e. sessions where visitors do a tactile exploration of original exhibits or replicas) (10%), Braille labels/guides (9%), and audio descriptive guides (6%) (VocalEyes 2016). More than a decade before, the RNIB and VocalEyes (2003) had published a study in which the accessibility of 55 British museums, galleries and heritage sites was assessed through surveys and audits of audio guides by blind and partially blind people. The findings indicated that 45.5% of the venues offered large print, 30.9% offered Braille, and 21.8% offered audio resources.

These studies have shown that verbal description is, along with tactile resources, an important accessibility resource for museums in a number of countries. However, they encompass a variety of museum types and do not offer a more detailed description of the communicative and social features of verbal description in the museum context, which is imperative to gauge their effectiveness in improving (blind and partially blind) visitors' experiences. Within the specific area of verbal description for art museums, between 2010 and 2012, I carried out a study of the accessibility resources for blind and partially blind visitors used in museums in Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I collected data for 23 science, history, archeology and art museums. The results showed that verbal description and especially audio description, both live and recorded, along with tactile images and handling sessions were resources used to improve the access for these types of visitors to the museum. Furthermore, the study described general social features of the creation and implementation context for verbal description resources in museums in the United States (Soler Gallego 2012). In subsequent studies, I have analyzed specific communicative features of audio descriptive guides in art museums in these four countries, including discourse structure, conceptual domains, and subjectivity (Soler Gallego 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019). A similar study has analyzed the use of metaphor in a smaller corpus of audio descriptions of art museums in the United Kingdom and the United States (Luque Colmenero 2016). These studies have deepened our understanding of both the communicative and social features of verbal description in art museums, but they have mainly focused on the majority or more frequent aspects of this accessibility tool. The goal of this study is to offer a comparative analysis and critical discussion of both the majority and the minority practices based on the study of a large sample of art museums and exhibitions in four countries that have shown a growing interest in this field. The following section focuses on the materials and methods used for the present study.

3 Materials and methods

The method followed in my investigations of verbal description in art museums and exhibitions consists of a four-stage procedure of data collection that has been followed in a cyclical way from the beginning of this study, in 2010. Firstly, museums that offer verbal description resources are identified by searching their respective websites and other relevant publications. The audio descriptive guide is then accessed if it is available online. Additionally, contextual data on their accessibility resources is collected from the museums' websites and other reliable publications. Secondly, the museum is visited whenever possible in order to study the available audio description guides and tactile materials in situ. Then, a survey is sent to the museum and the organization and/or freelance audio describer responsible for creating the audio descriptive guide and the tactile materials, or interviews are conducted if possible. Finally, access to the script and audio files of the audio descriptive guide and/or permission to attend and audio record an audio descriptive guided tour is requested during the interview, if it can be conducted, or else via email. If permission to audio record an interview or audio descriptive guided tour is not granted, notes are taken to record the main information provided and observed during the interview or the tour. The guide in charge of conducting the tour is also interviewed before or after the activity whenever possible. Access to contextual data varies depending on the availability of those involved in the creation and implementation of accessibility resources. As a result, in some cases the only contextual data collected is that available through the museum's website, other written publications and/or a visit to the museum. Given the ongoing nature of this project, at the time of preparing this publication the only data available for some museums was from their websites, other bibliographical resources and/or verbal descriptions and tactile materials available online. With regard to the survey and the interview, I review and improve these tools based on the efficiency of the previous design and the specific research questions that emerged as the project developed. Therefore, not all participants were asked the same questions.

This study comprises forty-eight art museums and exhibitions that currently offer audio description resources or did so in the past. Some museums offer these resources for the permanent collection only, while others offer them also for temporary exhibitions. Overall, sixty-two permanent collections and temporary exhibitions were included in this study. Out of them, thirty-two offer or have offered audio descriptive guides for a total of forty-one permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, and fifteen are or were complemented with tactile resources. Thirty-six museums offer or have offered audio descriptive guided tours for a total of forty-two permanent collections and temporary exhibitions, and twenty-six are or were complemented with tactile resources. Finally, eight museums offer or have offered verbal descriptions printed in Braille and/ or large fonts for a total of eight permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. Eight of them were complemented with tactile images.

Of those materials, I was able to compile the audio and/ or script of twenty-seven audio descriptive guides (or part of them), eight audio descriptive guided tours, and two printed verbal description guides, which together make up the corpus of art museum verbal descriptions. The languages included in the corpus are Spanish, French, and English; the museums included in this study only offer verbal description resources in the main language of the museum. For some museums, the audio descriptive guide can be accessed via their website or a mobile app. In other cases, I requested access to the guide files of the museum or company holding the copyright and my petition was, in some cases, denied or ignored. The printed verbal description guides that use large fonts are available online. The audio descriptive guided tours compiled for the study are video recordings that are available online, as well as audio recordings of tours that I attended. Regarding the context of the creation of these resources, I compiled information through semi-structured interviews and surveys from eighteen museum accessibility coordinators, the describers for twenty-five permanent collections and temporary exhibitions (fourteen of audio descriptive guides and eleven of audio descriptive guided tours), and four creators of tactile resources.

4 Results and discussion

In this section, I present and discuss the results of the corpus-based and contextual analysis of verbal description in art museums in France, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The results focus on a number of communicative features of verbal description in art museums and social features in their creation and implementation. The communicative features include the structure and content of the audio descriptions, their use along with other auditory and tactile resources, and how the connections between the audio descriptions and the tactile resources. The social features focus on inclusive versus exclusive uses of the museum and exhibition space for accessibility purposes and on the role of blind and partially blind people. Overall, these results provide a comparative analysis and critical discussion of the majority and minority practices found in this field and their role in improving accessibility in art museums and exhibitions.

4.1. Communicative features of verbal descriptions in art museums

4.1.1. On structure: Consecution versus integration

The audio descriptive guide is a text genre in which different discourse segments, also called "discourse moves," which may be descriptive, expository, argumentative and instructional, are combined to facilitate access to the museum (Soler Gallego 2016). In the audio descriptive guides included in this study, these different discourse moves are offered in either a consecutive or an integrated manner. At the consecutive extreme, found in the Museo Reina Sofía, the audio description of the artwork is recorded in a separate track, followed by instructions to access one or several tracks with expository and argumentative moves provided by museum experts and artists. At the integrative extreme, on the other hand, the audio descriptive, expository, and argumentative moves are included in the same track, either sequentially or in an intertwined fashion. This integrative approach is used in guides to both the museum's permanent collection, as in the Museo Nacional del Prado, and temporary exhibitions, such as the one created by Antenna International for the "Watteau The Drawings" exhibit at the Royal Academy of Arts in London or the one produced by Rouge Vivier for the "Icones Americaines" and "Velazquez" exhibitions at the Grand Palais. Interestingly, this approach has also been adopted for the audio description guide in two antithetical situations. One of them is when a special audio guide is created for a tactile exhibition located in a separate space of the museum, a solution adopted by the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Museo de Bellas Artes. The other is the creation of a universal design-based multimedia guide intended for adult visitors with all kinds of visual capabilities, an approach followed by the Open Art project in Poland (Szarkowska et al. 2016). A universal design approach was also implemented by GVAM for the Museo Sorolla, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, and Museo Julio Romero de Torres in collaboration with the CESyA (Spanish Center for Subtitling and Audio description) and later, for the Museo Carmen-Thyssen in collaboration with Aptent. However, GVAM approaches universal design in a different way. The goal of their approach is not to create one single audio guide to be used by visitors with all kinds of visual capabilities but to create two audio guides, one with audio description and one without it, which are as similar as possible in their contents. Their goal is to provide a similar experience with both guides, while offering more visual information for visitors who decide to use audio description. A consequence of adopting this universal design approach is that the specificity level understood as the level of conceptual detail and quantity of information in the audio description diminishes when compared to the majority of audio descriptions of visual artworks at museums and exhibitions included in the study. Between these two extremes, we find audio descriptive guides where minimal expository and argumentative information is included in the audio description track, and this is complemented with further information provided in a separate track. This middle ground approach is the one followed by the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Differences between museums at this discursive level seem to be related to two factors: (1) integrating the audio descriptive guide with existing audio or multimedia guides and (2) the overall design approach. In the Tate Modern and Museum of Modern Art, the audio descriptive guide was combined with an existing general guide for adult visitors so both audio guides can be accessed through the same device. In order to facilitate content navigation, specific instructions were included at the end of each audio description track to connect both guides. On the contrary, at the Museo Nacional del Prado the various audio and multimedia guides of the museum are not integrated but are accessed through different devices according to the type of visitor. The latter may seem a less inclusive approach, but it may be related to the fact that some museums prefer to use analog devices with a simple button pad for their audio descriptive guide because they find them more accessible than tactile devices. The following section deals with the second factor and more specifically, with a recent trend that advocates creating mobile guides which follow the principles of universal design so they are appropriate for adult visitors with all kinds of visual capabilities.

4.1.2. On content: One-for-all versus various-for-many

As mentioned earlier in this article, in the Open Art project's approach to art museum accessibility, audio description "is integrated in the general audio guide as part of the information provided to anybody using it" (ADLAB 29). Some years ago, a Canadian non-profit organization introduced this type of integrated or "intradiegetic" audio description in their accessible TV productions by training presenters and participants to intertwine their discourse with audio descriptions of relevant visual elements (Accessible Media). The use of this type of audio description has also been proposed for film (Thompson 2018) and applied to theatre (Udo et al. 2010; Whitfield and Fels 2013; Fryer and Cavallo 2018). A different definition of "integrated audio description" has moreover been advanced for theatre (Naraine, Mala, and Whitfield 2018), where it refers to the consideration of audio description from the commencement of the production process with the incorporation of the audio describer or a team member with the requisite skills in audio description:

Live integrated AD gives the director control over the development and execution of the AD, similar to his or her role in other aspects of audiovisual production, including, for example, costumes, props and sets… proponents of having AD being produced and delivered by the creative team suggest that there is potential for directors to exert creative control over the AD. Therefore, the describer's roles and responsibilities in each production are dependent upon how involved the director would like to be or can be in the creation, development and execution of an AD strategy… (Naraine, Mala, and Whitfield 115-116)

This integration and collaboration has been proposed as an essential aspect of "accessible filmmaking," where the aim is "to integrate audio visual translation and accessibility as part of the filmmaking process through collaboration between translators and the creative team of the film" (Romero 218). The question then arises as to whether audio description should be visible and differentiated as a resource specially intended for blind and partially blind people, or invisible and integrated with non-descriptive segments in a discourse intended for all visitors. When the latter is chosen, the specificity of the description provided is reduced, as illustrated by the Open Art project guide. This seems to be based on the assumption that highly specific audio descriptions are unnecessary and even inadequate for many visitors, and therefore, a balance between the needs of different profiles is sought by these means. However, to the best of our knowledge, this assumption has not been sufficiently corroborated by reception studies, and so the opposite could also be assumed. Why not create universally accessible audio guides with more specific audio descriptions for all visitors? At the same time, based on the results of the corpus analysis carried out in this study, there is considerable variation regarding specificity levels within the group of audio descriptive guides specifically intended for blind and partially blind visitors, with descriptions ranging from 100 to 800 words approximately. This seems to indicate that there is little agreement among practitioners on what the most adequate specificity level is.

Even if specificity were thoroughly researched via reception studies, the results would probably be inconclusive within groups of people with similar visual capabilities, for their responses are dependent on their sociodemographic and psychological profile, which in turn determines the type of experience they prefer to have at a museum, be it social, emotional or intellectual. For instance, Georgina Kleege, who is a professor of creative writing, literature and disability studies and is blind, is critical of the objective, highly detailed ADs where information is provided systematically so that "the blind viewer is taken on an orderly tour around the image" as found in some museums like the New York Museum of Modern Art. She argues that this type of AD should be replaced with more subjective audio descriptions where the impressions, both physical and conceptual or ideational, triggered by the artwork, are prioritized and presented in an order that is closer to sighted peoples' visual experience of art, that is, starting with the most striking elements in the work (112-117).

Since the type and quantity of information preferred by visitors can vary widely, the best option seems to be to create multilayered mobile guides with separate tracks offering different types of information, which can be chosen by the visitor as needed and preferred. This is the approach advocated by Proctor for museum guides: "Since there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all interpretation, stops should be layered, and ideally enable access to a variety of types of content to satisfy different kinds of questions and learning styles" (2010). As suggested by the study carried out by RNIB and VocalEyes, the situation is not different for audio descriptive guides. In this study, blind and partially blind people evaluated the audio guides offered by museums and heritage sites in the United Kingdom and one of the conclusions was that "The ideal guide was seen as being an integrated guide that has information for blind and partially sighted visitors on a mainstream guide. This information should be layered so that those who wish to access additional description or orientation information can access it" (29). Since it is impossible to design a guide that is tailored to every possible visitor, contents are either designed with those with the least access in mind or the offer of contents is diversified and users are allowed to build their own experience.

4.1.3. On the senses: From verbal to multimodal

In some of the museums included in the study, the sole accessibility resource provided by the museum to blind and partially blind visitors is audio description. Under these circumstances, completely blind visitors perceive the artwork through its translation into an aural-verbal text, namely the audio description. For partially blind visitors, the perception of the artwork is audio-visual and therefore, multimodal or multisensory. Many museums complement the audio descriptions with a tactile element, be it the original exhibit or a replica, giving rise to a second type of multimodal experience of the artwork. The Petit Palais in Paris adds a fourth sense to the experience by inviting visitors to smell different odors related to the exhibit such as humidity, wood, flowers, and fruit, created by a specialized company. In a holistic and inclusive approach to museum audio description, Eardley et al. (2017) have turned to studies in psychology and neuroscience showing how multisensory perceptual experience improves cognitive processing, in order to advocate for multimodal exhibitions that combine touch and sound, both verbal and nonverbal. The main rationale behind this approach is that multisensory experiences enhance learning of factual information and the creation of an autobiographical memory, i.e. "a memory which feeds in to and enriches their notion of self and can linger throughout life" (202), for every kind of visitor.

With regard to the aural mode, some museums have experimented with different types of non-verbal information. The National Gallery in London, for instance, includes sound interpretations of paintings along with verbal contents in their audio guide (The National Gallery). A different kind of non-verbal sound is used by Claire Bartoli during the audio descriptive guided tours she leads at the Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, in Paris. This blind writer and actress uses paralinguistic elements, namely her voice tone, volume and speed, to add meaning to the conceptual content conveyed in the verbal components of her audio descriptions of artworks (MAC VAL). She was also commissioned to create recorded audio descriptions for three exhibits of the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (Mamvp). In an interview conducted for this study, the coordinator of the education department of this museum said that Bartoli interviewed different experts at the museum and used the information collected to create the artwork descriptions. The same coordinator thought that this type of description could be useful for all types of visitors and stated that for Bartoli, it is important that audio descriptions include subjective impressions of the describer because it helps blind and partially sighted individuals create their own interpretation. In a similar fashion, Neves (2012), a Translation Studies researcher and audio describer, draws on ekphrastic poetry to propose more subjective and creative ADs. She proposes that ambiguous visual signs be translated into equally ambiguous verbal signs seeking to have cognitive effects in the receiver similar to those provoked by the visual message. Neves also collaborates with sound producers to create "sound paintings," where verbal signs are integrated with non-verbal sounds in order to facilitate the interpretation of the verbal element. One example of this is the audio descriptive guide for the temporary exhibition "Olha por mim," composed of tactile paintings created by plastic artist Mirtilo Gomes (Lopes). The integration of non-verbal sounds is also found in the descriptions for the "Art History Through Touch and Sound" educative materials developed by Lou Giansante for Art Education for the Blind, and those for the "Star Spangled Banner" exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C., created by Joel Snyder.

An emphasis on tactile resources continues to be present in numerous museums. According to Hayhoe (2013), this is due to the assumption that touch is preferred by blind and partially blind people when accessing the visual world. Hayhoe argues that this assumption is related to the evolution of Western ideas on blindness since the 17th century and ignores the fact that most 21st century blind and partially blind individuals in countries like the United Kingdom are not congenitally blind and thus, have visual memory. He claims that, given the diversity of needs, a plurality of resources needs to be present at museums so that both the majority and minority groups within the community of blind and partially blind people can enjoy real access to these experiences. Meanwhile, the curator of the Anteros tactile museum Loretta Secchi emphasizes the importance of touch in improving the access of blind and partially blind people to visual art (Secchi 2013, 21), as "The refinement of tactility facilitates the conscious development of one's perceptive autonomy and the function of visual thinking [my translation]" (Secchi 67). This view coincides with the results of two studies carried out in the United States (Reich et al. 7) and Spain (Cabezas Gay 2017), which showed the importance of the tactile experience in facilitating the access of blind and partially blind people to museums.

4.1.4. On intermodal coherence: From description to instruction

When touch is used during an audio descriptive guided tour, such as those organized at the Musée d'Orsay and the Museo Sorolla, verbal instructions are normally given to help visitors explore the tactile elements. However, when it comes to the autonomous visit with an audio descriptive guide, some museums offer both audio descriptions and verbal instructions, while others only offer audio descriptions. Among the audio descriptive guides that offer verbal instructions to explore the tactile image, we find various categories. The audio descriptive guide for the replicas at the "Furniture Gallery" in the Victoria & Albert Museum, for instance, indicates the location of the different components of the exhibit, but does not include specific instructions geared towards a tactile exploration (Victoria & Albert Museum, "Audio descriptions"). Moving towards the instructional extreme, in the audio descriptive guide for the touch objects located in several galleries devoted to Europe, the sentence "You're welcome to touch it" is the only verbal instruction and connection to the tactile object that is found in the text (Victoria & Albert Museum, "Europe 1600-1815"). On a further level of instruction, the audio descriptive guide for the autonomous "Touch Tour" in the same museum offers detailed guidance on exploring objects in the sequence illustrated by the following excerpt: "You can first locate his high hairstyle or hat, square in form. If you follow his arms down from the shoulders you will find the wide sleeves and beneath the hands notice how the curved folds of his robe are precisely detailed. The Buddha's hands are in the position of meditation, one resting in the palm of the other. Have you noticed the round object he is holding in his hands? " (Victoria & Albert Museum, "V&A Touch Tour").

When interviewed, Höelle Corvest, accessibility coordinator at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris stated that verbal instructions should be used to help explore tacti images. Her rationale was based on the high difficulty in understanding a 2-D tactile representation of a two- or three-dimensional artwork and the low tactile literacy levels for this type of resource. Corvest's view was shared by two French companies specializing in tactile graphics for museums, La Ville Braille 2 and Tactile Studio 3 . The interviews revealed that all these experts coincided in affirming that the experiences of blind and partially blind of tactile resources vary depending on sociodemographic factors including their visual capabilities, educational level, and previous experience in visiting museums and using tactile images. Tactile Studio's representative highlighted the importance of assessing visitors' experience through reception studies with large numbers of participants. According to La Ville Braille, given the heterogeneity of users of tactile resources, the results of reception studies cannot be generalized to create a set of guidelines or good practices. This company advocated for offering tactile reading workshops to enhance the usefulness of tactile resources, and this is precisely what the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie has been doing. They organize tactile literacy workshops for both blind and partially blind people and individuals working on accessibility at museums and at tactile graphics companies.

4.1.5. On the voice: Human versus machine

Based on the results of this study, the majority of the recorded audio descriptions in art museums use human voices. Only a number of museums in Spain, namely the Museo Sorolla, Museo Julio Romero de Torres, Museo Lázaro Galdiano, and Museo Carmen-Thyssen, use an app developed by a company called GVAM (Accessible Virtual Multimedia Guides for Museums) which provides audio descriptions produced with a text-to-speech software. An interview with a company representative revealed that this technology is used because it allows companies and institutions to edit and add contents at any time, simplifies the process, and helps reduce production costs. Aptent, the company in charge of creating the audio description scripts for GVAM, also supports the use of text-to-speech software. In fact, they used this technology for the theatre audio description app they developed, which so far has been favorably reviewed by its users. Based on an interview with one of their audio describers, their rationale for using it coincides with that of GVAM. Moreover, they are of the opinion that text-to-speech voices make for greater homogeneity in the vocal qualities of the audio description, since the same human voice can sound differently at different times but text-to-speech voices are more uniform. In contrast, an audio describer and educator for the Museo Reina Sofía and the coordinator of audio description projects for the Grand Palais at the organization Rouge Vivier considered human voices to be more appropriate. According to the latter, human voices are more empathetic and personal and can be used to reinforce the message conveyed through words. Another audio describer and educator for the Museo Reina Sofía believed that the decision by some museums to use human voices is simply based on the fact that this is what other museums do, rather than on studies weighing the relative merits of all available options. On this topic, the education and accessibility coordinator at the Museo Nacional del Prado stated that they used human voices following the recommendation of the organization in charge of creating the audio descriptions, namely the ONCE (National Organization of the Blind in Spain).

To my knowledge, no existing research compares the use of text-to-speech versus human voice for audio description in the museum context. However, in the past decade a number of studies have looked into this variable for video audio description. Walczak and Fryer (2018) offer an overview of these studies from 2011 to 2015 and conclude that human or natural voices were preferred by participants for both fiction and non-fiction films, but many of them were willing to accept text-to-speech voices. Walczak and Fryer also refer to two other studies that showed that human audio description might be more appropriate for entertainment videos and especially for drama, while text-to-speech audio description would be recommendable for informative texts, such as instructional videos and documentaries. This is in line with the results of their own study, which showed that human audio description prompted significantly higher levels of presence for drama, while no statistically significant differences were found for the documentary genre. These results also coincide with those of a study of different voicing styles carried out by Iglesias Fernández et al. (2015), which showed that more interpretative audio descriptions improved receivers' experience of a dramatic feature film

4.2. Social features: Creation and implementation of verbal description in art museums

4.2.1. On space: Inclusive versus exclusive

Kleege argues, in reference to the audio descriptive guided tours organized by some museums, that "specialized programs segregate blind visitors, when presumably the same methods could be instructive for anyone" (119). Some museums have opted for conducting this type of tours during regular opening hours. This is the case of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. The Museum of Modern Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim, on the contrary, prefer to conduct this type of tour when the museum is closed to the general public. According to an accessibility coordinator of the Whitney Museum of American Art who was interviewed for this study, the museum uses this strategy during the touch tours for conservation reasons and to offer a quiet environment in which the auditory information can be perceived more easily. The National Gallery opted for splitting the museum visit into two stages. First, the group is taken to an educational space where the guide describes a painting and conducts the visual analysis of full-color, poster-size photographs of the work and enlarged photographs of details. Then, the same group is guided through the galleries for a visual experience of the artwork previously explored (The National Gallery). The education department at the Petit Palais also prefers this two-phase design. However, here visitors go first to the galleries and then to the educational space, where tactile reproductions of the paintings are explored.

With regard to audio descriptive guides, the large tactile reproduction of the L'atelier du peintre at the Musée d'Orsay allows autonomous visitors to listen to the audio description, explore the tactile representation, and look at the artwork simultaneously. This solution appears to be feasible when applied to a few isolated exhibits, but applying it to a greater selection of works would probably pose several problems for exhibition designers and curators because of the space it requires. Presuming that a museum visit requires considerable effort for blind and partially blind visitors, one might wonder how many of them would go to a museum to explore just one or two tactile images, replicas or even originals. The Andy Warhol Museum has incorporated a greater number of tactile reproductions into their exhibition space. This probably makes it more worthwhile for users of these resources to visit the museum. The use of smaller scale tactile images could limit the effectiveness of this resource in helping visitors understand the artwork. However, it facilitates their installation in the gallery space and thus helps visitors to integrate the different types of information (tactile, aural, visual) into a more coherent multimodal mental image. This inclusive design, where tactile images are located inside the galleries where the original artworks are exhibited, contrasts with separate spaces. At the Centre Pompidou, for instance, a series of tactile images created by Alain Mikli were located outside the exhibition rooms. Analogously, at the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Museo de Bellas Artes, the tactile images and the audio descriptive guides created by Estudios Durero 4 were installed in a separate gallery, similar to the Louvre's tactile gallery.

4.2.2. On the role of blind and partially blind people: From consultants to creators

In the museums under study, the authors of the descriptions for the audio descriptive guides are mostly external professionals, while those in charge of designing and leading audio descriptive guided tours are in most cases educators working for the museum. In both cases, most external audio describers and museum educators are not blind and partially blind people, although they collaborate with blind and partially blind consultants to develop accessibility resources. In a similar way, researchers in the field of audio description within Translation Studies, including me, are not to the best of my knowledge blind and partially blind people, and the role of blind and partially blind people is that of participants in studies of audio description quality and reception. However, at two museums included in the study, blind and partially blind people do actively participate in the creation of these resources. The Tate Britain, Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, and Museo Reina Sofía are the only museums in our corpus where the audio descriptive guided tour is led or co-led by a blind person. Lisa Squirrel guides audio descriptive tours at the Tate Britain in London (BBC; Tate) and she is blind. Claire Bartoli, a writer who is also blind, does the same at the Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, in collaboration with the curators and educators of the museum. At the Museo Reina Sofía, a sighted educator trained in accessibility by the ONCE organization audio describes the artworks, and a writer who is blind guides the tactile exploration of the works. As far as recorded audio description is concerned, Claire Bartoli has contributed to the audio descriptive guide of the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Additionally, the describer in charge of the audio descriptive guides for the Musée de l'Orangerie, the Musée d'Orsay, and the temporary exhibitions at the Grand Palais, has educational and professional experience in accessibility and is blind as well.

Museum accessibility benefits from interdisciplinary collaboration, and it is imperative that blind and partially blind people be an active part of this endeavor. To facilitate this, the development of accessibility plans for museums should be organized as participatory action research projects where a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, and users collaborate. The active role of beneficiaries in research on disability is at the center of the Emancipatory Disability Research (Hollins 2010). This is a theory-methodology that emphasizes the great value of their expert opinions, derived from their personal experience:

This new paradigm aims to give disabled people control over the research agenda, seeks to benefit those involved in the research process and ensure that outputs are accountable to disabled people, in the way their views and experiences are represented. This research philosophy marks a significant shift in thinking and aims to tackle fundamental power inequalities within the research process itself. In this new model, the role of the researcher as an expert is challenged as disabled people's embodied knowledge about their impairments is given an equal footing to the researcher's knowledge. One of the central aims of emancipatory research is that the process should be used as a tool to change society. (Hollins 228)

Among AD researchers, Di Giovanni (162) advocates for and implements a more (as compared to existing practices) emancipatory approach to the creation of opera audio description. She and other researchers and opera audio describers set up a participatory laboratory to write, revise, and record the audio description for the Carmen, la stella del circo di Siviglia opera performances with blind and sighted children and teenagers. In the first of two sessions, a draft audio description script prepared by the group of researchers and audio describers was used as a basis for discussion with the young participants. In the second session, the team recorded the audio descriptions. This is a positive advancement. However, it is the type of formative evaluation in which the audio description scripts and/or recordings are reviewed by blind consultants prior to making them available to the public that is present to some extent in many of the museums studied, including the projects carried out by Kaleidoscope 5 non-profit organization. Positive as it is for the design and implementation of an emancipatory model of museum accessibility research and development, this type of consultancy-based participation only reaches the second of the four levels of access of disabled people to "opportunities to shape institutional policy and practice" as defined by Hollins (235). These four levels constitute necessary steps for museums to build relationships with disabled people that truly reflect the principles of emancipatory research. They are the following:

  1. Disabled people gain access to the museum, but decisions about access are made on behalf of them and without consultation.
  2. The museum consults with disabled people on identified issues.
  3. Disabled people are long term consultants, and consultation is a two-way dialogue that explores issues that are important to both parties.
  4. Disabled people gain access to the decision-making process at the most senior level in the museum hierarchy and are able to directly influence decisions.

On the second level, relationships created between the museum and people with disabilities are short term and dissolve after tackling the issue at hand (Hollins 236). This is the approach I mainly identified in the exhibitions and museums in the corpus. The fourth and highest level of emancipation has been achieved in museums like The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, which have employed blind accessibility coordinators. When it comes to the design, creation and implementation of accessibility resources, such as verbal description and tactile materials, blind and partially blind people should not be relegated to the role of consultants but can also lead and collaborate in the design and implementation of these resources as experts.

5 Conclusions

Hayhoe's study of access to art museums demonstrates the great diversity of individual profiles depending on visual capabilities, personal interests and previous knowledge among blind and partially blind museum goers (2017). This reality demands that a range of different measures be designed and implemented to fulfill the needs of different types of museum visitors (Reich et al. 54-56). The factors discussed in this article could be crucial in upcoming years to improve access to art museums by offering a variety of solutions for the diversity of visitors, including but not limited to blind and partially blind visitors. Among these factors, two could be particularly relevant: enhanced multimodality and emancipatory approaches to researching, designing, and implementing accessibility plans and resources.

With regard to the first one, Redvers-Row (2017) suggests that, for theatre plays, audio description be accompanied with enhanced non-verbal aural cues to convey relevant information to the blind and partially blind audience, while giving them independence of interpretation. Redvers-Rowe describes several initiatives that have implemented this approach to different extents in artistic and informative contexts. Among them is the work carried out by Extant, a theatre company led by blind and partially blind people, and the production of The House of Bernarda Alba by the Graeae Theatre and The Royal Exchange, in which she participated as audio description consultant. Also, the application of this approach to TV and film productions is being researched by Mariana J. López and Gavin Kearney of York University in a project entitled "Enhancing audio description." This enhanced audio description, which is to some extent present in some existing recorded audio descriptions for museums, along with tactile and olfactory resources such as the ones described in this article, could help improve access for visitors with different needs and preferences.

Regarding the role of blind and partially blind people, conducting formative evaluations of the accessibility resources and working with disabled consultants, even a small group of them, can surely provide useful insights into their access to art and museums. However, after decades of short-term consultancy, it is time to go beyond this second level of disabled people's access to museum accessibility policies and practices as described by Hollins. The minimum should be to achieve the third level, in which disabled people are long-term consultants, and consultation is a two-way dialogue. Nevertheless, ideally we should work towards the fourth level, where disabled people are able to directly influence decisions. When it comes to creating resources such as ADs, blind and partially blind people should participate in and lead their research, design, and implementation. As shown by this study, this is already a reality in the "minority" approaches of the Tate Britain, the Grand Palais, the Musée d'Art Contemporain du Val-de-Marne, and the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where blind audio describers co-create audio descriptions and in some cases, lead the audio descriptive guided tours to the galleries.

Looking at the great diversity of accessibility approaches and solutions reviewed in this article, the question remains whether it is necessary to test every existing and future approach to accessibility to museums. Approaching this reality with an open mind and learning about various existing practices is what can contribute the most to enhancing access to art museums. A critical and creative discussion of the communicative and social features of verbal description in art museums described in this study, along with further collaboration within and across borders could revolutionize accessibility in art museums in the years to come for all types of visitors.

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Electronic references


  1. This work was financially supported by the College of Liberal Arts of Colorado State University and the research protocol employed was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of this institution. My most sincere gratitude to all the organizations and individuals that have generously participated in this study in one way or another.
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  2. www.lavillebraille.fr
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  3. tactilestudio.eu
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  4. didu.estudiosdurero.com
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  5. www.kaleidoscope-access.org
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