Tower Bridge, London

Audio description in an inclusive museum

By Dr Rachel Hutchinson

Dr Rachel Hutchinson is a freelance researcher who specialises in the evaluation of the impact of cultural experiences on audiences. Her particular focus area is access to the arts and heritage sector for people who are blind or partially sighted. Rachel recently completed her PhD in the Department of Psychology at the University of Westminster, working with supervisors Dr Alison Eardley (Psychology) and Dr Peter Ride (Museum Studies), in collaboration with VocalEyes and the Museum of London. Her work explored how Audio Description could enhance inclusive museum experiences.

Most museums and galleries rely heavily on visitors using their sense of vision; to navigate the museum, to ‘take in’ the myriad of objects and/or artworks on display, and to access the curatorial information that is often presented alongside in the form of text panels or labels. In this sense, museums (with some rare exceptions) are assuming that, through vision, visitors can access a rich and potentially rewarding experience. ‘Seeing’ is supposed to lead to engagement, understanding and learning. But what if this reliance on vision is a risky strategy?

Research on the behaviour of sighted museum visitors suggests that having vision may not necessarily equate to having access in a museum.  For one thing, research has shown that when sighted museum visitors stop to look at an exhibit, they tend to linger for only a matter of seconds. A museum or gallery visit might typically consist of many quick glances at artworks, rather than deep contemplation[1]. Studies using eye tracking technology also show that visitors with different levels of experience view art in different ways. People less familiar with art will tend to centre on salient features such as human faces or objects. Art experts are more likely to examine structural or abstract features[2]. In other words, having vision may not necessarily mean knowing how or where to use it. Collections may be ‘seen’, but if the visitor does not know how to direct their vision in order to explore them and derive meaning from them, then engagement may be limited. If people can’t fully engage, then their visit may be less rewarding or impactful than museums would wish.

For visitors who are blind or partially sighted, audio description facilitates an accessible museum experience by describing the visual features of artworks and objects, often with some accompanying history, context or biographical insights about the artist. Audio describers working in museums have noted for many years that sighted people enjoy and benefit from audio description. Researchers have also drawn on principles of cognitive psychology to suggest that it could work as a kind of ‘guided looking’[3]. Audio description, like other types of audio guides, may encourage people to spend longer with collections. More importantly, listening to a description may help to guide visual attention to aspects that might otherwise be missed. Furthermore, audio describers often use multisensory imagery when describing visual features, in order to bring the subject to life for their blind or partially sighted listeners. Multisensory imagery can enhance later memorability of an experience, for both blind and sighted people[4]. Audio description could also potentially create links between visual images and information (e.g. historical information or information about an artist), making it easier for people to recall the information later. Theory from Psychology and insight from practitioners all suggested that audio description could benefit sighted users, but up to now, this exciting ‘hunch’ remained unsubstantiated by empirical research studies. We had no idea whether audio description would help to make collections more memorable, or whether sighted visitors would like listening to it. In order to talk seriously about audio description as inclusive design, these questions needed to be explored through research.

Black and white image, people on shore of Thames with Tower Bridge in background

Londoners relax on Tower Beach, 1952 © Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London

We designed a study that would explore the impact of audio description on the experience of sighted participants. In collaboration with the Museum of London, we selected photos from the Henry Grant archive, choosing photos taken on the streets of London between 1950 and 1980, such as the one above, in which a young girl wearing a knitted swimsuit makes her way along the crowded sandy ‘Tower Beach’ which borders the Thames. The iconic shape of Tower Bridge fills the top half of the image.

We wanted to compare the experience of audio description to two other ways that sighted visitors might typically engage with collections. In our study, we therefore split our 150 participants into three groups. The first looked at a series of photos while listening to audio description. The second group viewed the photos while listening to a standard audio guide that provided information but did not guide visual attention in the way that the audio description did. The third group just looked at the photos, with some minimal text presented alongside. We then asked our participants questions designed to help us understand how much they enjoyed the experience, and what their levels of engagement were. Then a month later, we asked them to tell us everything they could remember about the photos.

A few weeks down the line, we were in the exciting position of being able to draw some promising preliminary conclusions about audio description as inclusive design. The participants in our ‘audio’ groups remembered more photos than those who ‘just looked’. This came as no surprise, as people who just looked spent only eighteen seconds on average with each photo (which is actually quite a long time to spend looking at something with no additional input or instruction – pick an image and try it). All three groups found the experience equally enjoyable and engaging. But the exciting finding was that participants in the audio description group had richer memories of the photos. They remembered more details about photos, such as the visual elements and the spatial relationships between them, which suggested that they had stronger images of the photos in their minds. Furthermore, they also recorded more thoughts and feelings about the photos, suggesting a deeper personal response to the art and a higher level of engagement.

So what does this mean for audio description? This research suggests we should start to think and talk about it differently. Its remit is access, and this should always be the priority. But if audio description can help more museum visitors to engage, and thereby increase the impact of that museum visit, then it is time for museums and curators to start thinking of it as a tool for inclusive interpretation. By embedding audio description techniques in their standard audio guide provision, or by using audio description in their live tours, museums stand to increase their provision for blind and partially sighted visitors dramatically and to enhance access for many others. Museums and galleries are already advocating ‘slow looking’ workshops and events, such as Tate Modern’s Pierre Bonnard exhibition [5]. Expanding on slow looking, to make it guided looking, would be inclusive and would enable museums to welcome more blind and partially sighted visitors. In the current challenging times, audio described online tours of collections could also be developed for everyone. If inclusive audio description helps people to engage and to remember, then it deserves our attention as a valuable tool for creating enjoyable, impactful experiences.

This research was carried out by Dr Rachel Hutchinson, in collaboration with VocalEyes and the Museum of London. Rachel can be reached on [email protected]. For further details, please also see:

Hutchinson, R., & Eardley, A.F. (forthcoming) Visitor Experience: multidisciplinary methods for understanding the impact of inclusive museum AD experiences, in C.Taylor & Perego, E. (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Audio Description. Routledge.

Hutchinson, R., &; Eardley, A. F. (forthcoming). The accessible museum: towards an understanding of international museum audio description practices. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness.

Hutchinson, R. (2020). Museums for all: towards engaging, memorable museum experiences through inclusive audio description. Doctoral thesis, University of Westminster, London.

Hutchinson, R., Eardley, A.F., Loveday, C., (2020) Remembering Cultural Experiences: lifespan distributions, richness and content of autobiographical memories of museum visits. Memory, 28:8, 1024-1036, DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2020.1811874

Hutchinson, R. &; Eardley, A. F. (2018). Museum Audio Description: The Problem of Textual Fidelity. Perspectives, 27 (1) 42-57.)

Eardley, A. F., Fryer, L., Hutchinson, R., Cock, M., Ride, P. &; Neves, J. (2017). Enriched Audio Description: Working towards an inclusive museum experience. In S. Halder, & L. C. Assaf (Eds.), Inclusion, disability and culture: An ethnographic perspective traversing abilities and challenges (pp. 195–207). Springer International Publishing


[1] Smith, J., & Smith, L. (2001). Spending Time on Art. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 19(2), 229–236.

Smith, L., Smith, J., & Tinio, P. (2017). Time spent viewing art and reading labels. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 11(1), 77–85.

[2] Koide, N., Kubo, T., Nishida, S., Shibata, T., & Ikeda, K. (2015). Art expertise reduces influence of visual salience on fixation in viewing abstract-paintings. PloS One, 10(2), e0117696.

[3] Eardley, A. F., Fryer, L., Hutchinson, R., Cock, M., Ride, P. &; Neves, J. (2017). Enriched Audio Description: Working towards an inclusive museum experience. In S. Halder, & L. C. Assaf (Eds.), Inclusion, disability and culture: An ethnographic perspective traversing abilities and challenges (pp. 195–207). Springer International Publishing

[4] Eardley, A., & Pring, L. (2006). Remembering the past and imagining the future: A role for nonvisual imagery in the everyday cognition of blind and sighted people. Memory, 14(8), 925–936.

[5] Brown, M. (2018). Tate recommends ‘slow looking’ at major Pierre Bonnard exhibition. Guardian.