Translating the senses: Making audiovisual content accessible to the visually impaired visitor

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For Europeana 2020: Crisis, Change and Culture, alumna Camila Michelini gave a presentation on her Master’s research at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum. During her project Making Sense, museum staff and visually impaired visitors were invited to experiment with different techniques for conveying visual information in a non-visual way.

How does a museum dedicated to visual content transl­­­ate their collection so that it can be accessible for visitors who don’t rely on their visual perception?

This question, and the project that sprung from it, was the subject of Reinwardt alumna Camila Michelini’s presentation for Europeana 2020: Crisis, Change and Culture. During her research at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum as part of her Master of Museology programme she conducted Making Sense, a project focused on the accessibility of the institute’s archive for visitors with a visual impairment

Initially, the museum had come up with the question of how best to provide their collection with audio descriptions. Camila, with her decade-long experience in contemporary art, was already familiar with the limitations of this type of translation. Camila entered the Master’s programme of the Reinwardt Academy with a special interest in multisensory museum visits. She had already researched accessibility and inclusiveness for visually impaired people as a way to better understand the non-visual approach to exhibitions and cultural heritage. In the programme she learned how best to use her understanding as a professional for a more inclusive museum practice

Providing your video collection with audio descriptions is a process that cannot be automated. In other words, it takes a lot of time and money, and the final result is determined by what the person describing deemed important enough to describe. Furthermore, audio descriptions use visual reference as their base, it is through past experiences you form the mental image. For a lot of people who are visually impaired it has been this way since birth, therefore they lack this visual framework. In that case, describing does not convey the content of the image and therefore this tactic alone doesn’t fulfill the needs of the institute.

 And so, the three-month research turned into an eight-month project that combined research into audio descriptions with trying out sensory translation techniques. Staff from the museum and visual impaired visitors were invited to participate in a series of sessions.

From 20.000 hours of footage, the coronation ritual of the Dutch Royal Family was chosen. This is an element of Dutch heritage and national identity and a part of Dutch collective memory. There’s footage of different time periods in which the ceremony is performed. By focusing on the visual identification points that aren’t mentioned in the existing audio description the visual code that is ingrained from early childhood through movies, books and museums becomes apparent, they felt so common that there seemed no need to explain them.

Key objects associated with royalty and coronation are the cloak and crown, but these objects are rarely encountered in daily life. During Making Sense, participants could physically interact with these objects, through wearing, touching and mimicking the postures. Another part of the experiment was physical discovering. With the use of scale models Camila tried to make the perspective used in the video physical as to give an impression of the spatial dimensions.

The circle of listening to a description, exploring through other senses and then coming back to the description turned out to be valuable in overall comprehension. And it allows the building of a kind of visual framework, henceforth other coronations will repeat symbolism or rituals that participants are now familiar with.

For Camila it was important to involve people inside and outside the museum in the project. In order to create more carrying capacity and understanding within the museum, but also to be able to consider the needs of the visually impaired at a deeper level. For instance, the accessibility of parts of the collection can be greatened, but accessing that information requires a lot of steps in advance, which can still present as unsurmountable barriers. Physically finding your way to the museum or navigating the website are still the only ways to access the information

Awareness among the museum staff will hopefully lead to more involvement in the realizing of a more accessible museum, eventually it is within the museum where the changes need to be decided and realized. Camila, who had limited experience in the museological field, came into the Reinwardt academy with a distinct passion for accessibility. The Reinwardt helped bring this passion to fruition by supporting her in developing an ethical museological approach, and by giving her the confidence to use it.

“Every time we go to a lecture they show that triangle about the professional, the ethical and the theoretical approach that they promote. It is a very rich approach and when we start working in the museum area we organically try to do this, but once we get the awareness on how important it is and we get the conscious of how to work with this triangle in a more effective way, it is also very productive and it gives us more tools to even think our way inside the institutions”

Camila’s time at the Reinwardt Academy also allowed her to build a network of likeminded people. Through a presentation she came into contact with Pieter van der Heijden, who was at that moment in charge of renewing the experience at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. Although the focus of Camila’s project was the digital archive, she also had a keen interest in the renewal of the experience and the possibilities for inclusiveness it allowed. She was able to share her ideas with Pieter, which led to changes in the design plan and a continuing professional exchange.

Right now Camila is working on several individual projects, one of which is aimed at the spreading of knowledge about tactile images. Together with French organization Sensitineraires, and a group of museums and editors,she aims to produce a book of art history made up of this type of imagery. The images will be sold independently, in order to increase financial accessibility

“I want to show people how important it is and how it's not only valuable for people with a visual impairment. Because at the end of the day it's a beautiful material, even visually, and it's the images represented in technical drawings so really it's a simplified way of discovering visual elements from artworks.” In the future Camila hopes to stay involved in the network of the Reinwardt Academy.