Verbal description uses nonvisual language to convey the visual world. It can navigate a visitor through a museum, orient a listener to a work of art, or provide access to the visual aspects of a performance. Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl, founder and president of The Metropolitan Washington Ear Inc., and her husband, Cody, developed the art and technique of verbal description in 1981.
A verbal description includes standard information included on a label, such as the name of the artist, nationality, title of the artwork, date, dimensions or scale of the work, media and technique. More important, verbal description includes a general description of the subject matter and the composition of the work. For more information, see ABS's Guidelines for Verbal Description, and Samples of Verbal Description.
Verbal description as part of a touch tour enhances the visitor’s tactile experience. It can also provide access to a museum’s collection when the works of art are not available to touch. When a group of visitors includes blind, visually impaired, and sighted visitors, museum professionals or docents can incorporate in-depth verbal description into their regular tour. If a classroom teacher conducts the tour, it is advisable for educators to visit the museum or historical site first to prepare the verbal description.
Some museums create an additional audio guide for blind and visually impaired visitors or include extensive verbal description of artworks in their standard audio guide. Sighted museum visitors report that they benefit from this practice as well.
Verbal description and discussion about the work of art can be a part of a class that precedes or follows a museum visit. Teachers can incorporate verbal description of art, architecture, and design objects into history, social science, math, and other classes. Precise and organized description is one of the basic tools of effective communication. It can improve students’ awareness of their environment and enrich their vocabulary.
Multisensory art books created for people who are blind or have limited sight integrate verbal description, high-resolution reproductions of the images, a tactile component, and sometimes an audio component.
Mariann Smith, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY on Verbal Description Tours
For Educator or Docent-Led Tours:
You can use verbal description throughout a gallery tour to describe an artwork, to respond to particular questions, and to encourage dialogue. You can adapt the pace and level of detail of description to individuals based on their degree of sight loss and their prior experience making art or looking at art.
When planning your tour, keep in mind that verbal description takes time. Therefore, you may have to discuss fewer works. A general rule of thumb is to use half the number of works you would use in a tour without verbal description. So it's important to carefully select the works for your tour.
Develop verbal description scripts for the objects on your tour (see ABS's Guidelines for Verbal Description) and review them with your visually impaired advisors for effective language, clarity and length of the descriptions, and appropriate pace of the tour. Verbal description is also an essential part of a touch tour or a tour that includes tactile diagrams or tactile elements. As you develop your verbal-description skills, these scripts will serve as guidelines, rather than as a text to be memorized.
When first meeting a group that includes people who are blind or visually impaired, briefly describe the lobby or meeting space. Then, so that you may adjust your tour to your visitors needs, find out more about the type and degree of visual impairment. As with all audiences, try to relate the individual's life experiences to the content in the work of art. This is especially important for visitors who are congenitally blind, as they have no visual memory. Throughout your tour, include brief descriptions of gallery spaces through which you pass and museum architecture. You might include the size of the space, type of art, or other general information about the atmosphere or ambience of the museum. It is important to keep verbal description separate from information about the historical context. If your tour includes both sighted and visually impaired people, present your verbal description first. This creates equal opportunity for further discussion of historical context, biography of the artist, or other information important for all audiences to understand the work.
One strategy frequently used during school-aged group tours could be used with all groups: elicit audience response through directed questioning. If you have an integrated class, with both sighted and visually impaired students, include everyone in the verbal-description process. Ask sighted students to describe elements in the work through directed questioning. This creates an engaging atmosphere and strengthens observation skills. At the end of each description, restate student responses and summarize observations.
Get feedback. After the description of the first work, ask one of the tour participants if the description is meeting their needs or if you need to make any adjustments.
At the end of a tour for people with visual impairments, take the opportunity to emphasize the museum's accessibility features and programming. Create a sense of welcome and encourage a future relationship with the museum.
For Audio Guides or Audio-described Self-guided Tours:
Once you have developed verbal-description scripts, you can adapt them to create an audio guide that all visitors can use in the galleries independently. For the user with visual impairments, incorporate verbal description and navigational and orientation cues. When designing your tour, consider the effect of frequent physical changes in the galleries, such as chairs that are moved, deinstallations, or construction. Also, museum staff who distribute audio guides to visitors should provide a short orientation on how to use the player and guide. Another tip: the player should have some type of neck strap so that a user has both hands free to use the buttons, hold a tactile, or use a cane or other assistive device.
Note: The audio guide involves significant staff time, as well as resources for editing and recording, and purchasing portable tape or CD players.
How to Get It or Make It.Cheap and Easy
Verbal description requires primarily an investment of staff time. College interns or volunteers are ideal for researching and writing drafts that can be reviewed by museum educators and/or curators. This skill does take time to refine; education needs to stay involved in the editing process to ensure that the description is accurate. Writing verbal descriptions for selected works could also become part of the curatorial and exhibition development process.
Enlist students to help. Precise and organized description is one of the basic tools of effective communication. It can improve students' awareness of their environment, enrich their vocabulary, and improve the accuracy and variety of their sensory description when they are encouraged to ask questions. Have students write and test verbal descriptions for each other, creating a library of verbal descriptions for your institution. If you have a local school, university, or other organization that has a strong drama or audiovisual department, it may record your scripts to create an audio library for your institution.
For a list of professional audio-description providers for audio, video, TV, and theater, see General Accessibility Tool: Audio Described Media.
To train your local volunteers, we suggest:
- Review ABS's Guidelines for Verbal Description
- Listen to Samples of Verbal Descriptions
- Hear more examples at ABS's Art History Through Touch and Sound Online.
- Try writing verbal descriptions and review them with the members of your advisory board.
In-house alternative: If you cannot afford professional audio-description services, create your own audio guide for individuals who cannot completely access visual information. An individual on staff can record on standard cassette tape and provide visitors a small tape player with earphones. This is obviously a significantly different quality experience than a professional audio-guide recording, but the option for more, rather than less, independent access will be appreciated. If you know how, you could burn compact discs of the recording. A CD lets the user skip ahead to the next stop on the tour more easily than a cassette. However, it is important to remember that visually impaired visitors need orientation and navigational information, so keep this information as a separate "track" that will not get lost as someone moves forward through the tour. That also allows the sighted user to skip such information.Through infrared amplification, visually impaired visitors can use assistive listening devices available in your museum to privately access an audio description of a program, lecture, or performance without disturbing others around them. This can expand programmatic access significantly for those who are blind or visually impaired.