Starting Small and Designing for One: A Case Study in Accessibility


Jeff Steward, Harvard Art Museums, USA

In Spring 2018, the Department of Digital Infrastructure and Emerging Technology and the Division of Academic and Public Programs at the Harvard Art Museums partnered with colleagues across the museum to work closely with an undergraduate student researcher with low-vision on an innovative pilot visual description project. The goals were to increase the accessibility of the collection, curatorial expertise, and museum spaces for visitors with low-vision, and for those who are fully-sighted, alike. Rather than proposing a museum-wide accessibility program to meet the needs of all visitors, we instead challenged our student colleague to design a preferred experience for her needs. Working together and guided by the student, we developed a low tech audio guide, combining curatorial and art historical information with evocative and rich visual description, that has pushed us as an institution to see our collections and building differently.

During the following months we enlisted staff to write and record descriptions for a variety of objects and rooms including a Chinese moon flask (, Philippine ivory crucifix (, Kerry James Marshall’s painting Untitled (, and the museum’s Calderwood Courtyard (

In this session we will share best practices and explore this visual description project as a case study of museum-wide engagement, empathy and creativity, responding to new perspectives and ideas, pushing beyond traditional comfort zones, and the power and possibilities of starting small and designing for one in an academic art museum.