GLAMi nomination: Visual Descriptions on mcachicago.org

nominated by: Fontaine Capel, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, United States
institution: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago — Design, Publishing, and New Media Department
category: Groundbreaking
https://mcachicago.org

In 2016, the MCA launched Coyote: a game-changing open-source software that enables web users who are blind or have low vision to “see” images on the museum’s website. Over the following months, MCA staff met to describe images and draft a style guide. During describing sessions, participants addressed questions about the ways that we talk about art, building empathy for those who approach contemporary art without knowledge of art history and its jargon. Contemporary art deals with challenging concepts that some visitors may find unfamiliar and intimidating. Breaking down images gives visitors to the site an easy entry point to complex or challenging artworks, in keeping with the museum’s goal to offer a radical welcome at all times.

As we presented our work to colleagues and members of the disability community, many people commented on the beauty, wit, and poetry of the language that MCA staff and Coyote partners were generating. These discussions suggested that descriptions would be valuable for showing all web users a new way to approach artworks and images on our website. We decided to share their words in a public description layer available to any website visitor. To do this, we worked with our web designer and developer to use Coyote’s RESTful API to automatically pull any approved descriptions from Coyote and present them as text previews appearing on the images themselves.

The prompt to enable the image description layer is conveniently located beneath the MCA website’s main navigation menu. When clicked, a preview of the descriptions appear over images on the site. Users can then click the description preview to see the expanded, full-text versions of available descriptions.

The public image description layer also increases awareness of digital accessibility, furthering one of the key goals of the Coyote initiative: encouraging systematic use of visual description by museums. The visibility of the image description layer on the MCA site serves as a recruitment tool for new members of the Coyote project—a demonstration that they can share with decision makers reluctant to establish description programs, and evidence that visual description can serve users beyond those using screen readers. The Coyote image description layer is a unique offering, the first resource of its kind to be implemented by a museum, though not, we hope, the last.