Creating DIY Museum Audio Guides with Students

By Taylor Clement and Callie Smith

In the spring of 2022, the Professional Writing program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette began a collaboration with the on-campus Hilliard Art Museum to produce an audio guide for an exhibit titled Deep Look: Selections from the Permanent Collection. The audio guide project had two aims: first, to make one of the galleries more accessible to Blind and Visually Impaired patrons of the museum, and second, to give undergraduate technical writing students real-world writing experiences as they created descriptive audio guides for the public.

The placement in the gallery of two works of art from the collection. A wall-mounted black and white photograph of two hands, and a screen decorated with a streetscape of storefronts to the side.
Two works of art in the Deep Look Collection at the Hilliard Art Museum. Reproduced with permission of the Hilliard Art Museum.

Museum educators at smaller institutions may feel overwhelmed or think that they lack the capacity to meaningfully collaborate with faculty beyond the standard museum class tour. However, this collaborative audio guide project was a success in part because we developed clear, tangible objectives for the project. Museum educator Olivia Morgan, graduate assistant Callie Smith, English faculty member Taylor Clement, and eleven technical writing students collaborated to produce the audio using low-budget technologies like smartphones and basic video editing software. Museum educators provided an opportunity for Clement’s technical writing students to use the museum as a classroom for several weeks while they wrote and tested their descriptions. 

Each phase of this collaboration led to new discoveries and presented creative challenges: how can we make this work on our campus using the sources and materials that we have?

In the early stages of the project, we researched different models and approaches to audio description. This preparation included listening to the audio guide from the Guggenheim’s Mind’s Eye Program and building our own method of audio description using Art Beyond Sight’s audio description style guide. We also reviewed Hanna Wang’s 2020 article on DIY Audio Guides, “Every Museum Can Create Audio Guides in house, for free.” Museum educators identified the artworks and exhibitions that best supported students’ learning goals and helped steward the use of gallery space and museum resources. Replicating, or even approximating, the quality of content created by institutions like the Guggenheim at first felt challenging or impossible, however, each phase of this collaboration led to new discoveries and presented creative challenges: how can we make this work on our campus using the sources and materials that we have? Clement met with the museum educators once monthly throughout the spring semester to collaborate and adjust our audio guide plan as needed.

Phase 1: Listen to the Target Audience

Before we began writing audio guides with the students, we arranged to meet with staff from Affiliated Blind of Louisiana (ABL). ABL is a non-profit organization that provides services to Visually Impaired, Blind, and Deaf-Blind people in Louisiana. ABL neighbors the university campus, and clients in ABL’s Adjustment to Blindness Training often walk to the Hilliard Museum as part of their Mobility and Orientation Education.

Two individuals with canes walk through the gallery
Project collaborators participating in Sleepshade Mobility Training in the galleries with Mr. Patrick Thibodeaux.

The initial conversations with Blind and Visually Impaired staff members at ABL gave us insight into the types of technologies and resources that our target audience already use or prefer using. The State Coordinator for ABL, Chyvonne Blanchard, recommended that we publish our audio guide on YouTube, as many of ABL’s clients found the video platform to be accessible and user-friendly. Additionally, many members of our target audience were Partially Sighted, and could use their devices to examine images of artworks while listening to the descriptions. Orientation and Mobility Instructor Patrick Thibodeaux led museum staff in a Sleepshade Mobility Training in one of the galleries. We first assumed that Blind and Visually Impaired users could listen to the audio guide with headphones, but we soon learned that our target audience preferred handheld speakers. Those who use a cane to travel must listen for echoes, taps, and other sounds in their physical space, and these visitors could not wear headphones in the galleries.

Blanchard, who is Blind, also mentioned the importance of sound effects for our sensory guide. She described how, for her, music and sounds decorate a room. She encouraged us to consider including new sounds, like a dog barking when describing an image of a dog, or waves splashing when describing an image of a boat floating on the water. In future conversations that we had with technical writing students, we were able to reference the feedback that Blind or Visually Impaired users gave to us.

Phase 2: Give Staff Collaborators and Students Time to Work

We found that orienting Clement’s technical writing students to the museum took time. The students met at the on-campus museum for three weeks of instruction. Typically, a museum educator’s experiences with students are often limited to a fifty to ninety-minute tour of the galleries, so working with students over an extended period allowed for greater depth. Some of the students had never been to an art museum before and felt intimidated by describing artwork. Additionally, many students came to the class with assumptions that technical communication was only applicable to fields of science and technology. The course expanded their views of technical writing by incorporating lessons on user experience. Students read Emily Ladau’s Demystifying Disability and learned about usability and accessibility in writing for public audiences.

The technical writing students worked for several weeks to draft, test, record, compile, and edit the written and audio components of their guides. For one homework assignment, the class brought their friends and families to the galleries to test the usability of their descriptions. Near the final stages, we shared our descriptions in a collaborative Google Doc and museum educators provided editorial feedback and fact-checked information about the artworks featured in the guide. The students used low-budget technologies to develop the final product. They recorded the guide using iPhone voice recorders, then added creative commons sound effects from Using iMovie, we combined the recordings with still images of the artwork, then uploaded the video to the Hilliard Museum’s Education YouTube Platform.

Phase 3: Celebrate and Keep Going

This partnership revealed the value of reaching beyond traditional collaborations between art museums and disciplines like visual arts, music, dance, and creative writing.

The resulting fifteen-minute audio guide that technical writing students created is a model for future iterations of collaboration between students, faculty, and art museum educators. A university art museum may not seem like a relevant site of learning for technical writing students, but this partnership revealed the value of reaching beyond traditional collaborations between art museums and disciplines like visual arts, music, dance, and creative writing.

The Hilliard Art Museum aims to develop accessible programming that all users can enjoy. The audio guide project was more than a class assignment; the research and writing resulted in a real-world deliverable the public could use. This project gave students an opportunity to create user-centered content and apply lessons from the coursework. For museum educators, collaboration, improved accessibility, and meaningful visitor engagement can often seem too abstract or even overwhelming to take on. However, this project proved it is possible to have a win-win collaboration between university art museum educators, faculty, and students. 

Taylor Clement is an assistant professor in professional writing at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Her research interests include plain language, user experience design, accessibility, and writing for community non-profits.
Callie Smith is a poet and a PhD candidate in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She works as a graduate assistant in museum education at the Hilliard Art Museum.