Audio description at a museum, park, or exhibit is not the same as an audio tour or a docent-lead tour. Audio description has a different focus: describing the actual object, rather than addressing its creator or history, for example. A true audio description tour of a museum would actually assist in leading you from exhibit to exhibit, and the emphasis would be on size, shape, color, texture, detail. If you are lucky, you will be allowed to touch some of the objects on display, but you should not expect this accommodation.
For an example of museum description, see our page on Audio Description of a Museum Painting. See also the Verbal Description Database by Art Beyond Sight's Museum Education Institute. You can also play the video on the following page to hear a visually impaired art museum tour guide explain How Do Visually Impaired People Enjoy Art?.
Some cruise lines also offer audio description accommodations. We have a "white paper" on the subject: Cruising to a More Inclusive Experience on Cruise Ships.
National Parks are expanding their use of audio description. Read: The UniDescription Project: Seeking to Bring Unity to the World of Audio Description and one user's experience with the Yosemite beta test and Audio description app studied by field-research team at Muir Woods National Monument. Search for "unidescription" in your phone's App store to hear audio description of more than 50 National Park Service brochures so far. You can also listen to Eyes on Success Podcast 1839 which addresses Accessibility of US National Parks.
Not many museums or parks offer audio described tours. Here are the ones we know about. Unless mentioned, there is no assurance these tours are any different from regular audio tours, but they have been reported by patrons who are blind. Let us know about ones in your area so we can list them!
NOTE: We have been asked about tactile displays for museums to supplement audio description. One source we know about is the Lighthouse MAD Lab.
UPDATED October 2018 -- Thank You Contributors!
Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure (as well as Disney World in Florida - see Florida) offer an audio description "Handheld Device" (that's the official name) for select attractions and shows. A $25 refundable deposit is required to borrow the equipment from Guest Relations. Read the official Disneyland Services for Guests with Visual Disabilities page. The same device is available in Florida at Disney World. See additional article references under Florida and be sure to read the Webmaster Comments there. NOTE: The devices was updated in 2018, and its new photo is below.
The Getty Center - Los Angeles; GettyGuide multimedia players are free of charge at the pickup desk and contain a "visual descriptions audio tour."
The Getty Villa - Pacific Palisades; The GettyGuide multimedia player is free in the Atrium but does not have a specific audio description tour; a 20th-century replica of Venus is available to touch at the end of the Outer Peristyle, and explanatory labels are provided in braille; "Handling Sessions" are available when planned with the museum in advance.
Yosemite National Park offers an audio described tour of the visitor center museum, and their park film, Spirit of Yosemite, is also audio described.
Golden Gate National Recreation Area - San Francisco, 415-561-4700
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Their website says, "Tours [for visitors with special needs] must be arranged at least three weeks in advance and depend on availability of LACMA's trained art docents. Please call 323-857-6109 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information."
The International Spy Museum offers an audio described tour.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (aka The Kennedy Center) will provide audio description for most of its performances if requested at least three weeks in advance.
The National Gallery of Art: Audio tours providing vivid descriptions of works of art are conducted by Picture This on the fourth Wednesdays and Saturdays of each month starting at 1:00 PM in the rotunda of the gallery's West Building. The tours last about an hour.
The Smithsonian museums have limited audio description available in the form of information specialists and docents. Ask at the information desk. Films have description, but you need to request earphones. Specific museum accessible information call-in numbers follow:
African Arts: 202.633.4600
Air and Space Museum – Both Locations: 202.633.1000 (Request 3 weeks in advance)
American Arts Museum: 202.633.7970 (recording) - docent-led tour for visitors who are blind or have low vision; includes touch tours (photo below)
Anacostia Museum: 202.633.1000 (follow the prompts)
Arts and Industry: 202.633.1000 (follow the prompts)
Freer Gallery: 202.633.4880
Hirshhorn Museum: 202.633.1000 (follow the prompts)
Museum of American History: 202.633.1000 (follow the prompts)
Museum of Natural History: 202.633.1000 (follow the prompts)
National Museum of the American Indian: 202.633.1000 (follow the prompts)
National Portrait Gallery: 202.633.8506. Portrait Insight Tours every month: verbal descriptions and tactile objects. For more information: Access Programs Page. To get on the list to receive monthly emails about these tours, email your request to: NPGAccess@si.edu.
National Postal Museum: 202.633.2991
National Zoo: 202.633.2922
Sackler Gallery: 202.633.4800
Smithsonian Castle: 202.633.1000 (follow the prompts)
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will provide a special guided tour for blind and visually impaired visitors upon request. You can download the Audio Tour of the Museum’s Hall of Witness and Hall of Remembrance in advance for you own device, or ask to borrow one at the museum.
The George Washington Memorial Parkway has wayside signs with tactile elements and some audio components. If you wish to experience a tour with audio components, contact the park ahead of time.
The White House offers an audio tour, which features welcoming remarks from Mrs. Obama followed by a room-by-room audio description of the highlights and features of the White House. The audio tour must be requested at the time the tour reservation is made through a member of Congress, at least 21 days in advance. Read the Press Release!
Walt Disney World (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) is offering an audio description "Handheld Device" (that's the official name) for select attractions and shows. (See photo above under California). A $25 refundable deposit is required to borrow the equipment from Guest Relations, and you must borrow the device separately at each park from the Guest Relations office just inside the entrance gate on the left (except for EPCOT, where it is located beyond Spaceship Earth, and there is no Guest Relations office at the rear entrance to EPCOT). Read the original Disney announcement, or read the WGBH Media Access announcement, or view and hear a video of the Haunted Mansion overlaid with the audio from the Handheld Device, or read and view more information about the device and its technology. And here is the official Disney World Services for Guests with Visual Disabilities page.
Webmaster Comments From 2014 (prior to using the current device): Be sure you set your expectations for this device with the Guest Relations staff! If you have a sighted person with you, make sure you get a copy of the handout describing the device and listing which attractions feature description. Also make sure you understand WHEN you have to push a button to get description and when it is supposed to occur automatically. We have no experience with the NEW device introduced in 2018.
The Arizona Memorial offers sighted guide assistance and includes a special unit that can be borrowed to assisted blind users enjoy the tour. The USS Bowfin Submarine Museum offers audio self tours (no hands on), but they are not safe for a blind person alone.
The Henry Ford (multiple buildings) offer some limited accessibility services for visitors with vision impairment. See "Accessibility" on the referenced web page.
The Mob Museum, the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement located in Las Vegas, offers described tours on request.
The Albuquerque Museum of Art and History has had docents trained to give tours to patrons who are blind.
In Buffalo, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery offers a multisensory tour the first Saturday and second Wednesday of each month.
In New York City, most of the major museums offer monthly programs oriented to people who are blind. Art Education for the Blind's Art Beyond Sight is very influential and active in organizing these programs and working with other museums. Contact individual museums for program information.
An accessible tour is available at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. It is available online for downloading or via a handheld device at the museum. Contact Emmanual at 646-583-3419 for details. Three weeks notice is requested for guided personal tours.
Whitney Verbal Description and Touch Tours: As the preeminent institution devoted to the art of the United States, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents the full range of twentieth-century and contemporary American art, with a special focus on works by living artists. Explore the Whitney's permanent collection or special exhibitions with a highly skilled museum educator trained to provide vivid, detailed description of the works on display. Visitors are also able to experience a selection of works through touch. Whitney Verbal Description and Touch Tours provide an opportunity for visitors who are blind or have low vision to experience the richness and diversity of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American art. These ninety minute tours are free and are held monthly as well as by request with three weeks advance notice. To place a request, inquire about the next scheduled tour, or sign up for our email list, please contact Whitney at email@example.com or (212) 570-7789. The Whitney Museum is located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park offers 13 hours of audio description in both English and Spanish via a handheld device.
Other sites of interest would include the Statue of Liberty (which has audio tours) and the African Burial Ground, a National Monument, which has "an audio component for the sight and/or hearing impaired."
The Cleveland Museum of Art: Specially designed tours for visually impaired visitors are offered by prior arrangement. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Groups that include individuals with vision impairments might also wish to inquire about scheduling an Art To Go session on site at the museum. Contact email@example.com to inquire. Art-to-Go programs allows visitors to handle and hear about actual works of art. Free for persons with visual impairment only; fee is $75 per group for others or $100 if program travels to you. Register two weeks in advance minimum for Art-to-Go at https://cmaweb10.clevelandart.org/cgi-bin/Education.py; not all dates may be available.
The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia can provide a staff member to tour the exhibition with you to describe artifacts; call at least one week in advance to arrange.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art offers multiple accommodations for people with visual impairments, from Braille signs to free audio tours; but they also offer personalized tours including tactile tours (plus tactile interpretations of paintings) when arranged in advance. Their "accessibility" page is quite extensive and a good model for others.
The Warhol (The Andy Warhol Museum) in Pittsburgh has an audio guide called Out Loud that features visual descriptions of artworks. Here is a video that discusses the audio guide and how the audio guide was put together.
At the time of this writing, the tour has not been finalized, but expect an audio described tour of the facility at Cowpens National Battlefield, a Revolutionary War battleground in Gaffney, SC, sometime in 2015.
The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo offers live audio description.
The Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University offers multimodal programming with raised-line, tactile drawings; touch tours; descriptions of the art work; low vision optical aids; Braille and large print; and sighted guides and interpreters to accommodate the needs of visitors with disabilities. Contact Dr. Carmen Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org, 214-768-4677.
Museum of Fine Arts Houston. "Art Beyond Sight" - Trained gallery educators use verbal descriptions and hands-on materials to engage participants (check schedule for dates). Also, with at least two weeks' notice, you may request gallery educators who are trained as sighted guides to enhance the museum experience for blind or partially sighted visitors.
Space Center Houston will waive the audio tour fee for visitors who are visually impaired; however, the audio tour is not specifically designed for visitors who are visually impaired.
The Seattle Art Museum offers monthly audio description docent-led tours. They also have electronic Audio Guides for special exhibits. Other museums in the area which have occasionally offered audio description are Museum of Flight, Bellevue Art Museum, and Pacific Science Center. For more information, contact Vision Loss Connections at 206-282-3913.
Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wausau, Wisconsin. Art Beyond Sight, for individuals with no or low vision, provides a multisensory exploration of the visual arts - offered quarterly during each exhibition. Since 2006, the Museum has included verbal descriptions, tactile artworks, raised-line drawings, sound effects, scents, and/or tastes in these free Art Beyond Sight programs that often feature interaction with artists in residence. Audio tours available, free, on iPod touch devices that offer artist interviews and audio interpretations of selected artworks from each changing exhibition and from the Museum's collection.