Productive Constraints: Writing Alt Texts at The Block

As The Block pivoted to online engagement last year, our staff continued to consider how to center equity and inclusion in our digital work. Thanks to the Herculean efforts of the Collections team, almost 6,000 high resolution images of artworks in the collection are now visible on our new public-facing collections site. After the site’s launch in fall 2020, we began to think about how to make the site more accessible to visitors who are blind or visually impaired.  

Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Associate, enlisted Amelia Mylvaganam (Radio/Television/Film & Computer Science 2023), Curatorial Research Aide, in launching a pilot program to add alternative texts (or “alt texts”) to artworks our collection database. Alt texts are short descriptions of 10-15 words, and around 100 characters, that are read by screen readers as users navigate websites and apps. The pair began by seeking guidance from AccessibleNU and researching best practices created by colleagues at other museums, before drawing up a plan and a style guide for the Block’s own alt-text work.

Working alongside student researchers Janitza Luna and Joyce Wang in Spring 2021, Melanie and Amelia have already added alt texts for about 350 works, or 6% of the collection. Creating these texts has been a learning process, one that raised questions around how anyone, regardless of ability, views and accesses artwork.

Melanie and Amelia share some of their initial reflections and learnings from the project.

Challenges and Opportunities

Alt texts can be intimidating to write, especially at first. Amelia explains, “As someone without an art background, I felt like I didn’t always have the authority to describe an artwork and write these alt texts.”  However, we soon realized that the nature of the project does not require a specialization in art or art history. Alt texts are for audiences from any background, so everyday language is the most fitting. As we began the process, we found that writing alt texts is a fascinating exercise in observation and creativity—tools available to all of us, regardless of specialization.

The most obvious challenge is the short length of alt texts—it is impossible to convey everything about an artwork in 100 characters. As we got better at the process we have found that the constraints could be productive, encouraging fruitful conversations about artwork that we may not have otherwise had.

For example, we frequently find ourselves discussing what is “primary” about a work of art and, therefore, necessary to include in a description. In the print Industrial Strife (ca. 1938) by Boris Gorelick, the artist presents a complex and tumultuous city scene. We did not have room to describe all of its components, so we settled for a description that would give a sense of what was happening: “Abstract black-and-white city scene with many people, some on strike and others shocked or in pain.”

While they are far from all-encompassing, our hope is that the alt texts give those who rely on them a general sense of the content—enough details to know if they want to reach out to learn more or explore the work further.

[alt text: Abstract black-and-white city scene with many people, some on strike and others shocked or in pain]

Another ongoing conversation we have internally is how to address the identity of depicted subjects. Widespread accessibility guidelines urge writers not to redact information about a person’s appearance when it is important to the meaning of the artwork. As we embarked on this work we found that writing alt texts helped us identify some of our own inherent biases. We noticed that when the subject of an artwork had dark or medium skin tone, we tended to note that, but when the subject appeared to be white, we were less likely to include it in our descriptions. Realizing this bias of accepting whiteness as a “default” has changed the way we look at and interpret objects.

For Melanie, it was particularly instructive to see artworks in the collection through the eyes of students from other disciplines. Years of studying art history had ingrained the use of terms that are not very common outside of the discipline. For instance, a student’s direct language of describing two figures in a work by Hank Willis Thomas as “looking directly at us” is much more direct and less ableist than her learned, academic habit of saying the subject is “looking at the viewer.”

[alt text: Cropped photograph of a Black man and a Black woman holding a cigarette and looking directly at us]

In order to ease any anxieties about our descriptions, we have a review process. Every alt text gets looked at twice before going into the database. We read each other’s alt texts and provide edits for each other. Knowing that someone else will look critically at what you have written lifts some of the burden of thinking what you write has to be perfect. It is important to us that the process is a collaborative space where we are allowed to make mistakes and ask questions. We have also become more comfortable with the fact that there is no “correct” alt text – that 100 different people looking at the same object will write 100 different descriptions. As with other information in our database, we are also open to feedback from our users if they notice any incorrect information. 

Our next steps

In the near future, we plan to expand our community of practice to include more staff and students who work at The Block. Our primary motive for this work is making our objects more accessible to those who otherwise may not have access to our holdings. However, we have also seen how the practice of writing descriptions can itself have benefit. We believe that writing alt-texts can serve as a meaningful way for staff across departments to connect over our shared purpose of using art as a springboard for discussion.

Our work on alt texts has also helped us think about and foreground accessibility outside of The Block. Amelia explains, “As I conducted my work at the museum, I began to really get inspired by the alt text project. Melanie and I had conversations about its applications and value beyond The Block. In one of my classes this Spring, we each had personal websites where we housed our weekly projects. While I was putting together my class website, I found myself including alt texts for the images on the website. I had not thought to do this with previous websites, and I noticed that my classmates didn’t either. Being a part of this project has truly changed the way that I view accessibility– as a responsibility rather than an add-on.”

Further resources:

Cooper Hewitt Guidelines for Image Descriptions

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago Guidelines for Describing

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