When I go to the RISD Museum’s website, I am able to see, analyze, and feel the emotional impact of works of art in the museum’s collection. But how would I describe an image to someone else? How would I explain the act of looking? Tied with this are questions of accessibility in art museums. Who is able to access images? How can we expand access to include people who rely on or benefit from the use of screen readers? Brown University and RISD students engaged with these questions during the Fall 2021 semester as they learned about and wrote alt text for Variance: Making, Unmaking, and Remaking Disability.
As a Community-Based Learning and Research Fellow for Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service, I work with Professor Mary-Kim Arnold to develop and implement her course, Reframing Race in Art Writing. The course centers on how writing about the arts can advance public discourse about race, equity, and justice, but beyond that, students examine the relationships between art institutions and public audiences, addressing issues of privilege and accessibility. This is where alt text comes in. Alternative text, commonly known as alt text, refers to brief textual descriptions that are embedded in image files on digital platforms. Alt text makes visual images accessible and can be enjoyed by audiences who use screen readers, or software applications that can read text aloud. At the RISD Museum, alt text entries are generally limited to thirty words.
Previous iterations of the course included drafting wall labels for Brown University’s List Art Center, but Mary-Kim was interested in the process of writing alt text to engage with issues of power and access in institutional settings. So she reached out to the RISD Museum, where Conor Moynihan, assistant curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, was developing alt text for his exhibition Variance: Making, Unmaking, and Remaking Disability. Together, Mary-Kim, Conor, and I created a project that charged students with writing alt text for forty images from Variance.
One such image was Joan Giroux’s Ellen Mae dob, from the dob/dod series (2018):
Take a moment to consider this image. What do you notice first? How do your eyes move across it? How does it make you feel? Alt text attempts to capture the experience of looking.
Now that you have your own description, compare it to what students in the class came up with.
The first student wrote: “A screen printing on cream paper of red and green star-like shapes of different sizes, spread out but at times clumping together. In the upper left is an image of a figure sitting down at a table.”
The second student wrote: “Faded blue image of a woman sitting and smiling in a corner, screen printed over a cream-colored page with muted red and green stars.”
While these students described the same image, they focused on different aspects. The first student gave primacy to the background, describing it first and focusing on its star-like shapes, positioning the photograph against the background. In contrast, the second student focused more on the photograph, noting its color and the expression of the figure.
For the project, two students wrote about each image, then combined their descriptions into one to bring in multiple viewpoints. As the fellow for the course, my role not only involved learning about alt text and writing some descriptions myself, but it also included making final edits and tying up loose ends, namely making some final combinations and checking for word count. When editing, what was most important to me was ensuring that the language that was being used was accessible, direct, and concise, so as not to overwhelm those who would be utilizing these descriptions.
It was difficult to combine the two students’ texts for Joan Giroux’s work into a single thirty-word description, as I had to make decisions on what to include, what to cut out, and what to focus on within the constraints of the word limit. What I found through this is that writing alt text is a process of give-and-take. I appreciated that the first description oriented the photograph against the background to provide viewers with a strong sense of the composition, and I loved that the second description noted the expression of the figure in the photograph, helping to relate the figure to audiences. I ended up with a combination of these two approaches: “A turquoise-toned photograph of a figure at a table, smiling towards the camera, is printed onto the top portion of a cream paper covered with muted red and green stars.”
Alt text benefits from having multiple voices in the room, which was the most enjoyable part of the project for me. One might think that writing about an image would be straightforward, but the sequence of what students noticed, what they thought was the focal point, and how they described elements of the image could be incredibly different. At times, it was challenging to find a balance in the multiplicity of voices, but ultimately, writing alt text fosters a unique community of collaboration, allowing students to better understand how others perceive images.
In the context of Reframing Race in Art Writing, I came to see alt text as a tool that can be used to think critically about race, gender, and sexuality in institutions that have historically privileged, and in some ways still continue to privilege, certain points of view. For example, when we write that an image is a “gelatin silver print,” instead of simply writing that it is a “photograph,” what are we assuming about how much background knowledge a museum visitor has on media and the art-making process? When we refer to a work as “strange,” is our understanding of what is strange wrapped up in racist systems of power that reinforce normative standards? Students found that the project helped them think more critically about the words that institutions such as the RISD Museum use and how this language can serve to either alienate audiences or invite them in. Text is powerful, and writing alt text not only allowed students to consider how we access images, but it also revealed the unintentional biases that are inherent in the supposedly simple act of looking.
The students who participated in the project included Audrey Buhain, Yereem Chun, Edith Copp, Béatrice Duchastel de Montrouge, Joey Han, Ilana Jacobs, Anabelle Johnston, Addie Liebhardt, and Graham Routhier. The Community-Based Learning and Research Fellowship is supported by the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University. The fellowship is directed by assistant director of engaged scholarship Carmine Perrotti with the assistance of graduate assistant program coordinator Krysta Pelowich.
Grace Xiao is a sophomore at Brown University concentrating in the History of Art and Architecture.