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Visually Impaired People Can Now Explore Andy Warhol’s Work With Their Ears and Fingers

“Out Loud” adds depth to an artist obsessed with the surface of things

A visitor to the Andy Warhol Museum experiences a Warhol print of a Coca-Cola bottle with the help of an audio app and a tactile 3D reproduction. (Andy Warhol Museum)
smithsonian.com

What does an Andy Warhol look like? On the surface, that’s easy to explain: a soup can here, a Marilyn Monroe head there. But for people with low or no vision, that question can be a vexing one. Until now: Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum just launched a guide aimed at helping people with visual impairment enjoy Warhol’s works.

The museum just launched a new attempt to make Warhol’s life and work accessible to people who can’t see them, including an audio guide called Out Loud and tactile reproductions of a number of Warhol’s works. The initiative, which was developed along with the Innovation Studio at Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, was designed to make the Warhol Museum more inclusive and was developed with extensive feedback within the visually impaired community. 

At the center of the initiative is Out Loud, a location-aware audio guide in the form of an app. The app uses beacons installed near different pieces of art instead of asking visually impaired patrons to input an art number. When it launches, it introduces the piece, then brings in short-form stories about Warhol’s life and times, including archival audio and anecdotes about Warhol from his associates. 

Billed by developers as “a guide for people who hate museum audio guides,” Out Loud learns a user’s preferences as they walk through the museum and serves up audio selections that match the user’s interests. The open-source code, which is available on GitHub, was developed not just for people with visual impairments—though they were central to the design process—but also for visitors who are interested in experiencing Warhol in an entirely new way. 

Speaking of new ways to experience Warhol, visitors to the seventh floor of the museum can also now touch reproductions of Warhol art created by a tactile reproduction expert. David Whitewolf created the reproductions using a Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) router, a high-speed, precise cutting machine that transforms 2D images into an accurate relief that can be experienced with the hands. 

It's part of an ongoing attempt to make museums more accessible. In recent years, museums have begun to cater to people with conditions like memory loss, and museum officials regularly study how to make sure their collections are open and inviting to more people. One barrier to accessibility is the amount of preparation it can take to get to a museum in the first place: As a survey of people with low vision demonstrated in 2011, many people with vision problems spend a lot of time researching what kinds of features are available at museums they would like to visit, and negative experiences lead not just to the termination of their interest in going to museums, but lower attendance on the part of their families and friends.

Of course, a glimpse at Warhol’s pieces in person goes far beyond 2D—his screen-printed pieces, for example, contain remnants of the printing process that contain a surprising amount of depth. The 3D versions also contain that detail, though some sections must still be described in the audio guide. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who famously said that “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.” There was, of course, plenty behind Warhol the man and the artist—and thanks to Out Loud, there’s now plenty to discover beyond the visual aspects of Warhol’s work, too. 

Editor's Note, November 7, 2016: This story has been corrected to reflect that a Computer Numerically Controlled router, not a 3D printer, was used to create these reproductions.

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