What if… we asked people to comment with images, not words?

At Versailles, the full audioguide is offered in ten different languages. At the Met, the Director’s Tour is offered in nine. The MFA has Collections Highlights in nine, including ASL. It’s a problem: museum experiences are segregated by language, and separate is rarely equal.

Perhaps the most dedicated attempt to swap out images for words is artist Xu Bing’s Book from the Ground. The project converts text into “universal language” symbols, taken from cautionary signage and airplane safety booklets. I used it last year to teach semiotics to my undergraduate students. About a quarter could read it fairly fluently, three quarters while working together in a group.

Xu Bing. Book From the Ground, mixed media, 2003-present

Xu Bing’s language is obviously not practical for a complete audiotour. But speaking with images does not have to be so complex. The inspiration for this what-if actually came from a game I played as a child, Compatibility. 


Gameplay is very simple. Each player has the same deck of fifty image cards: a puffin, a rather 80s wedding photo, an ashtray, a tropical sunset, and so on. There were some words (love, sex, death, etc) but I’m ignoring them for the purposes of this what-if. Each team of two would draw a prompt (“marriage,” “comfort,”) and the players would pick out the images that they felt best matched that word, trying to match their teammates’ choices. Points were awarded, pieces moved along a board, etc.

What was interesting, however, was how many different concepts those fifty images could mean. One picture of a lion encompassed pride, conservation, freedom, Africa, zoo. Although some choices prompted a “Huh? How did you get to that?!” response, most were greeted with yelps of excitement at a match or sighing, “I see how you got there.” There was a whole conversation happening, just through images.

What if visitors could respond to any piece in a museum with a similar deck of images? Like in Compatibility, you’d build familiarity with the images available and choose faster and faster. You could see others responses: either agreeing with the masses or inspiring a new idea. Depending on functionality, you could even play Compatibility within your own group or with all the other museum visitors. Although the images wouldn’t mean the same thing in every culture, that diversity would be interesting in and of itself! It would be a participatory program that required zero language, zero translation.

Bonus points:

How could we make this accessible for blind/low vision visitors: have a screen reader state “lion,” “wedding,” etc. What would be lost? Would it still be an interesting or valuable experience?

Could this encourage visitors to see other pieces? For example, other works nearby that visitors associated with the selected image? Taking words out of the equation reduced the natural language processing challenge of understanding text. You only have as many values as you do image cards! Easy!


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