Wednesday 8 February 2023

The Sensational Museum

The Sensational Museum: using what we know about disability to change how museums work for everyone.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a love-hate relationship with museums, especially those whose promises of disability access don't live up to the reality.... now I have a chance to share my thoughts and experiences in a more productive way...

From April 2023 I will be leading major new research project The Sensational Museum

This £1M project wants to transform access and inclusion within the museum sector by putting disability at the centre of museum practice and acknowledging the diversity and difference of all visitors. The team of academics and sector partners will work with disabled and non-disabled visitors, staff, and organizations to prototype and test a range of new ways of accessing museum collections and cataloguing objects. The 27-month long project (April 2023-July 2025) will focus on two key areas: how museums manage the objects in their collections and how the stories behind these objects are communicated to the public. At workshops and events across the UK, The Sensational Museum will develop a sense-based approach to collection and communication. This approach assumes that no specific sense is necessary or sufficient to work with or experience museum collections.

Many of my museum-based blog posts show that museums are very sight-dependent places. But many people want or need to access and process information in ways that are not only - or not entirely - visual. With this project I want to imagine a museum experience that plays to whichever senses work best for each individual visitor.

The Sensational Museum is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and I'll be working with wonderful colleagues Anne Chick (University of Lincoln); Alison Eardley (University of Westminster); Ross Parry (University of Leicester as well as Esther Fox from Curating for Change and Matthew Cock from VocalEyes.

I'm particularly excited about the range of partners we'll be working with:

AVM Curiosities

AVM Curiosities® has been exploring the relationship between art and the senses through a series of events and interventions since 2011. Founded by award-winning artist and food historian Tasha Marks, AVM Curiosities advocates for the sensory museum, championing the use of food and fragrance as artistic mediums. Projects range from olfactory curation and scented installations to interactive lectures and limited-edition confectionery.

Barker Langham

Barker Langham is one of the world’s leading cultural consultancies, creating pioneering and sustainable projects around the globe. Across all our work, we look at questions from every angle and challenge assumptions to create unexpected, imaginative and thought-provoking outcomes.
Eric Langham, Founder, Barker Langham says:

“We are delighted to be part of the Sensational Museum project, and are eager to explore the prospect of redefining ‘accessibility’ not as an add-on but as an integral part of everyone’s experience. By identifying more equitable ways for all visitors to engage with museum content in a trans-sensory way, together we can begin to reimagine the museum through a new sensory logic.”

Collections Trust

Collections Trust is a small, but influential charity whose mission is to help museums work with the information that connects collections and audiences. With Art UK and the University of Leicester it is building a Museum Data Service that will pool and share object records from UK collections as the raw material for countless end uses.

Kevin Gosling, The Collections Trust says:

“While we welcome all aspects of the project, we are especially excited that it will develop an inclusive, open-access documentation interface linked to the Museum Data Service. Not before time, this will make it easier for a wider range of users to work with the information at the heart of museum practice."

Curating for Change

Curating for Change is a 3-year National Lottery Heritage funded project at Screen South. It wants to create strong career pathways for d/Deaf, disabled and neurodiverse curators in museums.

Esther Fox, Head of the Accentuate programme, lead for Curating for Change says:

“We are delighted to partner with the Sensational Museum on this exciting initiative to really examine what museums mean for audiences and staff. Our work with Curating for Change puts disabled people at the heart of leading change within museums and we are excited to support the Sensational Museum in building on this approach.”

Group for Education in Museums (GEM)
GEM is a membership-based sector support organisation for everyone interested in learning through museums, heritage and cultural settings. Our mission is to support and empower our community of colleagues to connect and develop their knowledge and skills to deliver learning. Our services to deliver our mission include professional membership; training and professional development opportunities; 1-1 support; annual conference and events; dedicated representatives across all four Nations of the UK; publications and digital resources, support for sector recruitment; conversations and advocacy about practice and the development of learning.

Museums Association

The Museums Association is a membership organisation representing and supporting museums and people who work with them throughout the UK. Our network includes 10,000 individual members working in all types of roles, from directors to trainees and we represent 1,500 institutional members ranging from small volunteer-run local museums to large national institutions. Founded in 1889, the MA was the world’s first professional body for museums. We lead thinking in UK museums with initiatives such as Empowering Collections and Museums Change Lives and we provide £1.4m per year of funding for museum projects via our Esmée Fairbairn Collections fund and other grants.

The Museum Platform

The Museum Platform aims to democratise how museums can make their collections - and stories about those collections - available online as cheaply, as efficiently and as easily as possible.

Mike Ellis, Founder, The Museum Platform says:

“At the heart of The Museum Platform is an aim to improve usability and access - not just for the public but also for time-pressed museum staff who need to maintain this content. We’re therefore delighted to be involved in The Sensational Museum, and are excited about getting deeply involved in the project with you and with all project partners over the coming months.”

Scottish Museums Federation

The Scottish Museums Federation is a membership body for anyone interested in the Scottish museums and galleries sector. We provide our members with networking opportunities, a dynamic forum to share information and discuss current issues in the sector, and encourage creativity, enjoyment and personal development in the sector.

Quonya Huff, President of the Scottish Museums Federation says:

“We're excited to be part of this pioneering project and even more so that it will bring tangible training to the Scottish museum and galleries sector.”


We believe that blind and visually impaired people should have the best possible opportunities to experience and enjoy art and heritage. Our mission is to increase those opportunities, make them as good as possible, and ensure that as many blind and visually impaired people as possible are aware of them, and that the arts and heritage sector know how to create them, and welcome blind people as a core audience.

Matthew Cock, Chief Executive, VocalEyes says:

We’re thrilled to be involved in The Sensational Museum, which promises to be a ground-breaking project for the museum and heritage sector, turning traditional practice on its head and placing the experiences of disabled people at the heart of the process. VocalEyes’ role will be as Sector Impact Lead, helping to disseminate the project’s research findings to people working within museums and heritage sector organisations, raising awareness of the findings, resources and toolkits, and influencing and bringing about change to practice.

Wellcome Collection

Wellcome Collection is a free museum exploring health and human experience. Its mission is to challenge how we all think and feel about health by connecting science, medicine, life and art. It offers a changing programme of curated exhibitions, museum and library collections, public events, in addition to a café. Wellcome Collection publishes books on what it means to be human, and collaborates widely to reach broad and diverse audiences, locally and globally. Wellcome Collection actively develops and preserves collections for current and future audiences and, where possible, offers new narratives about health and the human condition. Wellcome Collection works to engage underrepresented audiences, including D/deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, and racially minoritised communities.

Georgia Monk, Senior Project Manager, Exhibitions, Wellcome Collection says:

"Wellcome Collection has been in the process of developing its approach to inclusive and accessible exhibition making for several years and this is the perfect moment for us to engage with the Sensational Museum project and learn collaboratively with this extraordinary group of peers and partners."

This is an image of the logos of all the university and heritage sector partners involved in the Sensational Museum

Sunday 10 April 2022

The Louvre: A Museum Accessible to All?

[This image shows the apparently now defunct Tactile Gallery at the Louvre. On a sign in the left of the image we read ‘Galerie d’étude I : espace adaptée aux visiteurs non et malvoyants’ {Study Gallery I: space adapted for blind and visually impaired visitors'). Next to this sign is a bare room closed off by a metal gate. The room has stone walls and tiny windows. It seems to be bathed in creamy yellow light. It is completely empty. It looks like a designer prison cell.]

** UPDATE: 13/04/22 ** The Louvre got in touch the day after I published my post. They apologized for the current situation, thanked me for my feedback and have promised to work on better communication of their offerings to all concerned. They gave me a link to the audio-described tour of the current exhibition and reassured me that the Tactile Gallery has not gone for good, but is being renovated.

I am used to being disappointed by museums' accessibility offerings. (Examples here and here). But I was not expecting to have my worst experience at one of the world's most famous museums. According to their website, the Louvre is "accessible à tous" (accessible to everyone). I was especially looking forward to visiting the Petite Galerie which has a very promising description on the museum website:

The Petite Galerie is a dedicated space for disabled visitors. Entirely accessible, it is equipped with tactile ground surface indicators. A braille booklet is lent free of charge and a downloadable guided tour with audio descriptions is available on the Petite Galerie app.

La Petite Galerie est un lieu d’accueil privilégié pour les visiteurs en situation de handicap. Entièrement accessible, l'espace propose des dispositifs adaptés : bande de guidage podotactile, prêt gratuit d’un livret tactile remis, parcours audio-décrit téléchargeable sur l’application "La Petite Galerie".

After feeling frustrated by the general lack of access for blind people elsewhere in the Louvre, I was expecting great things from the Petite Galerie. I'm not a fan of 'special' rooms for disabled visitors, but some provision, even if marginalized, is better than none. 

When we arrived, we found that the Petite Galerie does indeed have an audio described tour of a handful of items in the 'Figures d'artiste' exhibition on their app. Sadly, this exhibition closed last year: the current exhibition is not audio-described and the app has not been updated. To add insult to injury, the out-of-date audio is still on the app. Massive disappointment. The gallery attendants had no idea why this year's exhibition has not been described. They did, however offer me a tactile booklet that accompanies the current exhibition, 'Venus d'ailleurs: materiaux et objets de voyage' (From Afar: Travelling Materials and Objects).

Given that the 'Petite Galerie' is specifically designed for disabled visitors, I was pretty shocked and upset that I couldn't access audio descriptions of any of the 50 of so exhibits. But my friend and I decided to try the tactile booklet anyway. Here is what we found:

The booklet contains 2D relief drawings of 7 works; 6 objects and 1 painting. There is also a tactile plan of the exhibition which was supposed to help us locate the objects. The first two rooms in the exhibition have 'guidage podotactile' (raised floor markings) that are also shown on the tactile map. (Oddly the raised markings stop at the entrance to the third and final room: blind people are not welcome there). The AD of the previous exhibition explains how to find each object. Without it, we found it hard to locate the objects, especially because, as my friend pointed out, some of them are extremely small.

The tactile reproduction of the painting apparently does quite a good job of capturing the shapes and textures of the five shells:

An oil painting of 5 shells in an ornate frame

[The top image shows an oil painting of 5 shells in an ornate frame; the lower image shows the tactile reproduction of the painting on the left-hand page of the tactile booklet; printed and braille information about the painting is on the right-hand page.]

In fact, my friend thought that non-blind visitors would appreciate the details given by the tactile drawing, which are not necessarily visible in the painting. This is great if you care about the shells themselves, but less great if you want a tactile experience equivalent to how a non-blind person might look at the painting. Reproducing details that a non-blind person can't see, gives a skewed idea of how the painting looks. 

The booklet gives basic information (title, artist, materials, dates, dimensions) in French in grade 1 (uncontracted) Braille and slightly larger than standard print. But there is no explanation of what the painting looks like, why it is significant or how it fits into the exhibition as a whole. Even more frustratingly, the exhibition's information panels and curator notes are not translated into Braille but are only available as wall panels in very small type. The tactile booklet gave me no sense of the exhibition as a whole.

Things got even worse when we compared the tactile reproductions of the 6 objects with the artefacts on display. Creating tactile drawings is tricky: you need to provide enough information to make the object recognisable, but too much information can be confusing, especially if not accompanied by an audio explanation. Unfortunately, the Louvre has decided that it is best to provide minimal information: this results in insultingly simplistic representations that feel more like children's' book illustrations than representations of historic artefacts. Compare the tiny elephant figure pictured below with its tactile representation and you will understand what I mean: 

[The top image shows a tiny bronze elephant statue. I have no idea what it was used for or where it is from. It is standing on a wedge-shaped platform so that it is at an angle with its front feet slightly higher than its back feet. It is in a display case with a mirrored back in which my face and phone are reflected. The second image shows a basic elephant shape in relief on the left-hand page of the tactile booklet. The right-hand page contains minimal information in print and braille.]

Nothing in the tactile booklet tells me how the elephant actually feels, and I have to use my own understanding of the one measurement provided (h: 9cm) to work out how the scale of the reproduction relates to the original. More worryingly, there is no acknowledgement that the practice of transforming 3D objects into 2D tactile representations is deeply flawed. Nothing in the reproduction gives a sense of the actual elephant. What we have here, at best, is a generic picture of an elephant: I am pretty sure that most blind people are familiar with the concept of an elephant. At worst we have an incredibly infantilising and insulting tactile drawing that tells us nothing about the artefact or its place in the exhibition. (Here is not the place to get into the dangerously Orientalist decision to use an elephant to represent the exotic other.....). 

The tactile reproductions of the other objects were not much better. The elephant obsession continued with an 'olifant' (horn) made out of ivory. 

[The top image shows an 'olifant' hanging in a display case. There is a reflection of me in the background. The horn seems to have intricate markings carved into it. The lower image shows a double-page in the tactile guide. On the left, a tactile drawing of the horn. Two areas of the horn are outlined in red; enlarged reproductions of them are included below the drawing of the horn. On the right, minimal details about the horn are included in print and braille.]

This time there was an effort to include some of the details on the horn in separate drawings of specific elements. My friend noticed an explanatory panel next to the horn. It gives several sentences of interpretation in English and French as well as a map illustrating the object's provenance. The text on the panel is too small for me to read. None of it is included in the tactile booklet.

[This image shows a display panel next to the horn. The text is in French and English. It is printed too small for me to read (perhaps 10 or 12 point). There is also a line-drawn map with a shaded area indicating where the object is from. I can see enough to guess it is Middle-Eastern.]

Almost all the objects in the exhibition are in Perspex display cases. But there was one object - another ivory horn - that was displayed without a case. I was enjoying touching it until my friend noticed what we thought might be a 'do not touch' symbol next to it. (The irony that I could not see the sign did not escape us).

[This image shows a larger elephant tusk or horn. It is not in a case and is invitingly at hand level. Below the object there is a short explanatory text. There is also a panel with two images: both crossed out by a red diagonal line: one is a hand with an extended finger; the other is a speaker with sound waves coming out of it and 'durée 8 minutes' written next to it: can this mean that there used to be an 8-minute AD for this object that is no longer available?]

To be fair, the gallery staff were pretty embarrassed and appalled by my experience. They are under-paid and over-worked and none of this is their fault. They suggested that we report the situation to the visitor experience team. They also recommended going to explore the Louvre's famous Tactile Gallery, one of the first tactile sculpture galleries in Europe.

On the recommendation of the gallery staff, we did go and talk to visitor services about the Louvre's offer for blind and partially blind people. When I explained that the Petite Galerie app no longer includes AD, they suggested that we avail ourselves of the 'standard' audio guide instead. However, further questions revealed the limitations of this standard audio guide for blind visitors. No, there aren't any audio descriptions of works included in the standard guide. Yes, there is explanatory, contextual and interpretative material only. Yes, you have to be able to read a number placed next to each work and enter it into a touch tablet. No, this system isn't accessible to non-accompanied blind people. No, there are no tactile handsets or braille or large-print transcripts. No, the objects in the Petite Galerie are not included in the 'standard' audio guide. Yes, it probably is true that the museum is not accessible to blind people.

Our final stop was the famous Tactile Gallery. The Gallery opened in 1995 and soon became a flagship gallery for museum accessibility. When I asked my not-so-helpful visitor services helper for directions, I was stunned by his response: "Ah, Madame, ça n'existe plus!" (Oh, Madam, that no longer exists). nfortunately the attendants in the Petite Galerie did not know that the Tactile Gallery had been shut down. This is not just a temporary Covid Closure. As the image at the top of the page, and these two images, show, the Tactile Gallery has apparently gone for good:

[The top image shows a sign reading ‘Galerie d’étude I: espace adaptée aux visiteurs non et malvoyants’ {Study Gallery I: space adapted for blind and visually impaired visitors'). The lower image shows an empty room closed off by a metal gate. The room has stone walls and tiny windows. It seems to be bathed in creamy yellow light. It is completely empty. It looks like a designer prison cell.]

No-one in the museum could tell me why the Tactile Gallery has been abolished. If I were being charitable I would guess that it has been abandoned because it will become redundant once the Louvre makes every object properly accessible to all. Until that day comes, here is my advice for the Louvre:

Remember that 'access' does not just mean physical access to a space. It also means giving people information and experiences in ways that work for them. There is no point offering to meet me at a bus stop and guide me into the Louvre if I then can't access any of the art once I am inside your 'accessible' building. 

Be honest: if there is no longer audio description, update your app and your website so that I don't waste my time and money. Your website promises something you don't deliver; you raised my expectations and that made my disappointment and frustration worse. It is rare that museums make me cry but you very nearly managed it.

Rethink your priorities. You are one of the most famous museums in the world. Don't you think that everyone should have access to your collections? Surely you could invest some of the profit you make from entrance fees, and shop and café mark-ups into proper permanent access? How about leading by example?

Celebrate access: as I have shown elsewhere, creative audio description benefits all visitors. Instead of marginalizing disabled visitors make us the centre of your offering. No non-disabled visitor is ever going to say 'I hate this museum, it is too accessible'.

Don't hide behind excuses around logistics / finance / admin / aesthetics: if small museums like the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery or the Guildhall Museum can make their collections accessible, so can you.

Involve disabled people in curation and exhibition design: even highly qualified non-blind people are not as good at designing accessible exhibits as the people who use them.

Saturday 30 October 2021

The Spanish Gallery in Bishop Auckland: a land of missed opportunities

The Spanish Gallery is “the UK’s first gallery dedicated to the art, history, and culture of Spain”. It opened on 15 October 2021 in the small market town of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and is part of the ambitious Auckland Project regeneration scheme.

On arrival, I was immediately impressed by the ramps, automatic doors, and spacious lifts. A wheelchair access audit had clearly been part of the museum’s design and wheelchair drivers were very well catered for. However, when I asked about large print, braille, and audio guides I was met with a baffled silence. “I don’t know about anything like that” said one staff member, “but there are volunteers in every room who will read things out to you if you ask them.” A well-meant offer, but the equivalent, for me, of a wheelchair user being told: “We don’t have ramps, but our volunteers will carry you up the stairs if you ask them.” I didn’t even bother asking about more creative access initiatives such as the provision of torches and magnifying glasses or live or recorded audio description.

Despite my all too familiar feelings of frustration, I made my way through the automatic doors into the first of several galleries. The paintings and some of the explanations were lit with spotlights and the rest of the space was in semi-darkness. It was impossible for me to read the small labels next to each picture, so I soon gave up even trying, and focused on attempting to read the larger explanatory text at the entrance to each room. Unfortunately, the design team had prioritized the overall look of the galleries over their accessibility. Whilst some wall-mounted text had reasonably good contrast, I’d say about half of the explanations did not meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). WCAG is the international standard for the accessibility of web content and can also be used as a helpful guide to making non-web content such as signs, notices, menus and gallery labels readable. (If you want to know how accessible your colour contrasts are, consult the brilliant Who Can Use tool to find out.)

Things got slightly better on the top floor. I was particularly interested in the wall-mounted copies of plaster casts originally made in the early twentieth century “by unnamed craftsmen documenting the sculptural heritage of Spain.”


The image shows wall-mounted 3-D printed copies of early 20th century plaster-casts, themselves copies of the Virtues of Prudence, Courage and Temperance from the Sepulchre of Cardinal Tavera (1553)

The 3 statues are “factum facsimilies […] made from white light scanned data merged with high-resolution photogrammetry. They were 3D printed using SLA, moulded and cast in an acrylic resin.” They are part of the FactumFoundation project to produce a 3-D model of the 1553 Sepulchre. You can read more about the project on the Factum Foundation website. Apparently, it was Henry Cole, the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, who initially championed the creation and display of recreations of works of art. For him it was a way of making “works of art freely available everywhere and to everyone.” Sadly, I was not allowed to touch the statues or the sepulchre. Ironically, the museum’s celebration of Cole’s vision of “shared cultural access” does not extend to non-sighted people. Even though many museums are using 3-D printing to make objects accessible to blind people, the objects in the Spanish Gallery have now become off-limits despite their reproducibility. The museum’s labelling tells me that “Access can take many forms from screens to headsets, glasses, hybrid mixes, but it can also be physical.” Indeed. Another missed opportunity.

As I was leaving the facsimile gallery, I overheard one staff member telling another about the QR codes that are included on a few of the gallery’s labels. My ears pricked up and with the help of my companions I located and scanned one.


The image shows a small gallery label accompanied by a QR code.

 I was taken to a web page with a longer – and crucially – zoomable – version of the gallery label. If only someone had thought to tell me about these QR codes at the beginning of my visit. 

This image shows my phone screen with the museum label enlarged thanks to the QR code. Presumably this webpage would also be accessible to Voice Over users.

Although not as good as an accessible app like Smartify (used down the road in the Bowes Museum), QR codes do make the gallery content more accessible to smart phone users. Despite watching me navigate the galleries with my white cane, no-one told me about the gallery’s only accessible feature.

I don’t know how much the Spanish Gallery cost. But I do know that its owners have created a land of missed opportunities. Accessibility was not built into the gallery's design and will now be hugely expensive and inconvenient to add. Staff are not briefed about how QR codes can function as an accessible feature. And the gallery has invested in 3-D replicas of sculptures that we are not allowed to touch. 

Thursday 26 August 2021

Smartify at The Bowes Museum

This week I visited the Bowes Museum in Teeside. It is a museum I last visited as a child. I had fond memories of the grandiose architecture, and I used to love the wonderful mechanical silver swan, but I remember being frustrated by not being able to appreciate the thousands pictures and objects housed there (3038 apparently.) This time I was confident that the Smartify app would give me better access to the art, and I was not wrong.

I know from my work on the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery Audio Described Tour that Smartify is a great way of making art accessible to people who, like me, don't usually see the paintings on display, let alone the interpretations of them. Smartify is a free-to-use smart phone app (but museums and galleries pay for its services).. It scans any given space for art works it recognises and then displays information about them, together with the work itself, on the phone screen. It wasn't originally designed for blind and partially blind users, but it has completely transformed the way I experience art galleries. 

I need to have my nose almost touching a painting before I can see anything more than an indistinct blur. As a child (perhaps even at the Bowes) I quickly learnt that this kind of proximity to art is not allowed. It tends to trigger literal or metaphorical alarm bells. But how can I appreciate the art on display if I can't get close enough to see it?

This time I wanted to concentrate on the museum's nineteenth-century art room on the second floor. My latest research project is about French writers' unwitting attempts at audio description and how they might inform twenty-first century access initiatives. I knew that Emile Zola had written a short description of 'Grrandmamma's Brreakfast'  (1865) by Francois Bonvin and this was the painting I had come to visit.

The image shows a screen shot from my iphone. This is what my phone displayed when it recognised the painting. A small image of the painting is at the top of the screen, followed by information including title, artist, date, dimensions and materials. There is also a paragraph with further information and a link to the museum's digital catalogue entry for the painting. This information is identical to that displayed on the label below the painting in the gallery. Non-blind visitors are thus given two ways of accessing information. On the other hand, Smartify is the only way for me to access this painting. Not only can I enlarge the image and zoom in on all its wonderful details, I can also enlarge the label text or use my phone's inbuilt accessibility feature VoiceOver to transform the text into audio. Thanks to Smartify, I can now access works of art independently. I don't need to ask a friend or relative to read things out to me and I can go to galleries when I want without having to fit in with scheduled audio-guided tours.

There is another feature of the Smartify app which is even more beneficial to me: the option to add audio files to any painting's information page. This is what we did to create the audio-described tour at Royal Holloway. I was delighted to discover that the Bowes Museum have included audio for a handful of their paintings. When I scanned El Greco's The Tears of St Peter I found two recordings where curators and art historians discuss the paintings in more detail. These are not originally intended for blind visitors but they are what I call 'unintended audio descriptions' because they give the listener visual information about the painting as part of a broader discussion. The same is true of all the artworks featured in the Bowes Museum's Young Curator's Tour.  Adding audio files to the Smartify app effectively turns my phone into a handheld audio description device. It is a brilliant way for museums to include interesting content for all whilst simultaneously immeasurably improving access for blind visitors like me. 


Thursday 28 January 2021

AHRC Fellowship Annoucement: Inclusive Description for Equality and Access (IDEA)

I am delighted to announce that I have been awarded one of 10 new Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Fellowships for my project on inclusive audio description at the theatre. In this year-long initiative, I will be working with audio-description providers VocalEyes and Mind's Eye, access champion Vicky Ackroyd from Totally Inclusive People, and theatre companies including Mind the Gap Studios, The Octagon Bolton, the Donmar Warehouse and Shakespeare's Globe.

This project developed out of the 2019-20 Describing Diversity research project jointly run by VocalEyes and Royal Holloway University of London with additional support from Shakespeare’s Globe and Donmar Warehouse. Its key output was a report, Describing Diversity: An Exploration of the Description of Human Characteristics Within the Practice of Theatre Audio Description. [download the report here].

Between March 2019 and May 2020, we investigated how diverse human characteristics might best be described in the audio introductions used by theatre audio describers to introduce blind and partially sighted audience members to a play’s characters before the play starts. Along with touch tours and live audio descriptions, audio introductions provide blind and partially blind theatre goers with essential information about the play’s setting, costumes, props and characters. Our research found that references to protected characteristics such as gender, race, disability and age are not always made in inclusive and ethical ways. Either describers avoid mentioning such characteristics for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’, or they inadvertently use loaded or negative language to describe them. In both cases, blind audience members are not given access to the visual markers of diversity available to their sighted peers. Our Describing Diversity project addresses this lack of equity by using the research findings, as well as consultation and workshops with audio describers, to develop a set of recommendations about best practice in AD for both audio describers and theatre professionals. These recommendations are designed to promotes equality, diversity and inclusion both for people being described and for people listening to the descriptions. The report was published in September 2020 and has already informed ITV’s accessibility policies.

This AHRC Fellowship project ‘Inclusive Description for Equality and Access’ (IDEA). will support and enable theatre professionals and audio describers to engage with and explore our findings in order to promote the creation of inclusive descriptions which celebrate diversity in ethical ways.  We will work with directors, casting directors, actors, access professionals, front-of-house teams at producing theatre companies as well as audio describers and blind and partially blind theatre goers, to promote the value of AD as both a communicator and a driver of equality, diversity and inclusion. IDEA will also seek to increase the diversity of audio describers, blind and partially blind theatre goers and theatre professionals by engaging under-represented groups with the creation and reception of inclusive audio description.

We will focus on the following key questions:
1) How can audio describers describe diversity characteristics, especially race and disability in an inclusive and ethical way?

Race was the diversity marker which attracted the most comments in our survey and interviews and integrated casting (sometimes referred to as ‘non-traditional casting’ or ‘colour-blind casting’) is a key issue to explore in IDEA. Whilst IC can refer to situations in which an actor’s age / gender / disability / body shape are not taken into account by casting decisions, in the survey responses it was most often evoked with reference to race. The recent rise to prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and the increased awareness of the effects of white privilege are further evidence that the question of how and when race is described to blind and partially blind audience members is a pressing issue which will be at the heart of IDEA. 

2) How can audio descriptions take account of the creative team’s vision for the play?
The importance of consultation with actors and directors at an early stage of the audio description production was frequently highlighted and practical difficulties such as cost and staff availability were cited as the key barriers to this happening. IDEA will facilitate better consultation between audio describers and the creative team by
  • Embedding an awareness of and interest in AD in the DNA of theatre
  • Helping theatres to understand what is at stake if AD is not inclusive and ethical
  • Raising awareness of and interest in aspects of diversity that ADs may not yet have direct experience of it
  • Connecting individuals and organisations through exploration of shared interests and initiatives
The aim of IDEA is to promote inclusive audio description by taking the report’s describer-led recommendations back to theatre professionals and blind and partially blind audience members in a series of workshops, discussions and performances.

IDEA will:
  • engage a diverse range of theatre professionals, blind and partially blind audience members and audio describers with the report’s findings and the practices of audio description more broadly
  • strengthen existing networks of audio describers and theatre professionals by creating a safe space for discussions and a shared set of resources on the project website
  • create new partnerships with theatre professionals and audio describers who were not involved in the preparation of the ‘Describing Diversity’ report but who are interested in developing their own understanding of and practice in inclusive audio description
  • provide support (through mentoring; training; peer support; access to resources such as a video and a MOOC; support for community engagement; help with audience feedback) to theatres, theatre professionals and audio describers who want to implement the recommendations of the Describing Diversity report
  • promote the value of inclusive audio description for a range of audience member groups beyond blind and partially blind audience members and in so doing increase the visibility of audio description in the theatre
  • encourage the use of inclusive audio descriptions, particularly audio introductions, in films and on television, for both live and pre-recorded content.
To achieve the above aims, we will work with a diverse range of theatre companies to produce 2 audio-described productions per partner. We include theatres outside the south-east of England; theatre companies who work with or represent under-represented groups; theatres who are interested in extending their audience base to under-represented groups and theatres who would like to strengthen their equality, diversity and inclusion practices.

The project will also employ post-doctoral researcher Rachel Hutchinson as Project and Community Engagement Manager. Rachel received her PhD from the University of Westminster in 2020. Her thesis examines the impact of inclusive audio description on engagement and memorability in museums for blind and sighted people. She is was a post-doc research assistant on the Describing Diversity project and lead author of the report.

Saturday 8 August 2020

Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse

Image description: a photo of my standing to the right of a poster for the Donmar Warehouse's production of BLINDNESS. I am smiling broadly. Dark glasses cover my eyes and the top of my white cane stands next to me. On the poster, the cast and creatives are listed. My name appears in the list alongside the description 'Production Consultant'.

When I heard from my friends at VocalEyes that the Donmar Warehouse was planning a production of Saramago's problematic novel Blindness my heart sank. The all-too-familiar alarm bells started ringing in my mind. 'Will this be yet another sighted peoples' depiction of 'blindness as tragedy'? I wondered. 'How dare sighted people tell us what our blindness feels like!' I fumed. I worried about whether this supposedly 'non-visual' installation would turn into a wrong-headed simulation of blindness which might have the dangerous effect of further stigmatizing blind and partially blind people.

Luckily, the Donmar team were very receptive to my concerns. After a Zoom meeting with them, I was appointed 'Production Consultant' for the installation. My job? To help them understand why many blind and partially blind people find Saramago's portrayal of blindness so offensive, and to work with them to find ways of using the production to think about blindness in different - perhaps more positive - ways.

Saramago's novel depicts a world where sudden, contagious blindness leads to the disintegration of society. As people go blind, they lose their dignity: they become violent, sexually aggressive and ruthless and the world descends into chaos. Eventually, one group of blind people are saved by the only sighted person left. She finds them food, gives them shelter and makes them clean again. At first I wasn't sure there was anything the Donmar would be able to do to redeem this unremittingly tragic depiction of blindness. The production is an adaptation of the novel, so it needs to use the novel's words and actions. But then I realized that that potential of the piece lies not in its content, but in the ways this content is presented.

Lockdown has made traditional theatre impossible because live actor performances are not allowed. So the Donmar created a socially-distanced sound installation with binaural audio recorded in advance. Aside from some powerful lighting effects (which are audio-described at every performance), the production is entirely reliant on our sense of hearing. As such, it is compelling evidence that we do not need our sense of sight to enjoy the theatre. By asking non-blind people to temporarily relinquish their reliance on visual sources of information and focus instead on their often-neglected listening skills, the production performs a re-calibration of the 'hierarchy of the senses' where vision is dislodged from its traditional place at the top. The most powerful moment in the show is when the audience is plunged into absolute darkness. In this instant we become completely reliant on the beguiling voice of Juliet Stevenson's narrator, and we strain our ears to capture every sound of her presence. We are suddenly alone, with the intimate whispers of the character as our only guide. I did not find this plunge into the dark frightening, although I suspect some non-blind people did. I found it liberating. Finally I could devote my whole being to listening without worrying that I was missing some of the visual information which is so highly prized by my non-blind peers. I could have sat in the dark all day listening to the mesmerizing drama unfolding around me.

But light did return, and the audience gradually became visible once more. I expect most people were relieved at this return of daylight. I felt oddly disappointed as I was forced back into the sighted world I have such a problematic relationship with.

It would be easy - but perhaps a little lazy - to criticize this production for reiterating Saramago's negative depictions of blindness. But this would be to miss the point of the Donmar's use of immersive binaural technology. This adaptation is the perfect place to challenge misconceptions of blindness because it gives us a powerful aesthetic experience without any need of sight. Unlike the negative depictions of blindness in Saramago’s novel, this installation delivers important messages about the value of the non-visual senses, the creative and aesthetic benefits of blindness and the ways that the concept of ‘blindness gain’ might encourage non-blind people to reconsider their own misconceptions of blindness.

For more on the depiction of blindness in the installation, as well as my thoughts on blindness gain, reading blind and trying to 'pass' as sighted, listen to the podcast recorded by me and writer Simon Stephens to accompany the production.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Audio Description at Royal Holloway

Image Description: The painting 'Man Proposes, God Disposes' by Sir Edwin Landseer hangs in its lavish golden frame among other paintings on a rich red wall in Royal Holloway's Picture Gallery. Read on for a link to a creative audio description of the picture.

Those of you who have been following Blind Spot Blog for a while will remember the 2015 Blind Creations conference and micro arts festival held at Royal Holloway, and organised by myself and Vanessa Warne (University of Manitoba). One of the highlights of the conference was a live audio-described tour of some of the paintings displayed in Royal Holloway's famous Picture Gallery

Since the success of Vanessa's audio descriptions at Blind Creations, I have been working with the College Curator, Laura MacCulloch to explore innovative ways of making the College’s Art Collections accessible to a wider public. I have also been researching and writing about creative audio description and talking to a lot of people about my theory of ‘blindness gain’. Laura has been working hard to secure some funding to make the Picture Gallery more accessible and has been using the museum and gallery app Smartify to create virtual information panels for all the gallery's pictures. 

Earlier this year, Laura was able to employ an audio-description intern to help us run a crowd-sourced audio description project. We invited volunteers from across the College community (including students, staff and alumnae) to produce their own creative audio description of paintings in the Picture Gallery. Unlike traditional audio description, creative audio description (CAD) does not claim to offer an objective description of an image. Instead it recognizes that each beholder will see things differently. It welcomes non-normative gazes and encourages individual and inventive responses to art. It celebrates diversity of interpretation and asks people to produce a subjective response using whatever words speak to them personally. These creative audio descriptions give both blind and sighted visitors a new way of experiencing art. They highlight the describer's responses to each painting's aesthetic and emotional aspects as well as to its visual appearance and place in the gallery. They are an excellent example of 'blindness gain'.

Our project has been put on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic, but Laura and assistant curator Michaela Jones have used Smartify to create a free online audio-described tour of a selection of paintings from the Picture Gallery. Thanks to this tour, these paintings are now accessible to blind people around the world. You will hear a short introduction by me followed by creative audio descriptions of 15 paintings from the Picture Gallery, including famous works such as ‘Man Disposes, God Proposes’ and ‘Princess Elizabeth in Prison at St James’’ alongside some lesser-known gems. Some of these are located high on the Picture Gallery’s walls and are not usually spotted by visitors to the gallery. 14 of the descriptions are by current students and staff and we have also included one of the original recordings from Blind Creations, where the project originated.

As well as improving access to the Picture Gallery and adding to the range of online gallery tours available for free during lockdown, this project has also enhanced student employability through the creation of internships; strengthened links between different parts of the college community; and created a set of creative audio descriptions which I will be able to use as my research into the benefits of creative audio description for everyone develops. 

Special thanks go to Laura MacCulloch, Michaela Jones, Emma Hughes and all the staff and students who volunteered to be part of the project.