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 I was particularly interested in the wall-mounted copies of plaster casts originally made in the early twentieth century “by unnamed craftsmen documenting the sculptural heritage of Spain.”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