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Thursday, 2 March 2017

Audio Description in the Art Gallery



This image is a screenshot from the Ashmolean website. It is made up of three panels. The left-hand panel gives the title of the exhibition, in the middle is a picture of a mother and child which looks like a Picasso (but in fact isn't), and on the right is a panel with further information. 

In the February issue of their Museums Journal, the Museums Association included an article with the somewhat 'no-brainer' title 'Museums need to do more to welcome disabled visitors'. According to the article, whilst museums are keen to point out that their galleries are accessible to wheelchair riders, and that guide dogs are welcome, they do not always make the actual collections accessible to partially blind visitors. This is particularly true of temporary exhibitions and the Ashmolean Museum's current blockbuster show, 'From Degas to Picasso' seemed to be no exception. The show's website reproduces the frustratingly familiar misunderstanding of access evoked in the article. To the Frequently Asked Question: 'Is the exhibition accessible?' they provide the chirpy but misleading response:
Yes. Access to the exhibition is via lift and the entire exhibition is wheelchair accessible with handheld labels available.
Undeterred, I phoned up to ask about availability of audio description headsets, large-print labels or a Braille catalogue, I was not surprised to be told that none of the above existed. But I was delighted to be offered a 1-to-1 audio described tour of the exhibition from a knowledgeable expert-guide.

When I got to the museum, my guide Lynne was waiting for me exactly where I was expecting her to be. She introduced herself, led me up to the exhibition and gave me an overview of the history of the collection and its contents before we went into the three-room show. She then provided me with descriptions of a selection of the pictures, coupled with the kind of information that brings art and its history to life. My friends and family have been describing pictures to me for years, but none of them (apart from my Dad) know enough about art history to combine the kind of objective description used by audio describers with an insight into artistic techniques, context and the painting's place in the collection more generally. As Lynne adapted her descriptions to my interest, sight levels and knowledge of nineteenth-century French art, the tour became a collaborative response to the pictures. Indeed, at one point another gallery-goer chipped in with her interpretation of a detail in one of the exhibits.

The tour had other unexpected consequences. Lynne encouraged me to break the unspoken rule of gallery going and get as close to the paintings as I could. With my nose pressed up against the glass, and her fingers guiding my eyes, I could see globs of paint, brush strokes and chalk marks that I would never have dared to discover otherwise. I also noticed that as we moved from the nineteenth-century realism of David, Ingres and Millais, to the cubist work of Picasso and Braque, Lynne's descriptions reflected the visual difficulty of the pictures. As we together deciphered Albert Gleize's cubist portrait of Stravinsky, for example, our inability to find the language to describe the disjointed shapes on the canvas reflected the picture's own challenge to normative ways of both painting and seeing. I like to think that the cubists' challenge to conventional representation was being echoed in our unconventional approach to the guided tour. Part tour, part audio description, our collaborative exploration of a selection of the exhibition's works felt like a wonderfully immersive way of sharing different ways of seeing and talking about art.

I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been able to benefit from Lynne's time and expertise. But I am sure there are lots of partially blind people who will never access this art. Some will be put off by the website's failure to mention audio described tours. Those who are persistent enough to find the right number to call (FYI at the Ashmolean, access is handled by the education department), may not be free on the same days and times as Lynne. (As is so often the case tours are not usually offered on weekends or in the evening). Or they might be put off by the 1-to-1 format. This is wonderful art that everyone should be able to experience. Surely it can't be that difficult or expensive to record or transcribe Lynne's words and make them available in audio, large-print and braille versions for anyone who wants them.






1 comment:

  1. This is a fascinating report Hannah. I love your neat reminder that the Cubists challenge normative ways of painting AND seeing ... AND describing.

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