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. 

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