Ways of Seeing Art

I’d filed a reference to this Tate Exchange and Shape Arts event from February 2017 in my “other” section, something of interest but not in my key documents list. I’d skimmed the information on the website: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/tate-exchange/workshop/ways-seeing-art  I noted that the event was about audio description, clearly of interest to me but not the only approach I’m interested in.

Following a proper look yesterday, I’ve reviewed my thinking and moved this resource up the list. Particularly useful was the filmed recording of a panel discussion (pictured below) about audio description. The whole event was organised in partnership with Shape Arts, one of the UK’s main disability arts organisations, controlled by disabled people.

Six people sit behind a table with a screen behind, audience in front.

I learned a lot from the contributions of Zoe Partington, a consultant with a visual impairment who has worked extensively with galleries and museums. Dr Louise Fryer, a teacher of audio description at University College London, also provided lots of insights. Interestingly, both exorted galleries, curators and even artists to be creative about audio describing, to have a go and to experiment:

It’s about bringing galleries to life for everybody including blind and partially sighted people … Have fun! Use description in a fun, creative way to get people through the door. (Partington, 2017)

It’s always good to hear from people who use a service themselves, and in the Shape discussion we hear from visually impaired people who both use and produce audio description. A strong message for getting it right is to work in partnership, with blind and partially sighted people at the centre.


Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/tate-exchange/workshop/ways-seeing-art (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Shape Arts and Tate Exchange (2017) [Workshop series] Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/tate-exchange/workshop/ways-seeing-art (Accessed: 27 April 2018).


Fryer, L. (2016) An Introduction to Audio Description: A Practical Guide. London: Routledge.

Partington, Z. (2013) ‘Opening Up Creative Culture’ [Video series] Youtube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnviddUNHn5ynIPAXO6x5EQ (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums

Perhaps my key text, this book by Simon Hayhoe (2017) covers his research on why blind and partially sighted people go to art galleries (called museums in this and other texts). Mainly through in-depth case studies, he shows that visually impaired people have as many reasons to visit galleries as sighted people.  To think otherwise shows basically disablist thinking: applying limiting assumptions about how visually impaired people perceive and engage with art.

While I find Hayhoe’s definitions of active and passive exclusion of disabled people confusing and not altogether coherent, particularly when the concept is extended to active and passive inclusion, I have taken a lot from his writing. He seems to have carried out, in more depth, some of my ideas in my research proposal, especially talking to individual blind and partially sighted people in art galleries, particularly New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have chosen Leeds Art Gallery as a focus of my research with blind and partially sighted people for (I think) similar reasons that Hayhoe carried out research at The Met: while Leeds Art Gallery is nowhere near the scale and global reputation of The Met, it nonetheless is Leeds’ most well-known, historic and prestigious gallery, as demonstrated when it re-opened following refurbishment last year (Blow, 2017). I thought it would be more likely that my research participants had visited it before and indeed, several of them know it very well.

Hayhoe robustly challenges the ocular-centricity of art galleries, arguing that this goes hand in hand with the idea that sight is the primary and most important of the senses, which leads to perception through other senses being overlooked and not properly catered for. Hayhoe points out:

As the consumers of fine art – or what we can also call physical, plastic or tangible art – people who are blind find that touch and residual vision play a significant role in their understanding, as it lends something to their emotional appreciation of aesthetics and the purpose of art. (p. 21)

As I shall show through my literature review and other references (e.g. Candlin, 2010; Hetherington, 2003; Pye, 2007), touch provision in art galleries is generally very poor, if it is available at all.

A stone sculpture of a boy seated on a toy train, on the right, is being touched at its base by a kneeling woman
Touching a sculpture in Leeds Art Gallery

Importantly, Hayhoe is one of a growing number of people who argue against blindness and art as being characterised purely in terms of deficit and hopefully suggests that:

We are now on the edge of a new form of the post-deficit model of blindness and a truer understanding of the holistic relationship of creative activity, picture comprehension, and a more complex notion of identity. (p. 43)

My own research aims to take an asset-based approach and to consider whether this is a relevant approach to curation. I have noted Hayhoe’s parallel emphasis on a post-deficit approach.

To end at the beginning of this book, Hayhoe sets out his hypothesis in the preface (his italics):

Artworks hold significance and value beyond their perceptual content, and a misunderstanding of this content leads to exclusion. That is to say, we do not need to see, touch, smell, hear, or taste artworks to garner meaning from them or develop some value in our minds of knowing they exist and understand them. (p. xviii)

I’m looking forward to hearing the viewpoints of blind and partially sighted people in Leeds about the understanding, meaning and enjoyment that they gain from artworks.



Blow, J. (2017) ‘First Look: ‘Stunning’ rediscovered Leeds Art Gallery roof revealed after decades’, Yorkshire Evening Post 12 October. Available at: https://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/first-look-stunning-rediscovered-leeds-art-gallery-roof-revealed-after-decades-1-8801139 (Accessed 25 April 2018).

Candlin, F. (2010) Art Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hayhoe, S. (2017) Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums. London: Rowan and Littlefield.

Hetherington, K. (2003) ‘Accountability and disposal: visual impairment and the museum’ Museum and Society, 1(2) pp. 104-115.

Pye, E. (ed.) (2007) The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.

Arts to Share at Horsforth Museum

Great to reconnect with Arts to Share, a local organisation that arranges handling sessions with galleries and museums across Leeds. I joined a group of regulars today at Horsforth Village Museum. Unlike other venues that Arts to Share works with (generally local authority), Horsforth Museum is entirely run by volunteers. They are in a beautiful 18th century house, owned by the council to whom they pay a peppercorn rent.

Today’s objects related to education and childhood, so we examined and talked about objects from the classroom and playground. This was a social event as much as an educational one, part of a varied programme throughout the year.

Candlin (2003) interviewed blind and partially sighted people to find out what they thought about facilities in museums and galleries that aim to meet their needs. She found that the social aspect of attending workshops or other activities for blind and partially sighted people was of great importance to many people. This did not mean that they were not interested in the art, but the social side might be an added attraction, or might make the logistics of organising a visit to a gallery more worthwhile.



Denise, Catherine, Alan and Martin inspect artefacts relating to childhood and education.


Candlin, F. (2003) ‘Blindness, art and exclusion in museums and galleries’. London: Birkbeck ePrints. Available at: http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/745

Taking touch to another level

Reading Candlin’s Art, Touch and Museums (see previous post) i really enjoyed reading about Jordan McKenzie’s interventions. The particular chapter is about touching modern and contemporary art and examines relational aesthetics where the art only exists as a result of participation or involvement and breaks down barriers between audience and artist.

This doesn’t always go according to the artist’s or gallery’s plan and the curtailing of Robert Morris’s solo show at the Tate Gallery in 1971 is a cautionary tale. Participants’ over-zealous and vigorous engagement with the works led to a series of minor accidents.

Nowadays, gallery installations, including participatory works, are likely to be closely guarded by staff and security. McKenzie’s ‘unlicensed actions’ (Candlin p.182) certainly tested this and transform the works he interacts with. Andre Dance (2008) turns industrial steel flooring into a disco floor.  Although visitors are allowed to walk on Andre’s work, security guards end McKenzie’s movement. Serra Frottage (2008) (pictured above) takes place in a publicly sited sculpture, so touching is implicitly allowed. Not rubbing, stretching against or caressing, though. Police are called to end this intervention.

McKenzie’s ‘Minimal Interventions’ are cheeky, witty and highlight issues around touch and art. They might influence my own practice.img_6605

As I passed through Dortmund Square shortly after reading this chapter, the coincidence of seeing a protest sign taped on a public statue was striking!








Candlin, F. (2010) Art Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

McKenzie, J. (2008) Andre Dance [Performance]. Available at: http://www.jordanmckenzie.co.uk/modular-unit-bag/ (Accessed: 18 April 2018).

McKenzie, J. (2010) Serra Frottage [Performance]. Available at: http://www.jordanmckenzie.co.uk/modular-unit-bag/ (Accessed: 18 April 2018).



Inspired by McKenzie’s work, I was considering organising a touch tour of some of the public sculptures in Leeds, perhaps enhanced by improvised performance. This idea was soon scuppered when I took a look at some sculptures that were on a manageable, accessible route. Most were placed on high plinths, well out of reach. You can pat the bottom of Henry Moore’s reclining woman (outside Leeds Art Gallery) and there is another piece that is at ground level. Not enough for a tour, though. I’ll have to re-think…



Art, Museums and Touch by Fiona Candlin (2010)

This is the first book I’ve read for my research that focuses on touch in museums. I have a few others on my list, but thought this would be the most useful, interesting – and critical. (Other books on my list appear to be more toolkits and / or case studies, providing guidance rather than a critical view). Touch is obviously an important area to consider, and I’ll discuss it with the blind and partially sighted people I meet with. But touch certainly won’t be the sole focus of my research.

Candlin has written a wide-ranging survey of the history and shifting use of touch in art museums. In short, she writes that touch was largely written out of art history by a few influential mid twetnieth-century art historians (Alois Reigl, Heinrich Wolfflin and Erwin Panofsky). In writing about touch and vision, touch was relegated as inferior, superceded by understanding through vision as civilisation developed.

A great deal of this book is not directly relevant to my project. But while I concentrated on the chapter relating to touch and access provision, I found that other chapters were also helpful in helping me understand the use and specificity of touch, and to begin to think how much I should focus on this. While Candlin’s writing on the history of art, touch and gender was fascinating, I moved along quickly because it doesn’t help me develop ideas about touch and visually impaired people. I’ve gleaned useful background information from chapters about ‘Museum visitors and a changing sensory regime’ (pp 58-90) and ‘Curators, connoiseurs and expert object-handing’ (pp 91 – 118). These reveal how at various times in the history of museums’ development, object handling was part of the experience offered to visitors. The apparently particularly British habit of striking or grabbing museum objects became something of a scourge across Europe in the early nineteenth century as the practice has destructive consequences. Candlin notes that this would have been an upper-class habit, as these were the people with means to travel abroad. Fears of allowing working class people into Britain’s museums in fact proved to be unfounded.

The inconsistency of allowing curators to handle objects as part of their assessment and understanding of collections, while forbidding others to do the same is noted. Of course conservation and preservation is at stake (but perhaps this needs a re-assessment), but Candlin points out that it isn’t just touch that is a threat to conservation and that can damage objects. Heat, light, humidity, dryness insects and bacteria, pollution all pose hazards. Transporting objects between institutions is likely to be much more damaging than handling. Museums deal with these in different ways, including the use of glass and cases that actually obscure the visual perception of artworks. But generally touching is off-limits.

Candlin questions the use of touch as it is used in much museum access and education provision. This book emphasises the importance of touch and is a call to include touch as an important element of museology – for curators and visitors. So Candlin does not question the use of touch for blind and partially sighted visitors. She is, however, critical of many touch tours and similar initiatives because they fail to think about how touch should best be used to support people’s understanding of artworks.

For example, writing about a number of gallery exhibitions where sculptures could be touched, she points out how uneven and disjointed they were, due to curators’ restrictions on what could or could not be touched:

The shows had no thematic or historic context and there was little or no connection between the subject matter of the sculptures or between the artists who had made them, and so as exhibitions they made little sense … In short, touch exhibitions did not necessarily make art objects comprehensible to their intended audiences and as exhibitions these events largely failed. (p.123)

Blind and partially sighted people are being short-changed with such exhibitions and the approach to access:

… disability was understood [by museum staff] as being an impairment or lack that as far as possible needed to be made good through the other senses, and so touching functioned as a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for sight. This mode of access was entirely normative for it attempted to introduce blind and partially sighted visitors to art objects understood within a visual paradigm, rather than recognising that touch might comprise a different way of engaging with the exhibits. (p.124)

However, Candlin recognises that practice is improving and developing and cite’s Tate Modern’s tours, which focus on intellectual access so that people gain an understanding of why the artworks they are studying are significant, as good practice.

Beyond being an offer for blind and partially-sighted people, touch is being used as part of a variety of museum projects aimed at combating social exclusion.  Touch and handling in groups is being used to create a supportive atmosphere; people open up more, share stories and experiences. Almost a therapeutic tool. 

Great claims being made for beneficial outcomes of handling museum objects – are they justified? And where is the evidence that they prevent or alleviate social exclusion?



Candlin, F. (2010) Art Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Doing the groundwork (LAUMACUP705)

This is a period of planning and preparation. The next four months will fly by!

I have a growing list of books and other texts for the literature review. This week I have added a number of books relating specifically to touch in museums (see references below).

Being a keen Japanophile, I was also pleased to read some of the work of Professor Kojiro Hirose of the National Museum of Ethnology in Japan (pictured above).  Being blind himself, Hirose is an expert. The way he has classified ‘three elements of tactile sense: look at, watch and see’ (2013) is very clear. And his mission to ‘provide fresh excitement of “being astonished through touching” to many visitors, especially, to the sighted’ (2013) is highly relevant to my research.

Woman in foreground looks carefully at photos in a book. Behind her is a smiling woman in dark glasses.
Image from Sensing Culture Project

Simon Hayhoe is a leading academic in the field of blindness, education, and the arts.  I now have his most recent book (2017) which will be one of my key texts. And excited that he will be one of the key speakers at the Sensing Culture conference on 1 May, which I’ll be attending.

I thought I’d put out feelers via the RNIB’s Connect project to see if anyone would be interested in talking to me and taking part in my project. I was invited to post on their Facebook page, and within a couple of hours four people have expressed an interest!The power of social media, so encouraging! With the people I’ve already approached it looks like I’ll have enough people to talk to.

Finally, I read a fantastic leaflet in the University of Leeds’ Special Collections in the Brotherton Library: How We May Show Our Museums and Galleries to the Blind (Charlton Deas, 1913). Despite being over 100 years old, some of the ideas for increasing access to blind and partially sighted people have resonance today. For example:

‘I would lay emphasis on the need for special care in selecting guides whose sympathies and imagination enable them to realise to some extent the importance to the blind examiner of thorough handling.’ (p.7).

Members of museum staff had donated their time to be guides, ‘actuated by the true feeling that free service to the claims of brotherhood is the best rewarded labour’ (p.6). Note: brotherhood, NOT charity!


Candlin, F. (2010) Art, museums and touch. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Charlton Deas J.A. (1913) ‘How We May Show Our Museums and Galleries to the Blind’ The Museums Journal, Vol 13 1913.

Chatterjee, H. (ed.) (2008) Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling. Oxford: Berg.

Hayhoe, S. (2017) Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums. London: Rowan and Littlefield.

Hirose, K. (2013) Research on Methods of “Touching the World” —The Aim of the Exhibit Area of Tactile Learning in Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology Disability Studies Quarterly, vol 33 no. 3. Available at: http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3743/3245 (Accessed: 3 April 2018).

Pye, E. (ed) (2007) The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.