Guidelines for creative audio description

I drafted some pointers to aid the describers who I’m recruiting for my curated event: creative audio descriptions of items in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection. Influenced by a few particular writers / artists.

Some suggestions to help you write an audio description

‘Abandon the pretext of objectivity. It is impossible and besides the point’ (Kleege, 2018).

‘I wouldn’t worry about trying to get things right straight away, what is more important is to have a go’ (Partington, 2017).

‘We were drawn into it, they explained it, the way it was lit, the brightness, the colours, it came to life!’ (research participant, 2018).

Be creative

  • Don’t worry about objectivity – an interesting, enthusiastic description is much better.
  • Feel free to use poetry, sound, story-telling. Tell us why you’ve chosen this piece. Evoke the senses and engage the audience.
  • So long as you cover the basics, have a bit of fun!

Choose an artwork

  • From the Art Gallery’s collection, not from a temporary exhibition. If in doubt, ask a member of staff.
  • It might be easier to choose something you have strong feelings about, positive or negative. Something you are drawn to for whatever reason.
  • A very dark paintings, where there is little difference between colours. Partially sighted people find these more difficult to interpret.
  • Don’t choose works that are mounted high up on the wall. Eye level is good.
  • Abstract and contemporary works are fine.
  • Research the work a little so you can answer basic questions – but you don’t have be an expert.

Get the basics in early: state the obvious

  • What is it? Painting, film, sculpture, installation etc.
  • Artist, title of artwork, year it was created, when the artist was born and died.
  • Size, either as a measurement or in comparison to a common object.
  • How it is displayed: on the wall, a plinth, in a case etc.
  • Describe what you see, state the obvious!

What’s the impact? What’s striking about it? Then some detail

  • Describe the overall impression, the composition and the things that the eye is drawn to.
  • Try to convey the impact of the work, its wow factor.
  • If it’s significant, describe the media / materials, or particular techniques that the artist has used – and why.
  • Describe colours, tones and light / shade.
  • Does it have any tactile qualities you could describe?
  • Does it evoke any other senses or particular emotions?
  • Once you have set the scene, move onto the details.
  • But you don’t need to describe every single thing, just the things you think are significant.
  • Give some context, whatever you feel is important: historical period, artistic movement, political events, influences, period of artist’s life, relationships etc.
  • Why is this in the gallery? What’s important about it?

General tips

  • Move in a logical, sequential order around the artwork, don’t jump around it.
  • Don’t describe something as “over there” or “as you can see here”. Say “in the top right hand corner” etc.
  • But you don’t need to completely avoid words like “see” and other words rooted in vision. They are part of everyday language, used by everyone.
  • Be open to questions. Or you might want to ask your own questions.


Kleege, Georgina (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Sensing Culture (2018) Audio Description. Available at: (Accessed: 30 June 2018).


Making the Case symposium

Breaking down barriers to cultural and heritage places and spaces for learning disabled people.

img_6859Yesterday I went to Venture Arts’ Making the Case symposium at The Whitworth, Manchester.  An interesting day, focusing on putting learning disabled people at the heart of heritage and culture. Not directly relevant in terms of my current research, but still a few good nuggets.

I’ve heard Esther Fox, from History of Place, speak before, about this great project that looks at disabled people’s history through a number of significant buildings or institutions.  She talked about rights, about risk and ambition (Fox, 2018):

It’s our right as disabled people to access the arts and heritage. If we come from a rights perspective we can expect more and bring about change.


Museums need to see disabled people not as a risk, but as an opportunity to be ambitious and raise the bar.

How do we reach those organisations that are not engaging? It’s important that disabled people are involved at all levels, not just as audience.

In the first comment, Fox echoed Kleege (2018):

The disability rights movement has challenged the “just stay home” messages. In some sense, when blind people show up at an art museum, we assert that we have a place in this society and a right to public institutions.

In terms of the rights agenda, Sheryll Catto and Molly Bretton of Autism for the Arts listed the many reason why access to culture is important, including Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Partington (2017) has a similar message to Fox’s last comment:

Make sure blind and partially sighted people are at the centre of what you do.

It was also interesting to meet a member of staff at the National Trust’s Little Moreton Hall and to find out about their project Welcome to the sixteenth ‘scent-ury’.  This is ‘a sensory exploration of smell from a Tudor point of view’, with pleasant and not-so-pleasant smells to experience (National Trust, 2018).  Good that museums are experimenting with non-visual sensory experiences.



Fox, E. (2018) [Speech at symposium] at Making the Case, The Whitworth, Manchester, 25 May.

Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

National Trust (2018) ‘Welcome to the sixteenth ‘scent-ury’ ‘ Little Moreton Hall. Available at: (Accessed: 26 May 2018).

Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) Article 27. Available at: (Accessed: 26 May 2018).







Curated project proposal: creative audio description

I am planning to hold an audio described event in Leeds Art Gallery in July.

I will be inviting about six writers and poets to write an audio description of one of the works in the Gallery’s permanent collection, then read it to an audience made up of of visually impaired and sighted people.



  • visually impaired people I’ve spoken to so far use audio description regularly – for TV and theatre, but little experience in gallery. One person who had experienced it thought it was marvellous
  • some recent advice about audio description, including advice from visually impaired people themselves (Cox, 2017, Partington, 2017), urges galleries to have a go at audio description, have fun and be creative, rather than worrying about getting everything perfect straight away. Kleege (2018, p. 121) goes further and urges describers to ‘abandon the pretext of objectivity’.
  • not too onerous a task for writers to create one description – I’ll draw up guidelines, and ask them to cover the basics while encouraging creativity.


  • To experiment with audio description
  • To be creative and have fun
  • To improve access to works in the gallery
  • To bring visually impaired and sighted people together
  • To show that creative audio description is of interest and engages a broad audience, not just blind and partially sighted people
  • To get people talking about art and about accessibility
  • To produce guidelines for audio describing artworks
  • To pilot a low-cost approach that could be easily replicated e.g. working in partnership with writers’ groups.

(The picture shows an audio described event at the Royal Academy).



Cox, L. (2017) ‘Creative Audio Description’ in Shape Arts Ways of Seeing Art. London: Shape Arts pp. 14-18.

Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Partington, Z. (2017) ‘Panel discussion’ at Bridging the Gaps: Exploring the link Between Art and Audio Description, 24 February. London: Tate Modern. Available at:
 (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

More Than Meets the Eye

My new favourite book for this project is More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art by Georgina Kleege (2018).The picture shows Kleege at an exhibition she recently curated (Wilson, 2018). I’ve already listed Kleege as one of the visually impaired writers, curators or artists who I’m influenced by.  The very title of Kleege’s latest book would be an apt title for my research, which investigates what assets blind and partially sighted people bring to art galleries and the appreciation of art.

In the introduction, Kleege sets out her own position:

Rather, the hope is that blind people can bring a perspective that has not been articulated before. If we abandon the notion that blindness can only diminish, damage or destroy identity, and adopt instead the idea that the experience of blindness, in all its varieties, can in fact shape and inform other facets of personality and personal history, we will move towards a more genuinely inclusive society. The integration of blind perceptions and experiences will change the foundational assumptions of the culture; change how the human condition is defined. And I believe this is the goal worth working toward. (2018, p. 13)

From this position, Kleege calls for a rethinking of the accommodations made for blind and partially sighted people in galleries. I’m particularly struck by her critique of audio description, and her call ‘to abandon the pretext of objectivity. It is impossible and beside the point’ (2018, p. 121).  I’ll pass this on to the describers in my curated event.

In tune with the blind and partially sighted people I’ve been talking to in Leeds Art Gallery, Kleege wants an end to segregated provision, such as touch tours, in galleries and museums.  Apart from the problematic nature of segregation, this needs to happen because perceiving art using non-visual senses is a way of opening up access and engagement with art and heritage for everyone, not just disabled people. And this isn’t just Kleege’s opinion, of course. I’ve already mentioned Candlin’s writing on touch that argues for recognition of touch as a way of understanding and learning, that supports intellectual enquiry (Candlin, 2010).

A final word from Kleege:

I hope that audio description can be elevated from its current status as a segregated accommodation outside the general public’s awareness and launched into the new media – a literary / interpretative form with infinite possibilities. (2018, p. 108).


Candlin, F. (2010) Art, Museums and Touch. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, E. (2018) ‘How a Blind Professor Is Helping Other Sight-Impaired Museum Visitors Experience Art’, HyperAllergic 17 January. Available at: (Accessed: 3 May 2018).

Participatory approaches to audio guides

So far, the blind and partially sighted people I’ve talked to as part of my research have been lukewarm – at best – about museum or gallery audio guides that you listen to on headphones.  While acknowledging that they can provide useful information, the main complaint is that they isolate you, you lose the social element of visiting a gallery.

Perhaps more creative audio guides might provoke discussion as well as just listening? This week I read about a participatory interpretation project at the Museum of Beirut, where local people’s voices provide the information on the audio guides:

The people spoke to and for and about these objects from the past, and, in doing so, they revealed fragments of the present. They did not attempt to disclose a particular historical narrative. Nor did they attempt to create a fiction. They did not lie and they did not try to tell the truth (Chou Hayda, 2018).

I was reminded of a participatory project in Birmingham from several years ago.  Audio interpretation was also created using a collaborative approach, this time with disabled artists. The artists developed audio guides to a number of artworks that had a disability theme. Their interpretations included a personal story or anecdote, so were not aiming to be objective.

These cover a number of key themes including stereotyping and discrimination, use of visual language (for example depicting emotions through artistic technique) and shared and personal experiences (Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, 2008).

Using people’s own thoughts or stories in audio interpretation is a way to engage visitors; it helps people to relate to the artworks or museum objects. It’s also a way to challenge dominant or historical narratives and recognises that everyone’s opinions and thoughts are valid – people bring their own knowledge into the museum (Hein, 1998).



Chou Hayda (2018) Available at: (Accessed: 22 May 2018).

Hein, G. (1998) Learning in the Museum. London: Routledge.

Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (2008) Talking About … Disability and Art. Available at: (Accessed: 22 May 2018).










Listening to what blind people say

Blind and partially sighted people are at the heart of my research – both primary and secondary.  As artist and consultant Zoe Partington (2017) said during the symposium at Ways of Seeing Art:

Make sure blind and partially sighted people are at the centre of what you do.

My primary research involves holding discussions with individual visually impaired people, whilst walking round Leeds Art Gallery. I’ll also have chance to visit a few local groups of visually impaired people.

In my secondary research of books and journal articles, plus online material, the people with the most authority and authenticity are blind and partially sighed people themselves, not surprisingly as they have the lived experience. Here are some of the academics, writers, curators and artists who have caught my attention.

Kojiro Hirose of the National Museum of Ethnology, Japan, has pioneered touch in museums. He developed ‘essential manners of touch’ (2013):

To handle objects gently
To appreciate objects unhurriedly
To have a dialogue with objects exerting your boundless imagination and creativity.

By paying attention to these three elements, museums can enhance the learning experience of all visitors.

Georgina Kleege is one of the leading scholars in the US on blindness and visual arts. Her most recent book, More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (2018) covers many aspects of blindness and visual art, including how it has been represented; the work of visually impaired artists working today; and accessibility in art galleries and museums. Her insights into audio description are particularly useful for my project.

We suggest that tactile information about works of art could add to everyone’s understanding and enjoyment (Kleege, 2018, p. 71).

Carmen Papalia: one of many exciting  blind artists practising today. His work is about accessibility in public spaces, and how we move through and perceive those spaces. Much of his work is performative or participative, encouraging people to use non-visual perception. Best of all, his work is definitely playful and often hilarious. I love Mobility Device (pictured), where he navigates along streets, his white cane replaced with a marching band, giving sound clues for obstacles.  The Touchy Subject (2013) was his provocation at The Guggenheim in New York. Participants were led round the venue by a member of staff, with their eyes closed, so they experienced the gallery with non-visual senses. Note that the gallery, rather than the artworks, was the object of these tours, therefore skirting the access versus conservation debate.

Each visitor to the museum sees and understands things differently, and brings a valuable lens to the art experience—although these perspectives are not often acknowledged as relevant ways of knowing (Papalia, 2013).

Zoe Partington is an artist and consultant with tons of experience of working with galleries and museums across the UK and around the world. She’s committed to making sure that museums and galleries offer the same standard of service to all visitors, but is practical and encouraging in her advice.

That is what I, as a disabled person, am constantly campaigning to make – interpretation that is fundamentally creative and can be integrated from the outset rather than becoming an afterthought, and which aids sighted as well as blind and partially sighted audiences (Partington, 2017, p.5).

What do these people tell us? That listening to blind and partially sighted people, and learning from them about accessing and seeing art, will benefit all visitors to the gallery.

As Georgia Krantz (2014) at the Guggenheim wrote about working with Carmen Papalia:

A teaching method that favorably serves one particular audience may well play an instrumental role in serving another. The confluence of different voices and areas of expertise in the exchange of ideas generates programmatic innovation and refinement.



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: (Accessed: 3 April 2018).

Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krantz, G. (2014) ‘How Do You See a Museum with Your Eyes Closed?’ Guggenheim. Available at: (Accessed: 17 May 2018).

Papalia, C. (2013) ‘A New Model for Access in the Museum’ Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 33 no. 3. Available at: (Accessed: 25 April 2018).

Papalia, C. (2013) Mobility Device [Performance] Santa Ana, 1 June.
Available at: (Accessed: 17 May 2018).

Partington, Z. (2017) ‘Panel discussion’ at Bridging the Gaps: Exploring the link Between Art and Audio Description, 24 February. London: Tate Modern. Available at:
(Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Partington (2017) ‘What is Audio Description?’ in Shape Arts Ways of Seeing Art. London: Shape Arts pp. 4-7.









All the feels at Sensibility Festival

‘A celebration of the senses’ (Sense, 2018) festival organised in partnership with Sense (the organisation that supports deaf-blind people) and MAC Birmingham.

A Sensory Labyrinth at Touchbase Pears, Sense’s venue, which ended in a chillout garden, really did engage all the senses, with light effects, textiles, textures, film, sounds, song, dance, movement and interestingly flavoured chocolates and jellies!

IMG_6810The “Treehouse” space at MAC was, I thought, most atmospheric.  An invigorating scent wafted you along to a soil-covered (or was it soil?) table holding several belljars, lit from below and enclosing organic objects. A large moon sang overhead – a canvas disc with a crooning face projected onto it. The whole was accessible and imaginative, designed with people with complex support needs in mind. Being at MAC as well as at Sense’s building meant it was available to a mainstream audience.  I imagine the installations would be very popular with all ages at the weekend.



Sense (2018) Sensibility Festival. Available at: (Accessed: 19 May 2018).



People are determined to touch – and tear down – this art

Residents of Carcassonne, France, have been asked not to touch the dramatic new artwork which adorns the medieval fortress there (The Local, 2018). Artist Felice Varini was invited by France’s Centre for National Monuments to create one of his optical illusions at Carcassonne.

Since it was unveiled last week, local people have been up in arms and insist that it is removed immediately. They think it has ruined the fortress and don’t want to have to look at it.

Fearing that people will take matters into their own hands, authorities have put up signs and surveillance cameras urging people not to touch or tear down the artwork, which is made of aluminium strips fixed to the fortress walls.

This is definitely not a case of respectful, gentle touching! But not the first time people have been moved to destroy a work of art.

(I think it looks amazing, btw).


The Local (2018) ‘Artist’s makeover of Carcassonne’s historic fortress angers locals’, The Local 4 May. Available at: (Accessed: 16 May 2018).

Mary Beard advocates for touching museum objects

My ears pricked up during the latest episode of Front Row Late on BBC2. During the panel debate on the role of museums in the 21st century, Mary Beard, who was chairing, made a plea for more objects to be available to be touched.

This had been sparked by Tom Shakespeare’s recounting of having an ancient tool placed in his hands by a museum worker, and how this touch gave him a profound feeling of connection to the past and the people who would have used it.  Incidentally, Tom, who is an academic and broadcaster, had already mentioned that he finds crowded museums problematic, as he’s a wheelchair user and it’s difficult to move around and to see things in crowds.

This prompted Mary Beard to say:

There are still hidden, or not so hidden, rules. And that idea of touching the past, that’s not only been taken away from us, we’ve actually bought in to the white glove phenomenon – you’re not allowed to touch the past! (Front Row Late, 2018).

Dr. Tristram Hunt, the Director of the V&A was also on the panel and responded:

Lots of museums have, quite rightly, touching areas, so that you do have this sense of physicality and a sort of haptic power. But also people who are visually impaired can also sense what it’s about.  (Front Row Late, 2018).

While that was good to hear, some writers (Candlin, 2010) and blind and partially sighted people themselves (Partington, 2017), have questioned whether, in many museums, the objects that are available to touch give visually impaired visitors equality of experience. During a panel discussion at Shape Arts’ event at Tate Exchange last year, Zoe Partington said:

If you are a blind or partially sighted person you don’t want to arrive somewhere and there are ten items you can touch and there are 44,000 pieces in the collection and every year there are the same ten pieces to touch (Partington, 2017).

The Rosetta Stone: dark irregular stone covered with lines of close spaced inscriptionsIn the programme, this was backed up by Mary Beard, who pointed out that the objects available to touch in museums are often what people would actually like to touch. In the British Museum, for example, she talked about the replica of the Rosetta Stone that you can touch, while the real thing is off-limits: ‘We all know this great big block of basalt will not be harmed by millions of people giving it a pat!’

Hunt, however, came back ‘on the side of the conservators’, worrying about ‘jammy fingers touching the Rosetta Stone!’ He reminded us of museums’ obligation to preserve objects for future generations.

Interestingly, Candlin (2004) quotes a story told at a seminar, from the British Museum. When they cleaned the Rosetta Stone, they discovered that an earlier curator had painted the inscriptions on the stone in white ink. While there was also dirt present from the stone being handled, both ink and dirt were removed by cleaning, leaving no damage.  However, the dirt was seen as more problematic than using white ink on the stone, an example of how a line is drawn between appropriate (curators’) and inappropriate (the public’s) touch. Hunt’s horror at the idea of ‘jammy fingers’ reveals what he thinks about the public being allowed to touch museum objects, and reflects 19th century ideas about the dangers of allowing the working classes into museums (Bennett, 1995). How refreshing that renowned historian Mary Beard challenges this idea and understands the value that people would gain from ‘giving it a pat’.


Bennett, T. (1995) The Birth of the Museum. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

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

Candlin, F. (2004) ‘Don’t Touch! Hands off! Art, blindness and the conservation of expertise’. London: Birkbeck ePrints. Available at:

Front Row Late (2018) BBC2, 4 May. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2018).

Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Thinking about audio description

An earlier post mentioned how I’d been turned on to audio description. Of course it’s an area of interest, but reading more about how it is developing in terms of art has got me hooked. Audio description i.e. spoken description, either recorded or live, of visual images or objects, is well established in theatre, cinema and television (although not universally available). Now it is developing in terms of visual arts and sculpture.

Blind and partially sighted people I’ve spoken to so far haven’t experienced audio description in a gallery or museum, but regularly use it when watching television, or at the theatre.

People are dotted about in a bright exhibition gallery. On the left is a bright sculpture comprising 4 walking frames on a round turntable. In the centre a white display board with text and images.
Exhibition at Shape Arts & Tate Exchange Ways of Seeing Art event, 2017

Ways of Seeing Art booklet coverThere are some great resources, written (Shape Arts, 2017; Fisher, 2017) and online (Partington, 2013; Sensing Culture, 2018; Shape Arts, 2017). I particularly like the videos that Partington produced for the RNIB’s Opening Up Creative Culture project (2013) and the booklet Shape published, Ways of Seeing Art (2017) after their workshop series at Tate Exchanges, under the same title.


Some key messages I’ve picked up:

  • Have a go, don’t worry about getting it right first time
  • Collaborate
  • Involve blind and partially sighted people
  • State the obvious
  • Describe the impact of the artwork, the wow factor
  • Have fun, be creative!

Zoe Partington‘s name keeps cropping up. She’s a consultant and artist who’s done loads of work with museums around the UK and the world, and is brilliant! I’ll contact her next.

Meanwhile, I’m mulling over how I might use this new learning …



Clarke, J. (2007) ‘Standard Techniques in Audio Description’, Joe Clark: Accessibility, Design, Writing. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2018).

Cox, L. (2017) ‘Creative Audio Description’ in Shape Arts Ways of Seeing Art: Exploring the Links Between Art and Audio Description. London: Shape Arts pp. 14-18.

Giansante, L. (no date) ‘Writing Verbal Descriptions for Audio Guides’ Art Beyond Sight. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 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: (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Sensing Culture (2018) Audio Description. Available at: (Accessed: 30 June 2018).

Shape Arts and Tate Exchange (2017) [Workshop series] Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: (Accessed: 27 April 2018).

Shape Arts (2017) Ways of Seeing Art: Exploring the Links Between Art and Audio Description. London: Shape Arts. Available at: (Accessed: 10 May 2018).