I became the first graduate of MA Curation Practices, Leeds Arts University, on 29 November 2018. And so far I am the only graduate. I’m the pioneer!
Photos: Hamish Irvine
Last week the current (and previous, i.e. me) MA Curation Practices students took the new intake of MA students – curators and creative practitioners – on an art walk in Leeds city centre.
I invited people to experience a public sculpture through touch rather than just by sight, considering what we can learn of a sculpture by doing this: material, temperature, technique, weight etc. And this elicited a discussion on who is allowed to touch in galleries and museums, and whether this needs reviewing.
It was a bit of fun with a serious undercurrent. The sculpture in question is The Boules Player by Roger Burnett on Bond Court. It was the only public sculpture that I found that was at a level so you could touch the whole thing. Other public sculptures tend to be on high plinths so you can only reach the base, if that.
|Aims||Were these met?||Improvements / actions|
|To “have a go” at audio description||Experimental approach – inviting writers||Involve more visually impaired writers|
|To be creative and have fun||Creative writers
Participants and writers said it was “enjoyable”, “fun”, “brilliant” etc
|Several descriptions the same artworks to give different viewpoints|
|To improve access to works in the gallery||“They made the paintings come alive and it was a great way to describe the art to the visually impaired.”||BSL interpretation for further layers of accessibility|
|To bring visually impaired and sighted people together||Yes. Good balance, with only slightly more sighted people
Informal, friendly atmosphere
“I could feel a real sense of community among us all, writers and audience. Like we were on a bit of an adventure…”
|Ensure sighted people don’t dominate discussions through facilitation.
Manage numbers through invitations or through timetabling the event differently (fewer descriptions / longer event / drop-in / descriptions running concurrently etc).
|To show that creative audio description is of interest and engages a broad audience||Yes – responses and engagement of visually impaired and sighted people||Consider making it a public event
(but aim for balance as above)
|To get people talking about art and about accessibility||Yes – as above
“There is a curious tension between writing about art and writing/performing for access which has got me thinking”
|Use social media to amplify discussion|
|To produce guidelines for audio describing artworks
|Writers found these useful and had clearly referred to them||https://sortitout24.wordpress.com/
|To pilot a low-cost approach that could be easily replicated||Yes – focus was on delivering live event, as research participants valued presence of people in the gallery more than technology||An exercise for local writers’ groups e.g. libraries’ writing groups.
Low cost meant that high quality recordings were out of scope
And a Presentation Gill Crawshaw gc269357 LAUMACUP705 (pdf 1.07 MB) given to the MA Curation Practices cohort at our end of year symposium at Tate Liverpool.
Brian Lewis, Eleanor Snare, Emma Bolland (2018), Matthew Bellwood, Peadar O’Dea and Terry Simpson were the writers who rose to the challenge of creating and reading a description for my event on 19 July. Their varied styles and approaches to the task resulted in a wonderful selection of descriptions. They engaged the audience’s emotions and intellect with witty, clever and moving readings, which included stories, a letter and a poem. Writers not only described the artworks, but included political and historical context, information about the artist’s life and work, and their own interpretations.
The artworks that the writers chose to describe were:
Brian Lewis’s detailed examination of an abstract work showed how much was represented in this painting of the pulling down a furniture store in London: Maples Demolition, Euston Road. Through the context of the artist’s body of work and the post-war period, we discovered how the layering of thickly applied oil paint reflected the subject matter and the period. Brian’s use of directional navigation to guide us round the picture was appropriate and effective. The tactile qualities of this work were not lost on us, even though we were unable to touch.
Meanwhile, Matthew Bellwood told a fascinating tale of Botany Bay and its links to Leeds. A contemporary work in neon, quite minimal and stark, the layers of The Remains were revealed through research – into the artist’s other work and previous exhibitions, the woollen trade and industry of Leeds, the meaning of words and names, Captain Cook’s voyages, and the erasing of Aboriginal culture in Australia. A complex description arose from a deceptively simple installation. We made discoveries of our own, centuries after Discovery sailed.
In the same gallery, showing contemporary works in the collection, Emma Bolland found her route in to her description of Movie through the letter form. This set up a conceptual dialogue with the visitor. Her description was an interrogation of what it means to see or to look at things differently, for gallery visitors to have different perceptions of artworks – from the artist, from other visitors and from curators. In addition, the bright daylight in the gallery all but obscured the moving image element of this installation, a fact that Emma wove in to her description, musing on what is and isn’t visible.
Peadar O’Dea, with his story of an agnostic Mother Superior, challenged by a novice in The Convent Garden, had introduced disabled characters, “… because I just like to write about disabled characters. I thought: Why not?” And why not introduce a fleeting bluebird, if it improves the plot? Playing around with timelines and describing the poses of the characters “as if caught in a painting” was inventive, introducing humour and playfulness. The painting was originally created to prompt viewers to make up stories. The stories we tell today may be very different from those imagined by the artist.
One of the research participants had suggested that poetry is a good way to bring paintings to life. That was certainly the case with Eleanor Snare’s poem which accompanied The Bridesmaid. She wrote from the point of view of a messenger boy who appears in the foreground of the painting, chosen because he is the nearest person to the audience. Her beautiful poem described the scene with longing and wonder. This proved that a good description need not include every last detail in a picture – that would be boring and difficult to follow. Instead, Eleanor cleverly revealed key details through the observations of the boy.
Terry Simpson chose the mammoth Victorian painting Retribution. Such a significant and well-known (loved?) presence in the gallery seemed an appropriate ending to the event. It’s certainly a controversial picture, painted at the height of the British Empire.
Heroic Britannia is
shown exacting revenge on the Indian tiger. The painting in fact represents a shameful series of events provoked by Britain’s savage treatment of the people of India. Terry was able to put this into context and give a contemporary interpretation. Conflicting feelings arose from this work: condemning the injustice of empire while admiring the representation of a strong woman, “A Victorian super-heroine”.
In the discussions that followed the readings, participants were enthusiastic about the descriptions, which they felt had been effective in bringing the artworks to life and awakening the imagination. People picked out phrases or sentences that they particularly liked, or styles that they felt were evocative of a mood, scenario or historic period. Reading the drafts of the descriptions before the event, I had been impressed with the high quality of the descriptions, as well as the varied styles.
Armitage, E. (1858) Retribution [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.
Auerbach, F. (1960) Maples Demolition, Euston Road [Oil on board]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.
Bolland, E. (2018) ‘Silvery, Silvery’ Emma Bolland – Artist, writer, 3 August.Available at: https://emmabolland.com/2018/08/03/silvery-silvery/ (Accessed: 3 August 2018).
Lloyd, H. (2015) Movie [Digital film with sound, fan and fabric]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.
Palmer, R. (2007) The Remains [Neon]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.
Tissot, J.J. (1883 – 85) The Bridesmaid [Oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.
Walker, F.S. (1878) The Convent Garden [oil on canvas]. Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds.
How interesting that Tate Modern is encouraging ‘slow looking’ at the current Bonnard exhibition (Brown, 2018). The show’s curator is quoted as saying that the paintings “reward very close and extended scrutiny”.
This is consistent with the findings of my research, that what suits blind and partially sighted people is good for everyone. The Tate is showing that close examination of works is a rewarding experience that reveals details of artworks gradually.
At the audio description event at Leeds Art Gallery last week, there were several comments by sighted people who realised that you didn’t need to take in a whole picture at once. In fact, if you did you were likely to miss many of the details and features. The descriptions that were read out pointed out some of the details that people might have missed and supported a longer, closer look at the artworks.
Leeds Art Gallery had given me permission to move the barriers in front of the particular works we were viewing, so that partially sighted people could get closer to the art to better appreciate the detail. This is something that other participants took advantage of as well.
The Tate is also making their labels larger, so that people don’t have to break off their viewing to peer at them. Again, this is something that will benefit visually impaired people.
Brown, M. (2018) ‘Tate recommends ‘slow looking’ at major Pierre Bonnard exhibition’, The Guardian 23 July. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/jul/23/tate-modern-slow-looking-pierre-bonnard-exhibition-2019 (Accessed: 25 July 2018).
I’ve been writing a couple of reports about last week’s audio description event – one as a reflection and record, to be shared with interested people as well as being an appendix to my dissertation: An adventure in audio description report (pdf 1.22MB). Another for the university website (see https://www.leeds-art.ac.uk/news-events/news/an-adventure-in-audio-description/). Below is an article before severe editing – and a few more photos.
Twenty five people, a mix of visually impaired and sighted people, met at Leeds Art Gallery last week to explore the possibilities of audio description in the gallery. I invited them as part of my final MA project. I have been researching the experiences of blind and partially sighted gallery visitors, talking to visually impaired people about their connections to and appreciation of artworks in the gallery. This research informed the curatorial event: an experiment with live audio description.
The research participants had shared their experiences – positive and negative – of previous gallery visits and suggested ways that their enjoyment of art could be enhanced. Engaging all the senses, particularly hearing and touch, was important.
What was valued highly, and made gallery visits memorable for all participants, was having staff available to talk to, who could explain and answer questions, and who could guide them to artworks of interest. Pre-recorded audio guides can be useful, but they don’t match the responsiveness and enthusiasm that a worker or volunteer in the gallery can provide.
Blind and partially sighted people would not be the only people to benefit from being able to hear explanations or descriptions of artworks, or being able to touch objects. Participants agreed that these should be available to all gallery visitors and would improve everyone’s experience.
While participants were familiar with audio description in the theatre or on television, nobody had come across it in an art gallery. Audio description relates key visual elements of a scene. In film, theatre or TV it aims to be as objective as possible. Describing art, on the other hand, offers opportunities for innovation and creativity. With this in mind, I invited six writers, including artists, poets and storytellers, to produce a description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection, and to read it out at the event, to an audience comprising visually impaired and sighted people.
Brian Lewis, Eleanor Snare, Emma Bolland, Matthew Bellwood (pictured above describing Roger Palmer’s The Remains), Peadar O’Dea and Terry Simpson were the writers who rose to the occasion. Their varied styles and approaches to the task resulted in a wonderful selection of descriptions. They engaged the audience’s emotions and intellect with witty, clever and moving readings, which included stories, a letter and a poem. Writers not only described the artworks, but included political and historical context, information about the artist’s life and work, and their own interpretations.
In the discussions that followed, participants were enthusiastic about the descriptions, which they felt had been effective in bringing the artworks to life and awakening the imagination. The event showed that improving accessibility can be creative and can benefit everyone. But, more than anything, it had encouraged everyone to look more closely, to notice more detail and to make deeper connections with art.
Many thanks to Leeds Art Gallery for supporting this event.
My report of the event: An adventure in audio description report (pdf 1.22MB).
The story tellers made the paintings come alive and was a great way to describe the art to the visually impaired (participant at event).
This was the “instance of curatorial practice” I organised as part of the MA Curation practices. An experiment with audio description: I invited six writers to create an audio description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery and to read it out to an invited audience made up of blind and partially sighted, and sighted, people.
The planning paid off, it was a good event, largely thanks to the wonderful descriptions that the writers had produced. The works they covered:
I’d made a few last minute changes to my plans, because I got wind that a few extra people, as well as those invited, were going to turn up. While it was exciting that a lot of people were interested in the event, extra bodies posed some logistical issues. I decided to split the group into two. Each group would hear three descriptions each rather than all six. This worked OK with careful timetabling and by drafting in a friend to help out. The added bonus of this approach meant there was more time for questions, discussion and taking a close look at the artwork.
The descriptions, which included a poem, stories, a letter to the viewer, historical contexts and personal viewpoints, were all brilliant, from their different approaches. There were appreciative comments from participants and writers and everyone seemed to enjoy the event. The descriptions were effective in bringing artworks in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection to life, and in getting everyone there to look more closely at the art.
I’m gathering more feedback and will do a proper evaluation of the event. For now, here are some photos.
Huge thanks to all the writers and to Leeds Art Gallery for letting me hold the event there, and to education officer Amanda Phillips for her support.
Emma Bolland: https://soundcloud.com/emmabolland/silvery-silvery
My research for my dissertation has been completed, but I didn’t want to pass up meeting another interesting person! Having spoken to Linda at length on the phone back in April, I knew she would be worth chatting to. However, due to studying for a diploma, she wasn’t available till early July.
Linda is a keen traveller, has visited many museums around the world and has been in many roles representing visually impaired people, including for the RNIB, which is how I made contact. She told me about a lot of museums and places of interest where she had had an interesting and rewarding experience, for example:
Top marks went to the Yorkshire Museum (pictured, with map behind the statue), due to the approach of the staff.
“I would’ve happily gone to Yorkshire Museum on my own, the staff were so good”.
“There was a map of the Roman Empire on the floor, he [staff member] moved my cane round the map. He loved his subject. If I hadn’t seen anything else that day, it would have been worth it.”
Of a visit to a different museum, she said,
“It was a fabulous experience. She took the time. What you need is time. people aren’t always willing to give up their time for you. That’s what we need, more than most.”
When we arranged to meet, I suggested to Linda that I could summarise my research findings to get her perspective, rather than talking in the art gallery, which proved useful. I found her comments on touch particularly wise:
“There’s an assumption that we are clumsy and likely to drop things, but that’s just not true. We are really careful, we have to be, it’s our way of life. Blind people are much better at manipulating objects and getting around than people think we are.”
In my research, I aimed to identify assets that visually impaired people bring to curation within the gallery space. I therefore took an asset based approach to the research, within the framework of the social model of disability. The starting point of this approach recognises that visually impaired visitors to the gallery have strengths or assets to bring. Tapping into these strengths could offer curators and galleries opportunities to innovate and to improve the experiences of visually impaired people along with other visitors.
This approach has been (heavily) adapted from a type of place-based community development, known as ABCD or asset based community development (Nurture Development, 2017), but in this case applied to the community of people with visual impairments. When realised fully, ABCD provides a structure for local communities to come together to identify, link up and use the assets that they have, categorised as: individuals’ capabilities; local associations; neighbourhood institutions; physical assets; exchange between members. The task of development workers, community leaders, connectors and activists is to support this to happen in order that those communities can draw on their own strengths to solve problems they face (McKnight, 2016). The essence and spirit of ABCD, of drawing on communities’ strengths, was a useful tool which informed my research.
Asset based approaches do not ignore or deny barriers and inequalities that communities face. But by focusing on strengths, communities can tackle these barriers more effectively. While the social model of disability has a focus on barriers, accessibility and discrimination, an asset based approach enables attention to also be given to disabled people’s capabilities. Although I took care not to describe blind and partially sighted people as somehow “special” or having unusual powers. Rather people’s lived experiences can be valuable assets in curation.
In his research into blind people’s experiences in art museums, Hayhoe writes that ‘We are now on the edge of a new form of the post-deficit model of blindness’ (2017, p.43) . This idea is important if galleries and museums are to move away from thinking of visual impairment as being purely about deficiency or loss, as Candlin claims they often do:
… disability was understood 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 (Candlin, 2010, p. 124).
Going beyond the ‘post-deficit model’ that Hayhoe identifies, an asset based approach offers one way of better understanding, valuing and including the experience of visually impaired people in galleries and museums.
Finally, the very title of Georgina Kleege’s book More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art (2018) tells us that visually impaired people can indeed enrich art. She calls for a reassessment of blindness in relation to wider society and culture:
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. (Kleege, 2018, p. 13).
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.
Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
McKnight, J. (2016) ‘ABCD: Origin and Essence’ Nurture Development. Available at: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/blog/abcd-origin-essence-john-mcknight/ (Accessed: 13 June 2018).
Nurture Development (2017) About Asset Based Community Development. Available at: http://www.nurturedevelopment.org/about-abcd/ (Accessed: 14 March 2018).
An excellent website from Sensing Culture, the RNIB-led partnership with a number of museums and heritage sites aiming to open up heritage and culture to blind and partially sighted people.
I’ve posted about this project before on the blog, and cited them in my research – which I shall now have to update to reflect this new website! Seriously, I’m pleased this website has launched while I’m still doing this project, this is a useful resource, not overwhelming, with sound advice and interesting case studies.
I’ve added it to my dissertation appendix which lists guidance for galleries and museums, to support them to make their services more accessible for blind and partially sighted people (see appendix below).
Ambrose, T. and Paine, C. (2012) Museum Basics. London and New York: Routledge. 3rd edition.
Art Beyond Sight (no date) Available at: https://artbeyondsight.wordpress.com/ (Accessed: 30 June 2018).
Chick, A. (2017) ‘Co-creating an Accessible, Multisensory Exhibition with the National Centre for Craft & Design and Blind and Partially Sighted Participants’ In: REDO: 2017 Cumulus International Conference, 30 May – 2 June 2017, Kolding Design School, Kolding Denmark.
Ginley, B. (2013) ‘Museums: A Whole New World for Visually Impaired People’ Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 3 no. 33.
Available at: http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3761/3276 (Accessed: 25 April 2018).
Museums Association (no date) ‘Access: visually impaired visitors’ Museum Practice. Available at: https://www.museumsassociation.org/museum-practice/access-visually-impaired-visitors (Accessed: 25 April 2018).
National Museums of Scotland (2002) Exhibitions for All: A practical guide to designing inclusive exhibitions. Edinburgh: NMS Publishing Ltd.
Partington, Z. (2013) ‘Opening Up Creative Culture’ [Video series] Youtube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCnviddUNHn5ynIPAXO6x5EQ (Accessed: 27 April 2018).
Sensing Culture (2018) http://www.sensingculture.org.uk/ (Accessed: 30 June 2018).
Shape Arts (2017) Ways of Seeing Art: Exploring the Link Between Art and Audio Description. London: Shape Arts.
Shape Arts (2018) How to put on an accessible exhibition. Available at: https://www.shapearts.org.uk/News/accessible-curating (Accessed: 15 May 2018).
Unlimited Impact (2016) Creating Accessible Events: Top tips for making your event more inclusive for visually impaired people. London: Unlimited. Available at https://www.weareunlimited.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Unlimited-Impact.-Creating-Accessible-Events.-AD-TopTips.pdf (Accessed: 15 May 2018).
Vocaleyes (2016) Museum Access Information Guidelines 2016. London: Vocaleyes.