Slow looking

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.

In an art gallery a man is moving one of the stands of a low flexible barrier in front of a large painting
Terry Simpson moves a barrier, ahead of describing Edward Armitage’s Retribution

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: (Accessed: 25 July 2018).

Looking closely: audio description event, Leeds Art Gallery 19.7.18

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.

Four people stand in front of a large abstract painting
Discussing Frank Auerbach’s painting with Brian Lewis

The planning paid off, it was a good event, largely thanks to the wonderful descriptions that the writers had produced. The works they covered:

  • Brian Lewis – Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960) by Frank Auerbach
  • Matthew Bellwood – The Remains (2007) by Roger Palmer
  • Emma Bolland – Movie (2015) by Hilary Lloyd
  • Peadar O’Dea – The Convent Garden (1878) by Francis S. Walker
  • Elly Snare – The Bridesmaid (1883-85) by James Tissot
  • Terry Simpson – Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage.
Terry Simpson prepares to describe Edward Armitage’s Retribution
Poet Elly Snare mid flow, bringing Tissot’s The Bridesmaid to life

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.

Five people stand round in a bright art gallery, listening to a woman reading
Emma Bolland reads her text about Movie by Hilary Lloyd

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.

Links to audio recordings

Emma Bolland:

Peadar O’Dea:

Eleanor Snare:

Terry Simpson:




Touch tour as part of RCA degree show

It was great to read about the touch tour that the Royal College of Art students union has organised. The touch tour is of selected works from the textiles end of year show on 27 June and is already fully booked. Maybe this could be replicated in Leeds in future?

Here’s the information about the event:

As part of the Royal College of Art Degree Show the Students’ Union invites you to a touch tour of works by graduating Textiles students. This tour is an opportunity for visually impaired visitors to experience the work of up and coming textile artists designers through the sensation of touch. The makers will be on hand to provide short presentations on their practice and audio describe the works.

Please feel free to call or email Benji on 02075904211 / with any access questions. Guests may bring a support worker / access assistant with no need to order a ticket.


  • Alice Blackstock
  • Phoebe Corker-Marin
  • Marika Grasso
  • Renfei Huang
  • Andrew G Illman
  • Domenica Gabriela Landin Burbano
  • Orla Lawn
  • Carley Mullally
  • Annie Richardson
  • Ruby Smith
  • Maria Francisca Vidal Vergara.

Touching natural history

At Oxford University’s Natural History Museum there are all sorts of objects you can get your hands on, including real ancient trees, rocks and fossils, bears, badgers and other animals. Plus the Touching Evolution display which has objects, tactile models, raised relief drawings and Braille.


These exhibits were in prominent positions, part of the general displays, available to everyone top experience. It was good to see all ages, including teenagers, engaging with the exhibits.

I now know that I’m uneasy stroking or touching taxidermy animals. The brown bear and badger were too realistic for me.

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).










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).



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).

Sensing Culture conference

How incredibly timely that the Sensing Culture project had a conference to present their findings this week (Lucas, 2018). Sensing Culture is a Heritage Lottery Fund funded project working with blind and partially sighted people to open up heritage at museums, landmarks, archives and collections. The project aimed to increase the independence of blind and partially sighted visitors, professionals, artists, and volunteers by training staff and volunteers at the partner heritage sites and implementing practical solutions. In support of this, interaction at these sites has been increased and meaningful learning experiences created by using technology, audio description and tactile panels.

Sensing Culture has been led by the Royal National Institute of the Blind and delivered by several heritage organisations in the south of England.

Dr Simon Hayhoe was keynote speaker, giving a taste of his recent book (2017) (covered earlier on this blog) so I won’t include much more here. One question at the end referenced Hayhoe’s research, which questions the assumption that blind people can’t understand visual art. When asked whether he thinks that blind people themselves hold this belief, Hayhoe agreed – but only because they have been taught and brought up to believe this.

His suggestions for improving this situation:

  • introduce blind and partially sighted children / adults to galleries and museums as soon as possible
  • don’t be afraid of using visual imagery in your language
  • proximity to artworks is important, it gives people a sense of ownership and connection.


I was particularly impressed with the approach of Oxford University Museums, who didn’t have an end product in mind at the beginning of this project, but wanted to engender cultural change and improve engagement (Griffiths, 2018). Attendance at their touch tours has tripled.

Five hands are shown in a circle, each flat over a table, showing a different museum object

They have put a lot of effort into training of all staff, including volunteers, at all their sites. They have also been experimenting with 3D printing (Suess, 2016) – not to produce replica objects, but as interpretation tools. As an alternative, they have also using swell paper to make raised line images, and have bought their own machine (Sensing Culture Oxford, 2017).

Audio description is being embedded in all their mainstream tours rather than being restricted to separate tours for blind and partially sighted people, which is a fantastic, inclusive approach.

Coincidentally, I’ll be in Oxford at the end of the month so I’ll definitely take a look at the Sensing Evolution exhibit at the Museum of Natural History, plus other museums’ facilities.

From focus groups of blind and partially sighted people at both Oxford and Lewes Castle, one of the other Sensing Culture partners, what came across strongly was that people wanted to have a person to talk to them and show them round. In Oxford, people were asked to recall their best museum visit and would invariably talk about being shown round by someone who had time for them.

Once again, the message is: you can’t beat human interaction.


Griffiths, S. (2018) ‘Our journey’ [Presentation] Sensing Culture Conference, 1 May. London.

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

Hayhoe, S. (2018) ‘Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums’ [Presentation] Sensing Culture Conference, 1 May. London.

Lucas, A. (2018) Sensing Culture Project Evaluation Summary.  London: RNIB.

Sensing Culture Oxford (2017) ‘A Swell New Purchase’. Available at:
(Accessed: 4 May 2018).

Suess, J. (2016) ‘Improving Access for Visually-Impaired Visitors’ Oxford University Museums Partnership, 4 August 2016. Available at: (Accessed: 30 March 2018).


Sensing Culture Conference programme 1 May 2018 (Word, 17KB)