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).


“There’s nothing like a low tech interaction”

What a huge treat and privilege to learn from US curator Ileen Gallagher‘s vast experience in our session on 2 Nov, followed by a lecture to a wider audience.

My notes from her workshop to our course group are below, this is a long post as I wanted to capture the mini handbook that Ileen gave us, as well as a bit of background.

ExhibitionismYou may not know her name because most of her work is in the US, and, as she says, “I don’t think of curators as the stars. It’s about the work.” But notably, she worked with the Rolling Stones to curate Exhibitionism (2016) at the Saatchi Gallery, an exhibition not just about their history, but about the band’s effects on culture.


I was also struck with Gallagher’s extensive use of the first person in interpretation, so in Exhibitionism you hear / read the voices of the Stones and people who knew them. This gives the audience an impression of getting special insights, information that they wouldn’t get elsewhere, and is a great way to connect. Art exhibitions (rather than pop culture) tend to be third person, which can act as an intermediary, distancing the audience from the exhibits. It’s like “the voice of god” imparting expert knowledge!

HarleyAlso that she was a fan of the low tech interaction, to engage an audience, such as temporary tattoos at the Harley exhibition, which were hugely popular, especially amongst tattooed bikers!

The exhibition, unlike the cinema or theatre, is a place for people to connect and discuss. Hi tech gadgets and digital can get in the way of that, if not designed carefully. Although not a fan of headsets, Gallagher acknowledged their huge popularity.

Ileen was good enough to give us some down to earth advice about our collaborative project, reminding us to think of the audience and what is unique about our exhibition.

I’ll definitely look out for her work in future.


Gallagher started in arts museums, now popular culture.
Now freelance.

Harley11st client Harley Davidson. Travelling exhibition to celebrate 100 year anniversary, 2003. Went to raceways, festivals. Used mostly off the shelf tents (marquees) that could be hired everywhere.

Four thematic areas.

“There’s nothing like a low tech interaction” in an exhibition
Harley now have a museum.

Aesthetic experience because Harley prides themselves on this, as well as bikes.

Worked with Disney family on a museum about Walt Disney, the man, in San Francisco. Imp that voice of exhibition was directly from Walt or people who worked with him. No intermediary voice, “voice of god” telling you things.

Exhibitionism entranceExhibitionism about the history of the Rolling Stones.
Aimed to show their impact on popular culture e.g. film, fashion. They e always been involved in the zeitgeist of the arts.

Exhibition organised thematically.
Exhibitionism outfits scarvesMannequins had rock & roll poses, developed for rock and roll hall of fame. Steven Jones, the milliner, made head pieces for the mannequins, faces printed on fabric. Evocative of David Bailey album cover photo with scarves.

Challenge where nothing 3-dimensional to show eg Monterey Pop exhibition. Large screens and panels, furnishings etc to compensate.

What makes a good exhibition?
  • Recreation of Rolling Stones first flat at Edith Grove
    Recreation of Rolling Stones first flat at Edith Grove

    Physically, emotionally and /or intellectually engaging, preferably all 3. Plus visually appealing.

  • Adds to scholarship, innovative, newinsight, presents something new.
  • Creates and maximises 3D environment
  • Creates interaction between people, real objects, phenomena and ideas. People are looking at it from all different angles, perspectives. Can talk to each other about it (unlike cinema)

As curator, how do you facilitate this?

  • Good exhibition design and content development
  • Contact with real objects
  • Beginning, middle and end.
  • Sense of drama, high and low moments
  • Entertaining
  • Content is respected
  • Ideas are supported by objects and objects by ideas.
  • Objects without context have no meaning
Fundamental understanding of audiences

Exhibitionism2Who is your audience?

What do they bring to the exhibition and why do they come?


A knowledge of different learning styles.

Know your subject and organise the content


Core attributes and values

What do you want to be the takeaway from the exhibition? What is the one (or more) facts / experiences that you want them to remember


Content organisation. Only really two ways of organising content: thematic or chronological.

Chapters or acts. Divide up subject matter

Who is the voice of the exhibition? If possible, first person. Engages audience, makes them feel they are getting special insights.

Exhibition design phases

1. Concept

  • Research and content immersion
  • Project goals: scholarship, new insights, new point of view?
  • Practical things, parameters: size, budget
  • Title – nail down asap

2. Schematic

  • Content organisation and space allocation
  • Focal objects and big ideas
  • Traffic pattern and flow
  • Space plan and circulation
  • Quantify audio visual and interactive
  • Assess conservation and security requirements
  • Connect the content to the design strategies
    “The best exhibitits truly integrate content and design”

    3. Design development

  • Complete object lists and all objects placed
  • Test big ideas and prototypes
  • Audio visual rough cuts. 2 minute rule for standing and watching something.
  • Implement conservation and security
  • Colour and material selection
  • Audio visual hardware selection. Don’t just plonk a monitor on a wall.

4. Construction documentation

5. Construction fabrication

Mount making

Build audio visual, interactive

6. Installation

Sequencing is key

7. Evaluation and assessment

What modifications can be made to enhance the experience?

Exhibitionism outfits

References and links

Exhibitionism (2016) [Exhibition]. Saatchi Gallery, London. 3 April – 4 September 2016.

Harley Davidson Museum , Milwaukee

ISG Productions

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (pictured below), Cleveland Ohio



A deconstructed poem

Three square tables lined up evenly against a wall are covered in notebooks, bits of paper, coffee cups
Our curated poems

A writing exercise with lecturer Petra McCarthy last week (19 Oct) shifted my thinking. It was fun too.

We were given a chart with lots of random and intriguing words and phrases. The task was to write a poem using at least 35 of them. You could add extra words or phrases, but no wore than 20 (“choose wisely!” read the instruction). I only added about half a dozen extra words, in in case you’re wondering.



This is my poem:

Jon Bon Jovi
won a Tony
for his Food Network adaptation
of Rock the Casbah.

It was crafted with painstaking precision.
It was a tradition for him to lower his voice, stop
and then begin to yodel.

Shovelling penne with vodka or another load of stew, this nervous longshoreman of the heathen laughed his way to Vermont.

“Please, cancel my subscription to the Food Network.
There’s too much oregano in my marinara and the snack of roast dough is a joke!”

“Hey, lose the attitude, love. So much of what we do changes route.”

We swept the leaves in Roanoke, VA.
Then crossed asbestos shovels in Vermont.
We’ll rendezvous with a dizzy and misshapen Jon Bon Jovi there.


I didn’t expect to enjoy doing this or to find it useful. But I learned how you can create mood very effectively by putting unexpected words together. My writing is often straightforward, lacks flair – and I’m a spelling and grammar pedant. I’m good at writing committee reports but not so good at writing creatively. Listening to my colleagues’ poems, I think mine was the closest to attempting a narrative, I’d tried to create a sort of storyline. Whereas others had been much more effective at evoking atmosphere, whether wistful or ominous!

I’ll need a bit more practice at this, perhaps I just need to throw more unexpected phrases into the mix.



M&S Company Archive

Our MA group visited the Marks & Spencer Company archive on the first week of taught sessions. Like many archives, a lot of people I’ve mentioned it to have never heard of it. But the archives are open to the public and there’s a good sized, beautifully presented,  exhibition of fashion, marketing material, packaging and other goods through the M&S ages. This is just the sort of thing many people like to look back on and remember – indeed, the archive has done some brilliant reminiscence work with people with dementia, using items from the collection. I particularly liked the uniforms worn by sales assistants across the 20th century, which started out looking like the staff were in service or nursing, moving on to synthetic overalls of the 1970s.

Archivists at M&S gave us an overview of the collection, and some general info about archives which, while perhaps basic, was helpful to an inexperienced researcher like me: archives are not libraries! you can’t just turn up and browse; know what you’re looking for – do some research in advance and check the protocol for the archive you’re visiting.

E8C445FF-4F22-49DC-9FAF-EB5A3A17B64DFinally, a bit of object handling, packing away a range of swimwear from the last quarter of the 20th century. This brought into focus one of the essences of archiving and indeed curating, as objects magically change their status and take on new meanings. The functional and used / worn swimming costume becomes an item of historic, social, aesthetic and technical interest. From rubbing up alongside other clothes in a chest of drawers at home, once in the archive preservation is paramount, and the item is treated accordingly, padded and wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and stored in sturdy archive boxes or tyvek (breathable yet protective) wrappings at a low temperature.

According to the M&S archivists, this treatment amazes some of the people who donate items because few people take such care of their clothes at home. It would be interesting to talk to some of the people who donate to find out why they do it and what value they think their items will have in a collection.

I’ve been to this archive a few times and I’ve been struck with the contrast between my memories and impressions of M&S clothes while growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, to how they strike me now. Seeing the garments now, they look completely of their time and so typical of the fashions then. But growing up, I wouldn’t be seen dead in St Michael’s brand fashions, because they weren’t seen as fashions at all. Rather they seemed somehow diluted versions of current trends, filtered through the sensible tastes of adults.