Public sculpture touch tour

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.

The writers and their chosen artworks

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:

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

IMG_7227Brian 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.

DSC00595Meanwhile, 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.

EmmaIn 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.

PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-38Peadar 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.

An art gallery with Victorian pictures on dark red walls. Several people stand around

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 PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-46

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.

 

References

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.

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.
PHOTO-2018-07-19-17-43-46
Terry Simpson prepares to describe Edward Armitage’s Retribution
IMG_7234
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: https://soundcloud.com/emmabolland/silvery-silvery

Peadar O’Dea: https://soundcloud.com/gill-crawshaw/peadar-odea-reads-the-convent-garden/s-QOPGR

Eleanor Snare: https://soundcloud.com/gill-crawshaw/eleanor-snare-reads-poem-the-bridesmaid/s-YY7JX

Terry Simpson: https://soundcloud.com/gill-crawshaw/terry-simpson-describes-retribution/s-mCXe4

 

 

 

Sensing Culture website

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).

 

Appendix: Guidance for galleries and museums

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.

 

 

 

Heritage Lottery Fund access chat

A few useful snippets from the HLF’s recent ‘disability inclusion and access’ live online chat last month (Freeborn, 2018). Pertinent to my research:

  • [Accessibility] It’s about making places usable and welcoming for everyone, regardless of age, ability, and circumstance
  • It’s as much about people and relationships (and a will to try!!) as it is about resources, policies, processes and infrastructure
  • Listening to the experiences of disabled people, and making changes together in achieving best inclusive and accessible practices
  • Listening to colleagues and audiences to identify and remove barriers which may stop people completing tasks they want to achieve
  • It’s about making sure everyone has an equally high-quality experience
  • Accessibility means everyone can have the same opportunities as others.

Some tips around accessibility for blind and partially-sighted people:

  • 3D-printed handling objects
  • Large-print photographs
  • Conversations with specialists
  • Audio description of visual works
  • Tactile imagery.

More info, including links to resources, on HLF’s website.

Reference

Freeborn, A. (2018) ‘Highlights from our ‘disability access and inclusion’ live chat’ Heritage Lottery Fund. Available at: https://www.hlf.org.uk/community/general-discussions-forum/highlights-our-disability-access-and-inclusion-live-chat?utm_source=Heritage%20Lottery%20Fund

 

 

 

Progress report

Yesterday the MA Curation Practices cohort – full and part time – updated on our progress. I didn’t quite manage to keep within the requested 200 words, but here’s my summary.

Visiting Leeds Art Gallery with blind and partially sighted people: informing an asset-based approach to curating

Literature review:

  • Many reasons for visiting galleries
  • Rights issue
  • Intellectual and emotional meaning
  • Deeper relationship with art than sighted people?
  • Hirose: ‘Tactile learning will change the museum, and the museum will change society!’
  • Kleege on audio description: ‘a literary / interpretative form with infinite possibilities’
  • Hayhoe: ‘…, experiences of visitors who are blind can teach those with sight about the importance of the exhibit, as the narrator and as a repository of our subconscious human evolution’.

Research findings:

  • As above!
  • Having people around who will guide, talk to you, explain, answer questions
  • Emotional connection: Art is a good medium for expressing emotions, feelings, relationships, particularly difficult emotions (Paul)
  • Touch – definitely
  • Getting close – barriers really annoying!
  • Audio description: don’t need training, enthusiasm, fun
  • Doing things differently = good for everyone.

Practical curated event:

Half a dozen writers will prepare and read a description of an artwork in Leeds Art Gallery’s collection at an event in the gallery 19/7. Audience = mixture of sighted and blind & partially sighted people.

Prepared guidelines for describers.

‘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!’ (Brian, 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).

References

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: https://hyperallergic.com/421929/haptic-encounters-contemporary-jewish-museum-san-francisco/ (Accessed: 3 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.

References

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:  https://sensingcultureoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/a-swell-new-purchase/
(Accessed: 4 May 2018).

Suess, J. (2016) ‘Improving Access for Visually-Impaired Visitors’ Oxford University Museums Partnership, 4 August 2016. Available at: http://www.oxfordaspiremuseums.org/news/improving-access-visually-impaired-visitors (Accessed: 30 March 2018).

 

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

 

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?

 

Reference

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

Blind School exhibition at Museum of Liverpool

The chance to see disabled people’s lives reflected in the museum is a rare one indeed. Even rarer is the chance to see those lives represented realistically and with respect. If you visit the Museum of Liverpool before 15 April you’ll therefore be able to experience something unusual.

The Blind School is an exhibition that follows the history of the Royal School for the Blind in Liverpool. The exhibition is part of a national project, History of Place, delivered by Accentuate, that reveals disabled people’s history via eight significant buildings. Liverpool’s Blind School is significant because it was the first school for blind people in Britain, and only the second in the world, founded in 1791.

While History of Place takes buildings and institutions as its starting point, the stories of disabled people are to the fore. The school in Liverpool was founded by Edward Rushton, a blind human rights campaigner and abolitionist. While the exhibition therefore starts with a remarkable story, it shows what life was like for pupils throughout the school’s history.

The hidden stories of ordinary people are ones that capture our attention because we can relate to them. It’s vital that the diversity of our communities is reflected in social history projects like this – disabled people have always been part of the community and their stories are engaging and interesting, if only they can be told.

The Museum of Liverpool is an ideal venue for this exhibition. Not only because of their commitment to accessibility, but also because The Blind School’s displays fit in well with the bright, modern building. The bold contrasting colours and the clean lines of the exhibition ensure that it is accessible as well as attractive to a wide audience. Extra touches include a yellow “guideline” at a uniform height that leads you through the exhibition, scented items and objects that can be handled. This enhances the experience for everyone, not just visually impaired visitors.

Oral histories accompany wall panels and display cases. Sign language interpretation, clear text and display cases that can be viewed from a wheelchair are integral to the exhibition design, and are so unobtrusive that they are unnoticeable to most visitors.

The stories and recollections of the school are not all rosy, and it’s good to see that the exhibition doesn’t avoid some difficult issues. In aiming to “care for” disabled people, large institutions were often guilty of segregating them and instilling dependence. In The Blind School, former pupils remember the misery of being separated from family and of sometimes harsh treatment by teachers. The tension between charities for disabled people and disability rights is also mentioned, although I would have liked a more robust examination of this: I’m not sure I would describe the annual trip provided by Liverpool taxi drivers as a “partnership”, however well-meaning.

But more importantly than this, History of Place, and therefore The Blind School, is led by disabled people. Having disabled people in control of telling their history means that they are never shown as tragic victims, nor as brave heroes. Instead they are portrayed as members of the community, with ordinary, worthwhile, and interesting lives, This exhibition showcases disabled people’s skills, independence and determination through sharing the facts of their everyday experiences and revealing their little-known histories.

http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/mol/exhibitions/blind-school/

If you don’t get to the exhibition, there’s plenty of material about The Blind School and the other seven venues in the project on the History of Place website: http://historyof.place/location/liverpool-school-for-the-indigent-blind/

Reference

The Blind School (2018) [Exhibition] Liverpool: Museum of Liverpool. 26 January – 15 April.