Grey-haired woman views painting, wearing headphones

Penlee House wins Cornwall Heritage Award for their programme for blind and partially sighted visitors

VocalEyes delivered visual awareness, guiding and audio description training for staff at Penlee House Museum and Art Gallery in June 2017. They’ve gone on to win an award for their programme for blind and partially sighted visitors. Penlee’s Director Louise Connell explains:

For many people with visual impairments, visiting an art gallery and having only traditional forms of explanation, such as labels or text panels, may lead to a sense of exclusion and being ‘left out’. While large print hand lists of the exhibition text have always been available for visitors to Penlee House, staff were interested to find other ways of creating a more equal experience for people with sight loss.

We began by contacting the Penzance Macular Society and iSightCornwall, a charity which offers practical advice from their experience of supporting people with sight loss. With the guidance and advice from members of both organisations, our Education and Outreach Offer Zoe Burkett and her team of education volunteers were able to shape the project. They also received training by the VocalEyes, in how to audio describe paintings, literally ‘painting a picture with words’, for people with a visual impairment.

Beginning with the Stanhope Forbes exhibition in summer 2017, the Gallery has introduced audio descriptions of key paintings which have been recorded onto a device called the PenFriend. Visitors carry the small device around the Gallery with them and when they want to hear a description of the painting they simply tap the PenFriend onto the bright orange sticker next to it and listen to the description through a set of headphones. People with little or no sight can be given assistance to find the stickers.

Grey-haired woman views painting, wearing headphones
A visitor to Penlee House Gallery & Museum using the portable PenFriend audio guide in front of the oil painting ‘Eyes and No Eyes’, painted in 1887 by Frank Bramley. Image courtesy of iSight Cornwall.

The idea came about after a group of iSightCornwall members were invited along to Penlee House to explore the current exhibitions and share their ideas for improving the experience for people with visual impairments. One of the members, Pam Beattie, uses a PenFriend at home and realised the potential benefit it could have in the Gallery. Mrs Beattie said: “It’s a wonderful tool and so simple to use. I have very poor central vision so the audio descriptions help to fill in the blanks for me. Being able to linger at a particular painting or go back to a previous one gives me the independence to enjoy the Gallery at my own pace, which doesn’t happen with a guided tour. It’s wonderful that Penlee House have done this, I wish all other galleries would do the same.”

The group also got the opportunity to create their own artwork alongside local artist Carys Wilson. The art classes were inspiring and reignited a passion within people to explore the world of art further. An exhibition of their work went on display in the Gallery throughout August 2017 and the participants were invited to the opening day so that they could explore their exhibition for the first time. They were also given a live audio-described tour of the Stanhope Forbes exhibition.

The project was made possible thanks to funding from Arts Council England through Cornwall Museums Partnership and money raised by the Friends of Penlee House through the Co-op Local Community Fund. The project has recently been given an 2018 Cornwall Heritage Award.