Royal Holloway Picture Gallery interior

Devisualising the Museum

Professor Hannah Thompson is Professor of French and Critical Disability Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and collaborator with VocalEyes on Describing Diversity and IDEA (Inclusive Description for Equality and Access). In this paper, originally presented at the Museums Association‘s event All Inclusive: Championing Accessible Museums (20 May 2021) , Hannah shares her thoughts on how museums can move away from a vision-centred approach to create more multi-sensual experiences for diverse visitors.

Most museums are organised around the assumption that sight is the best way of receiving information. Objects and artworks are put on display for visitors to look at. Museums are almost always designed by and for sighted people and this ocularcentric approach risks excluding blind and partially-blind visitors and museum professionals.

In recent years, museums have put a huge amount of work into making their displays and exhibitions more accessible to blind people. VocalEyes has been involved in providing many excellent examples of audio description, touch tours, tactile modelling, and accessible programming. Blind and partially blind people have access to culture like never before.

While these initiatives are welcome, and enjoyed by many, they are almost never able to give blind museum visitors an equivalent experience to that enjoyed by their non-blind peers. Time and money constraints mean that a museum’s ‘access’ offer is always more limited than its ‘standard’ visitor experience.

In my work with the Royal Holloway Picture Gallery and the musée du quai Branly in Paris, I am interested in how audio description can benefit both blind and non-blind visitors. By putting non-visual access at the heart of their work, and routinely creating audio descriptions for all their artefacts, museums can create content that not only makes their collections more accessible, but also encourages all visitors to experiment with non-visual ways of thinking about art.

Royal Holloway has a huge Victorian picture gallery containing around 100 paintings. Using digital technology developed by Smartify, we created a free online audio-described tour of 15 of the gallery’s paintings to make it accessible to blind and non-blind visitors from around the world.

We invited volunteers from across the College community (including students, staff, and alumni) to produce their own inclusive audio descriptions of the paintings. Unlike traditional audio description, ‘inclusive’ audio description does not claim to offer an objective description of an image. Instead, it recognizes that each beholder will see things differently. It highlights the describer’s responses to paintings’ aesthetic and emotional aspects as well as to their appearance and place in the gallery. This harnesses a diversity of interpretation, encouraging a subjective response using whatever words speak to each person. This individuality makes the project sustainable over time: new voices and new artworks can be easily added, and new describers are trained by simply listening to the existing descriptions.

These inclusive audio descriptions show that blindness is not a problem to be solved, but a valuable and inventive way of being in the world which has much to offer non-blind people.

Our project at the Musée de Quai Branly took this non-hierarchical, collective approach to creating audio description one step further. A group of blind, partially-blind and non-blind volunteers worked together to co-create a series of descriptions. In the hope of de-centralizing the sense of sight, we began by asking a partially-blind person to describe their perception of the painting. We then used a question-and-answer method to build up the description until every member of the group had a sense of the painting.  We then rewrote the description as a creative response to the painting. We tried to choose language whose rhymes and rhythms echoed the painting’s aesthetic: single words and short phrases for an abstract work; long sentences for a realist, more narrative piece.  We wanted to position audio description as an artistic genre, rather than as a service provided by non-blind people to blind people. We wanted to make our descriptions as multi-sensory as possible: we tried to include words referring to all the senses and we avoid words referring only to sight. We described colours using objects and sensations associated with them, and we emphasised the positionality of the describers. For example, when describing a painting on bark by Tom Djäwa from Milingimbi Island in Australia’s northern territories, we took care to specify that the Western European way of ‘reading’ the picture differs from the way it is experienced by members of the artist’s Yolngu community.

Visiting a museum or gallery is a very personal experience. We created several different descriptions of the same painting to try and reflect the different ways that people might encounter the painting. Some might glimpse it at a distance and catch a fleeting impression of it before moving on; others might move closer and study it in more depth. Some might be interested in its colours, shapes and textures; others might care more about its historical and geographical context. Unlike sighted people, who explore museums at their own pace and in their own ways, blind people listening to traditional AD are not often given the chance to discover a painting on their own. When details like title, date and artist are provided first, there is no chance to form a personal response to it: all too often an AD user’s imaginative and aesthetic reactions are shut down instead of encouraged. We experimented with ways of creating a gallery experience equivalent to that familiar to a sighted visitor who glimpses a painting at a distance before moving closer to investigate it further.

By thinking of audio description as a subjective, even artistic response to a work of art, we want to make it accessible and appealing to everyone. It is no longer only the preserve of people who know how to ask for it but becomes an integral part of mainstream museum interpretation.

Musée du quai Branly website (English language version) with audio descriptions of objects from the exhibition Gularri, waterscapes from Northern Australia. 

Royal Holloway Picture Gallery Smartify tour

Image: Interior of the Picture Gallery, Royal Holloway  University of London.


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