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> > > Close up talk @ Tate Britain

19 November 2008

Liz Porter recently experienced an audio-described talk at Tate Britain, focussing on a variety of work in the galleries permanent collection. She reflects on access for visually impaired gallery visitors, looks at the merits of this kind of access provision and asks how this service could be improved.

Photograph of Liz Porter

Photograph of Liz Porter

I really enjoy going to museums, exhibitions and galleries. My experience of engaging with the art is greatly enhanced when some kind of audio description is included. I’m not a major fan of literal description, but when nothing else is on offer, the hand held audio guides help enormously.

I’m more in favour of the ‘personal tour’. Many venues already mount regular touch and audio-described tours. Of course much has been done to improve access for visually impaired visitors. Conferences such as In touch with Art organised last year by V & A and St Dunstan’s, have helped move things on by providing space for service providers, curators and access officers to debate with visually impaired creatives and audiences, encouraging us to go beyond what is usually expected. I’d particularly like to see museums embracing the visual imaging technique that Rebecca McGuinness demonstrated at the Conference. The concept allows for wider interpretations and active participation and can be led by sighted or visually impaired facilitators.

Last October, I was invited to find out what Tate Britain offer. Kirsteen McSwein (assistant curator with responsibility for access) is very enthusiastic and wants to develop a more creative approach to tours for visually impaired visitors. The ‘Close up’ talk, a two hour session started with coffee. We were a small group of mainly elderly visually impaired people, which suggests the usual problem of how you affectively market sessions to get more people to enjoy them. Our guides for the morning were Mary Maidment (who led a touch tour of Epstein's Jacob and the Angel) and Gillian Cutbill (who provided gallery audio descriptions). We also experienced Martin Creed’s work 850 (the runner!)

Epstein’s ‘Jacob & The Angel’ is an enormous piece and the subject matter is fascinating. Our guide Mary was knowledgeable and very enthusiastic but it was difficult to hear what she was saying because the acoustics are poor in this part of the gallery. I would have liked a fuller version of the story whilst we sat around the piece. The sculpture is mounted on a large high plinth, which unfortunately, made it impossible to explore the entire piece. There were two wheelchair-users in the second group, for whom it would have been more inaccessible. Mary handed pieces of marble around the circle, which gave a sense of how heavy it is but to get the full impact of size and scale we needed to be able to feel the whole thing. Whilst clearly access will always present certain dilemmas, I think we should still have the chance to experience work like this at whatever level we can.

Tate Britain is a magnificent building and it was wonderful to move through the galleries with a bit of verbal description of the architecture en route. We walked through a huge neo-classical hall, with high ceilings, stone walls, pillars, flagstone floors a massive and long space in which the Martin Creed ‘Runner’ took place. Runners in training gear (provided by the sponsors) literally ran up and down the gallery. Representing the epitome of what you are not allowed to do in an art gallery, Creed provokes us to consider art in rebellion, perhaps a shade for his light bulb? (former Turner Prize winner) He’s certainly getting varied responses.

Finally we came to a gallery exhibiting paintings dated between 1906-1988, which was curated to illustrate work that mixes the meaning of the image with the application of paint. We discussed work by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Walter Sickert, Matthew Smith and Frank Auerbach.

Again our guide Gillian provided enthusiastic and knowledgeable descriptions. Incorporating literal description of size, placing of subject and colour, giving us an idea of artistic method and materials used; influences and meanings. We then fed back our responses. This was more of a two-way discussion, and brought to light some of the difficulties in accessing the work experienced by some of the elderly people who used to have vision.

I particularly enjoyed looking at Bacon’s painting of Van Gogh an emblem of the misunderstood artist - parody of the struggle and pain an artist faces. The painting is looking for the isolated artist. It marks a transition period in Bacon's painting when he began experimenting with thick gestural marks - applying the paint as if he was icing a cake. It was first shown in the Hanover Gallery - one of a series of six pictures - hung wet on the gallery wall. Gillian had photocopied the Van Gogh painting this referred to, which gave us an interesting comparison. Whilst Gillian was concentrating more on the Artists interpretation, I got excited about the possibilities for creative interpretation through other art forms such as spoken word, poetry and storytelling, (I could see a lot of stories in this particular piece of work).

Another painting by Auerbach was very dark and grey thick layers of paint showed a semi-abstract figure on a bed. The idea behind the painting is that it wants to give the viewer the sense that they are touching someone on a bed in the dark.

This generated some discussion about looking at a textural piece of work that is behind glass, and so clearly is more like a sculpture needing to be touched. Gillian had bought an example of a block painted with layers and layers of thick paint to give us an idea of how it might feel. This was a good idea but I still felt one step removed from the ‘real’ experience. Kirsteen is exploring ways to have practical workshops alongside their tours. I think this would work very well when looking at pieces such as this to give participants an actual experience of working with paint to build layers. The more multi-sensory the better.

All the pieces we looked at had some reference to disability and I’m not sure if this was intentional. If so, it would have been great to have a discussion about the differing attitudes to disability at the times the painting were done and look at our own feelings today, although I guess this would need to be carefully managed given different generations’ attitudes and experiences.

One of the best projects where this has happened was done at The Birmingham Art Gallery, who involved 6 disabled artists to give their impressions of 6 major pieces of work. These were juxtaposed with the artists impressions. The Matise piece ‘The Blind Girl’ particularly interested me. You do a handset tour of these pieces which includes audio file, text and BSL, but of course live tours and the education potential is massive. I’d love to see more museums following suite as the texts produced from this project were fascinating.

The next 'Close-Up' talk will be held in the Manton Studio on Tuesday 24 February Morning Session: 10.00 - 12.00. Afternoon Session: 13:00 - 15:00

Anthony van Dyck painted the seventeenth-century aristocracy in their finest satin, velvet and lace to parade their importance. Blind and partially sighted visitors are invited to immerse themselves in their world - spend the day with us or visit during the morning when we explore the exhibition, or in the afternoon when we create our own collages.

Free, booking essential. Booking separate for each session.

Tate Britain are also offering one-to-one tours of the Francis Bacon exhibition. For further details please contact Kirsteen McSwein by email on or via the main ticketing number on 020 7887 8888.

For information about access and facilities for disabled and deaf visitors please go to the Tate Britain website

DAO would like to hear about your experiences? What examples of audio-description have you experienced in museums and galleries? What works for you? What would you like to see happening? Please post comments below.

Please comment on this article using the form below.


Liz Braby

14 January 2009

Birmingham Museum is quite new to AD on audio-visual points although we have run touch-tours around the galleries, allowing people to handle items. Some of the good things - AD can make objects/galleries more accessible to visually impaired people by giving physical descriptions, they can also be beneficial to people with low literacy levels. Museums are all about being accessible to EVERYONE. Some of the issues/challenges - describing a really detailed painting using AD can be very long - will this lose peoples attention? People writing ADs takes a long time and can be expensive - maybe a way around this is to train up volunteers? Some people will prefer an actual guide to a spoken-word recording. Perhaps paintings (or non-touch) things that are being audio-described would benefit from some kind of raised profile, tactile model to accompany them. Museums need to work with visually impaired people themselves to find out if AD is beneficial, how it should be used and what it should be used in conjunction with. One of my concerns with our own project was that it only involved audio-describing 8 paintings - what about all the other paintings/objects on display? How do we promote AD? - we sent large-print leaflets to disability organisations and groups to diseminate, we spoke on local radio stations, we invited lots of key people from disability organisations to the projects launch....I think another good thing would be to go out and visit groups, tell them about the museum and invite them on a visit/tour. Perhaps everything can be seen as small stepping stones in the right much as we want to, museums cannot completely transform themselves overnight but can make small changes, which lead to bigger changes...and progress.

Liz Braby, Audience Development Officer, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

14 January 2009

Having worked on the Talking about...Disability and Art project at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I was delighted to read that Liz Porter had enjoyed the audio-visual interpretations that were created. The project involved working collaboratively with six disabled artists to explore, and develop new interpretations for, paintings by disabled artists or paintings showing a representation of disability in the museums permanent galleries. In her article Liz said that, on a recent tour at Tate Britain, she would have welcomed the opportunity to discuss the differing attitudes to disability at the times the paintings were done and look at our own feelings today. This is what the Birmingham Museum project focuses on. The project was one of the first at Birmingham Museum to use audio-description and we would very much like to develop this area further, in terms of other objects in the collection and spoken/touch tours. We should learn from Tate Britain and Tate Moderns approach in consulting with visually impaired people themselves about what would make these tours work best. However, I also feel museums need to ensure they are not solely focusing on access issues for disabled people but are working with disabled people to enable the re-assessment of museum collections and the presence of diverse voices in interpretations. Importantly, Birmingham Museums project enabled disabled people to take control of their own representation. The project has also impacted on other areas of the museum service. For example, the project highlighted the Museums lack of disability art in its collections and this has been addressed by making disability art a priority collecting area within the revised Collections Policy, 2008-2013.

shelley boden

18 December 2008

Thanks Liz, lots of interesting insights into audio-description and increasing access to museums and galleries. Im an access consultant and have recently joined the Wallace Collection -and we are in the process of planning new audio tours and interactives as I speak. I am looking into providing different options for adults and children with different disabilities, and would be really interested to hear different viewpoints, likes and dislikes in terms of audio descriptions and increasing access to art. What are your positive and negative museum and gallery experiences? Feel free to let off steam.

Colin [ED]

5 December 2008

One of the big problems with AD, as I have been told, is that so often it gets tacked on to the end of a project, rather than being integral at the beginning. When this happens it becomes a problem to be solved, rather than something integral to the development and overall value of the exhibition.

Marcus Horley, Tate Modern

5 December 2008

Tate Britain has a good track record of providing audio descriptions in its galleries and I am pleased to see that these are going strong. Here at Tate Modern we mainly offer touch tours, which use a number of different methods of interpretation including verbal descriptions. We are lucky in that we have a greater number of works here which are available for touching, so we like to take advantage of this whenever we deliver a guided tour to visually impaired visitors. The main area in which we would use verbal description is with our temporary exhibitions on level 4. These are usually loaned works which cannot be touched, and are only with us for three months so it does not give us much time to develop any handling resources. We would use the same guides as those who provide the AD tours at Tate Britain.

Chris Ankin

5 December 2008

For some time now the campaign to get audio-description of any type has been a difficult one. Often as a visually-impaired visitor, you perhaps feel compelled to be grateful for any form of AD, as its so much better than nothing at all. Now that AD is starting to be as normal as subtitles, wheelchair ramps and braille bank statements within society, we should not feel embarrassed to offer constructive criticism when neccessary - afterall it can only serve to improve the enjoyment of future visitors, so we should stifle any fears of appearing ungrateful! Liz raised an interesting point at the start of her article about the different types of AD, clearly where possible at venues such as galleries, the interactive touch/AD tour is the way to go. No scripted studio recorded audio guide can replace the human need to ask questions of, or gain emotional feedback from a well trained guide. Similarly having someone attempt to describe a movie to you real time is cumbersome and never as good a carefully crafted and well timed script spoken by a professional voice, that we are now beginning to enjoy on our DVD/Freeview/Freesat entertainment. Audio-Description ultimately is all about making things accessible in as seamless way as possible. The human guide is certainly the preferred choice within galleries and musuems, its unlikely they will viably become on demand and as such will remain as timed and dated tours, but that is a small price to pay for being able to access and enjoy the arts. We should take our hats off to both Tate Britain and Tate Modern as they clearly have well motivated staff that are taking access issues seriously.

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