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> > > In Touch with Art: Conference on Art, Museums and Visual Impairment

Visually impaired arts professional Liz Porter caught up with several visually impaired colleagues and learnt about visual imaging at a conference on art, museums and visual impairment

Organised by St Dunstan’s, the charity helping blind and visually impaired ex-service personnel (later re-named as Blind Veterans UK) in partnership with The Victoria & Albert Museum and Goldsmith’s University in London, this two-day conference in November 2007 brought together an impressive list of delegates from the UK and further afield.

St Dunstan's - a residential centre based just outside Brighton, East Sussex - is known for its work with servicemen and women who have become blind or partially sighted as a result of war or in later life. They provide a wide range of services for more than 600 beneficiaries, including arts and crafts. People are encouraged to explore their own creativity, not only through leisure pursuits but also with a view to developing their own businesses. Given that more than 20% of the UK population aged over 60 are likely to have some degree of visual impairment, St Dunstan's realise the importance of accessibility in museums and galleries.

Photograph of a large, cast piece of tactile sculpture made in the St Dunstan's craft workshop

Photograph of a large, cast piece of tactile sculpture made in the St Dunstan's craft workshop

Sarah Jarron, St Dunstan’s craft workshop supervisor, commented on the main aims of the conference:

"We wanted to talk to museums and galleries to encourage them to make their collections accessible to blind and visually impaired people. We hoped to address the issue of teaching arts and to raise the standard of good practice. We also wanted to look at art and visual impairment in terms of the psychology behind it. Through the conference we are making links with visually impaired artists to work with us in our education programme. From a personal point of view this is a great opportunity to link with all the speakers and to find out how we can continue to learn from them. We’ve begun work with Brighton's Fabrika Art Gallery and Brighton & Hove Museum and hope the conference will create opportunities for new initiatives."

Level access
The conference was chaired by Caro Howell, from The Whitechapel Gallery in East London - a good choice as Caro’s work includes developing the i-Map online art resource, designed specifically for visually impaired people with a general interest in art, art teachers and their visually impaired pupils. Caro gave provocative and succinct summaries at the end of each session, including a focus on the need to understand the different approaches to interpreting the visual arts. Given that responding to art is an individual experience, what do we mean when we talk about providing access that puts us on a level playing field?

The programme of speakers and workshops was very varied, but included too many lecture-style presentations. I did wonder, at times, who the event was for. Many delegates would have already had a good understanding about access and were involved in exciting projects engaging with visually impaired audiences. We did get to hear about good practice, and ground-breaking online resources.

Visually impaired artists' contributions
The good representation of professional visually impaired artists such as Lynn Cox, Sargy Mann, Mark Ware and Pádraig Naughton presented the sessions that I found most useful and relevant.

Sargy Mann came across as a dynamic presence and an excellent role model for visually impaired artists. He talked about how his work changed as he became more visually impaired. He explored the need to discover different techniques to aid him in his composition such as working from photographs or descriptions given by his family. What struck me was how his use of colour became more vivid.

Lynn Cox talked about her use of space and tactile art, and played an interesting soundscape, in which five different people described the same pieces of art to illustrate different approaches to description. This work was overlaid with muffled sounds to give a multi-layered approach. Lynn has a positive attitude to how her visual impairment informs her arts practice. She talked about the importance of having inspiring and imaginative teachers and cited John Everett, a sculptor and multi-media artist on the panel, as a great influence on her joining the creative industries. John's teaching at RNC Hereford, the Royal National College for the Blind, for more than 20 years had a direct influence and impact on his own creative practice using sound and video.

Teaching art
John Everett explained that he felt responding to what people can do and want to explore was key in teaching. I couldn’t help feeling how liberating this must have been for those who RNC compared with my own experience of the restrictive environment of the institutionalised special school. The ethos there was to normalise rather than to encourage free expression. And yet isn’t the idea of "can do" too simplistic within today’s education structure – especially now that we thankfully have a more inclusive system? And how realistic is this approach in a university environment when you might be the only visually impaired person?

Pádraig Naughton, Director of Arts & Disability Ireland and visual artist, gave his views on the event

"I was frustrated with John Everett's egalitarian approach, because you have to accept that people are different. We are never going to have a level playing field. Going through college at the time I did was difficult because nobody around me understood my visual impairment. It was only in my third year that I was able to start to express myself in terms of touch. 
I think the conference is a landmark in that it is happened. However for a lot of visually impaired people who are active in the arts, it is largely irrelevant. That is not to criticise what's been done, because in my role as director of Arts and Disability Ireland a lot of our work is about audience development - so we've got to respond to that need. If you are going to encourage blind and visually impaired people to interact with art and to use the education system, then it is important that they keep one step ahead of the debate.
The one thing that struck me about the conference is that networking has been difficult because of the venue. It was only actually after I had spoken today that most of the other conference members at the hotel came up and introduced themselves to me. 

What I would love to see would be visually impaired artists involved in a critical debate. I have been making touch sculpture since 1993, but have yet to engage with an artist about the practice itself. I'd love to go ahead and do an MA and refine what I've done at degree level, but I wouldn't know where to take that piece of research - and I'm damned if I'm going to put myself through the experience of going through college to be have people supervising me who kind of go 'Well, if it looks good, we'll tell you.' If your engagement is at that level, you are on your own. I believe there are enough of us out there now to construct something more meaningful than that."

Visual art and science
Linda Pring, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmith’s University and Birkbeck College's Dr Alison Eardley presented research on the psychological characteristics of visual impairment and how we imagine the world with or without sight. This hour was provocative. In the medical-model language and general tone, visually impaired people were presented as experiments. I was miffed this topic got more time than the personal stories of visually impaired artists. However, this is one of the talks that got people thinking and challenging ideas. Where science meets the arts seems to be the flavour of the month, so perhaps it’s no bad thing that the conference placed such significance on this topic.

It was no surprise that the response of visually impaired people to memory is surrounded by multi-sensory layers using descriptive language. Nor that sighted people rely mostly on visual information. I got lost around the scientific references, but then we were having to look at a powerpoint presentation with limited audio description. I hope that visually impaired artists will be able to enter into the debate or even be part of the Disability Art and Science project that DAO and Ithaca Oxford are working on.

Verbal imaging session
My conference highlight was the tour by Rebecca McGinnis, Access Co-ordinator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, exploring the art of description. Rebecca and I had met several years ago when she worked at the RNIB in London. I’ve been to many art galleries and experienced enjoyable, informative hand-held audio guides and guided tours, but this was personal and far more engaging. What I liked about Rebecca’s approach is that she enabled the tour group to enter into an active dialogue building the picture, and the story behind each picture, in what she called a ‘verbal imaging’ session. We were asked to talk about Rossetti’s painting, The Day Dream. Rebecca handed round a piece of canvas and a bar of honeysuckle soap, bringing some of the themes in the work to life using smell and touch. She gave a literal but layered description giving us space to fill in the gaps.

Rebecca didn’t give all the information away - we had to probe, discuss and discover as a group. Through dialogue we pondered the intentions of the artist, made summations of the mood and themes and explored a myriad of creative interpretations. I could see how this approach of getting the group to be actively involved in the art of description would work in education groups. We took an hour to look at one picture. This session got people thinking about how they could actively engage audiences. Rebecca is also partially sighted and I came away feeling excited about the potential for involving visually impaired people as guides.

Rebecca McGinnis commented on the conference and her work at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art:

"The conference seems a very tight group of people with a common interest in visual impairment and art. It has been a forum where some really important issues such as the use of touch and the involvement of disabled people can be aired and discussed. It has been particularly interesting hearing from visual impaired artists about their personal experiences. I'm also interested in the area of cognitive psychology and neuro-science.

It's hard to say across the board how things differ in the US. I've only worked at the Metropolitan Museum, which is unusual because of its size. There is an acknowledgement of the importance of touch there. The concept is more readily accepted by curators and so is easier to offer. We have much more use of tactile diagrams, handling collections and touch tours. However we've been in a weird situation at the Metropolitan because we've had no space for art-making for four years. We are looking at developing an artist-in- residence programme for our department and will include disabled artists as part of that roster.

In terms of employees with disabilities, we have quite a few. Right now there are four people in my department and two of us are visually impaired. In addition, of 12 freelance educators, four are deaf and teach general audiences using a voice interpreter, as well as Deaf audiences in sign language. We've also tried a team-teaching approach. We have one person who is non-verbal who has cerebral palsy and wants to be a gallery educator. We have developed a training programme for her to be able to teach in the gallery. We see it as important that the museum staff reflect the audience. They can take the training that we can facilitate with works of art to do other kinds of programmes. We do a lot of work off-site as well as taking our programmes out to people in their homes and in hospitals."


Did this conference work? Yes - I think it got people thinking outside the box and moving forwards. Some of the information given around new technology and website resources was very relevant. Hearing about The Metropolitan in New York and The Louvre in Paris was inspiring. We also heard about small initiatives such as the Tyne & Wear Museum training visually impaired interpreters. It was also good to hear Marcus Weisen talk. He has contributed enormously to the development of access in museums and galleries for visually impaired people and now offers training and advice on a freelance basis. Marcus raised the important issue of employing visually impaired and disabled creatives, as arts developers, educators etc. I felt the fact this wasn’t picked up for general discussion, was a missed opportunity.

The key thing that would justify the conference to me would be if programming of work by visually impaired artists, and the use of visually impaired professionals as educators and arts developers, come to fruition. And I hope, like Pádraig, that visually impaired creatives will find more opportunities to come together to discuss our creative practice. But more pressingly perhaps, I wonder if there will ever be any ‘real’ funding in UK to enable all this to happen.