Creating live audio tours to boost collections accessibility

Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund case study

Bentley Priory Museum

Funding round:

Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, round eight


Bentley Priory Museum tells the fascinating history of a beautiful Grade II* listed Mansion House in Stanmore, north west London, focusing on its role as Headquarters Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

In 2015 the museum was awarded funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund for a year-long project. Its aim was to substantially increase access to, and meaningful engagement with, Bentley Priory Museum’s unique collection of predominately Battle of Britain artefacts, for visitors who are partially sighted, blind, deaf, deafened or hard of hearing.

The project took inspiration from Battle of Britain and world war II aircrew who were impacted physically during their service. This includes members of the Guinea Pig Club: British and Allied aircrew who were badly burned during world war II, and who underwent pioneering surgery under the hands and vision of Archibald McIndoe, whose portrait hangs at Bentley Priory Museum.

Work began with thorough research and documentation of the museum’s collection of approximately 460 objects. As a former RAF collection, existing information on the objects was limited. Completed in parallel to this documentation, the majority of the collection was digitised.

The project was supported by expert training and guidance from Vocaleyes and Stagetext. Vocaleyes provides access to the arts for blind and partially sighted people through audio description. Stagetext makes theatre and culture accessible to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people.

Museum staff and volunteers received awareness training from both organisations. Immediately there was a noticeable enthusiasm and momentum to improve access for different groups. The different training sessions have built confidence and volunteers feel better equipped to assist visitors with different access needs.

Improving access to the collection was achieved through three strands; web access, live tours and recorded tours. Thirty-six objects from the collection have been made available on the museum’s website with accompanying audio descriptions for visitors who are partially sighted or blind.

The objects were selected to represent the rich history of Bentley Priory, from its origins as a priory to its important role during the Battle of Britain. The high resolution digital images enable visitors to the museum’s website to zoom in and explore the object in greater detail. 

Three live audio-described tours have been delivered by staff, and more are planned. The live tours focused on aspects of the museum’s history, from the Battle of Britain pilots to exploring the Dowding System – the technology which supported British and Allied victory. The museum’s handling collection was integrated into the tours to further bring the subject alive.
The live tours have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from visitors to the museum who are blind or partially sighted.

“I’m really glad that your organisation is doing audio-described tours of Bentley Priory. There is a great sense of history about the place and Sarah [the museum’s learning officer] helped bring that to life.  It was then quite easy to imagine the intensity of the Command Centre during the war.”
Participant feedback from live audio described tour

Two recorded self-guided audio-described tours of the museum were created. The project initially outlined one recorded audio-described tour for adults. However it soon became apparent that there were limited audio-described resources for children in museums and we decided to create an additional tour with children and their families as the target audience.  The adults’ tour is 45 minutes long with an optional additional 20 minutes of information.

Listen to a short audio extract here:

The families’ tour is 35 minutes long. To increase the appeal to children, it was recorded by the Horrible Histories actor Ben Willbond, who guides the listener around the museum under the guise of Wing Commander Eric Colman and his trusty dog, Scramble.

Listen to a short audio extract here:

Additional funding was secured to purchase handsets which are now available for blind or partially sighted visitors to use at the museum. The initial response to these recently launched tours has been positive, with further feedback needed to fully understand visitor engagement and impact.

The project has dramatically increased access to the collection, but there are areas which we have identified for further work. In particular it has been challenging to successfully market these new resources, and the first two live tours did not have the anticipated turn-out. From talking to other museums it is evident that advance marketing is important to give visitors time to sufficiently plan their visit.

We are now turning our attention to effectively marketing these valuable resources, and evaluating their use to continue to improve access to our unique collection.