A multi-sensory tour at Ferens Art Gallery

Ferens Art Gallery, Hull

Nikki Mellors, 15.09.2011
Late last year I was approached by Ferens Art Gallery in Hull to develop a multi-sensory tour of the gallery for visually-impaired audiences. An opportunity had arisen to bid for funding from the Museums, Libraries and Archive Council for projects relating to hard-to-reach groups, and Ferens Art Gallery’s application was successful.
The aim of the project was to engage with visually-impaired visitors and provide meaningful access to the collection.
Kirsten Simister, curator of art at gallery, identified artworks we wanted to work with, including a 16th-century depiction of a fish market in Antwerp painted with enormous energy and vigour; a darkly baroque vanitas complete with a skull; scenes of wild abandon from the Odyssey; and a glossy super-real 1930s portrait.
The initial question that we asked ourselves was: how do you provide meaningful access and engagement to the chosen paintings for those who have a wide range of visual impairments including congenital blindness? This question would lead us into unknown territory.
Research into the area proved difficult and so we simply closed our eyes and imagined how it would feel to step inside the world of a painting that we could not see. What elements would we need to take us there? The idea of a multi-sensory tour began to develop.
The tours include:
  • Verbal description by a guide
  • Tactile prints of the paintings
  • Replica objects depicted in the paintings
  • Smells from the scenes in the paintings
  • Sounds from the paintings
  • Braille text
  • An audio guide

The verbal description element proved to be the most important. The descriptions tell a story and build atmosphere. Smell and touch are added to build up both comprehension and imaginative internal imagery.

Although Braille and audio guides were produced, we found that personal interaction works best as questions can be answered and the picture becomes more personal and meaningful.

It quickly became obvious that each painting required a unique approach. Do you start with the background or the foreground? When do you add in the touch of an object or the smell of a relevant aroma? To understand the paintings deeply and study them in an imaginative context rather than a purely academic one is crucial. While being objective, you must also be personally inspired.

The multi-sensory tours at Ferens Art Gallery have proved very successful; we were lucky to work with two visually-impaired groups, and had an independent report of our initial work undertaken.
Learning from the report, we continue to develop the tours. A visually-impaired art class was started and proved incredibly popular. My most recent project was to create a multi-sensory experience of David Hockney’s painting Bigger Trees Near Warter. For the first time I used music especially composed for the artwork, which proved an exciting new element.
Nikki Mellors is the heritage learning enabler at Hull Museums and Art Gallery. She also works as a freelance practitioner and can be contacted at canicula71@hotmail.com


Ferens Art Gallery

Hull Museums and Art Gallery