Handling objects for visually-impaired people

Laura Wigg-Bailey, 15.02.2013
The role of touch in widening access
Henshaws Society for Blind People has come a long way since it was founded in 1837 when it was called Henshaws Blind Asylum. Its aims then were similar to the many other blind asylums up and down the country – to house, clothe and feed a few deserving blind people.

For many years it travelled a well-worn path, giving blind people gainful employment making baskets and tuning pianos. But it has emerged as one of the longest existing blind charities, providing a range of education, training and creative opportunities.

To celebrate 175 years of work, Henshaws decided to explore its archives and, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, produce an exhibition that shared the story of its founding and early years through to blindness across society past and present.

One of the charity’s services is to provide the opportunity for a group of its users to attend exhibitions at museums and galleries supported by an audio-describer and a curator. To inform the exhibition development this group were asked to provide a list of their key bugbears when visiting museums and galleries and these have been shared on the exhibition website onemansvision.org.uk.

Some of this group were also recruited to a volunteer exhibition development board, along with people from the Henshaws Arts and Crafts centre in Knaresborough, current Henshaws volunteers, staff and trustees, as well as the wider heritage and arts sector in Greater Manchester.

This group met three times to discuss and feedback on ways of making the exhibition accessible. As with all consultations there was a considerable disparity of viewpoints but it was part of the challenge to devise compromises and practical solutions that worked from the gallery’s perspective as well as for its visually-impaired visitors.

As might be expected, the two key methods of exploring the exhibition for visually-impaired people to come out of these discussions were sound and touch.

This presented two sets of problems; firstly the original artefacts collected by Henshaws over the years were fairly limited in number. Secondly the technology needed to bring a variety of sounds to the exhibition can be costly and needs ongoing maintenance to ensure it works every time.

To overcome the former we decided to borrow objects from other museums, but unfortunately none of the museums we approached had any relevant items that they were willing to loan to be handled.

This left Henshaws' own collection, which was considered to be too fragile or unique to be suitable for handling. In the end it all boiled down to a marble bust of Thomas Henshaw, the charity’s benefactor.

Should we allow visitors to touch him or not? The question remained largely unsolved as some felt it would be detrimental to the bust as the exhibition was designed to travel to a further four venues following its run at Gallery Oldham (see MJ review) and this could mean being touched or handled by thousands of visitors.

Let them touch

While at Gallery Oldham, visually-impaired people were able to touch the bust in the presence of staff. This was not an ideal solution as we wanted to show blind people that they don’t need special treatment. In the future, the bust will be coated with a protective treatment so that it can be touched by everyone.

We also found four other ways to provide handling opportunities:

  • 3D tactile artworks based on the exhibition themes.
  • Non-museum objects that were relevant to the themes (sourced from second-hand shops and online).
  • Modern objects relevant to the themes such as a modern Braille writing machine and assistive technology used by visually-impaired people in their everyday lives.
  • Replica documents made easy-to-read with a magnifying document reader.

The argument put forward by many people in the Henshaws group was that while replicas and art objects are great, they wanted to handle real objects. Visually-impaired people aren’t alone in this desire – many visitors would like to touch more in museums and galleries.

This isn’t possible in most cases, but there is a compromise and that is to use the process of collections review to identify a large range of real objects that could be suitable for handling. Even if this means there is just one real object in an exhibition available for handling, this would be better than none at all.

One further issue is managing people’s expectations and being very clear which objects can and can’t be handled. The message can be expressed by putting things in cases but often this isn’t possible or desirable – signage doesn’t always work as people don’t, or indeed can’t, always read signs. Gallery attendants who pounce when a visitor touches something out of bounds are not a good solution.  

This is not something that can be solved overnight but a combination of well-trained staff, signage and sympathetic physical barriers (or lack of barriers in the case of objects that can be touched) can help.

We know that people love touching real objects, but replicas and art objects can also be a great way to interpret real objects that can’t be handled. In the Henshaws exhibition we commissioned art-makers from the Knaresborough Arts and Crafts centre to make three works that explored the exhibition themes and what could be handled.

The end results were fairly successful, however we learnt several things from the process.

  • Make the brief extremely clear and discuss it in person with the artist. The creative process can be a long and winding road leading to an outcome that may not end up being suitable for handling.
  • Monitor the artwork throughout the process; we ended up with one artwork that was too large to be transported easily, one that when hung in the gallery all the tactile elements were too high to touch and one that was predominantly a visual piece housed in a tactile support.
  • Be prepared to pay. Artists have a living to make and the opportunity to see their work in an exhibition is a partial reward but will not pay their rent.

We started with one simple premise; exhibitions should be about multi-sensory stimulation for all and although we did pay special attention to ensuring ours was fully accessible for visually-impaired people, we knew the majority of visitors would not be blind so we included a variety of other sensory stimuli to help interpret the original objects and themes.

We toyed with the idea of using bluetooth technology to send an audio tour and audio description of the exhibition to people’s mobile phones but felt was an expensive investment and also might be a barrier to access. In the end, we opted for a basic Mp3 player.

We also included: smells, which worked well in facilitated school group visits but not as a general part of the exhibition; films about visual impairment; music and poetry created by visually-impaired people; and a mannequin dressed as a one-eyed, one-legged Napoleonic soldier as a light-hearted tactile opportunity.

Click here for more MP articles on working with visually-impaired visitors

Laura Wigg-Bailey is a freelance heritage consultant. She was the project manager for Henshaws Society for Blind People’s exhibition about the history of their organisation and blindness in general


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MA Member
15.02.2013, 14:19
This is an area where museums could do a lot beneficially for very little cost. As well as being a heritage / museums professional I work as a theatre audio describer. In a previous museums' post I introduced recorded audio described tours (they have to be more descriptive and object rich than normal guided tours) of the displays which were well received by visually impaired visitors. Most museums will have trained audio describers near them and could collaborate on good access projects. Theatres, TV and sports do it - why not museums?