Beyond the Visual: Blindness and Expanded Sculpture has been awarded £250,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s (AHRC) first Exhibition Fund.
The project, which is a collaboration between Ken Wilder and Aaron McPeake (both University of the Arts London), Clare O’Dowd from the Henry Moore Institute, and the disability-led arts organisation Shape Arts, will research how to enhance blind people’s experience of art museums.
Christopher Smith, executive chair at the AHRC, said: “As audiences and venues change, and as we seek to be more inclusive and bring our culture to everyone, the nature of how we stage and curate exhibitions needs to evolve.
"This project will unlock fresh ways for different and often overlooked audiences to experience our historical and cultural heritage, ensuring its value can be fully appreciated by many more people, but they will also inform all of our exhibition making. This represents another step in AHRC’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion and to supporting our brilliant and innovative museums and galleries.”
The three-year project will comprise public engagement events, a research season from October 2024 until March 2025 and culminate in a major exhibition in November 2025 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds together with Chelsea College of Arts and Shape Arts.
Beyond the Visual will explore engagements with contemporary sculpture using senses other than sight, challenging the dominance of sight in the making and appreciation of art.
The exhibition will foreground work by blind and partially blind artists, and the project aims to generate the first international database of blind and partially blind sculptural artists.
The exhibition will be the first major UK-based sculpture show predominantly featuring works by blind or partially blind artists within a national institution.
Ken Wilder and Aaron McPeake are central to the project as two artists who have been collaborating for nearly two decades since they first met during their PhD studies at Chelsea College of Arts.
Together, they question the assumption that art appreciation and creation are confined to those with full visual perception.
Previously, Wilder and McPeake spearheaded an AHRC-funded network (with partners the Henry Moore Institute and Shape Arts) exploring non-sighted modes of engaging art, culminating in a public symposium hosted at London's Wellcome Collection.
Ken Wilder, reader in spatial design at Chelsea College of Arts, said: “I’m looking forward to co-curating Beyond the Visual with Dr McPeake and Henry Moore Institute Research Curator Dr Clare O’Dowd, in investigating the role that touch, sound, smell and proprioception – the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body – play in engaging with sculpture.
"We want to ensure the exhibition offers a complete experience to the beholder, enhancing tactile and non-visual sensory interactions with the various artworks.
"Whilst blind and partially blind people have been identified as a primary audience, the exhibition is not intended only for the blind but open to all. Instead, it aims to not exclude an audience that is often marginalised by exhibitions in which visitors are not able to touch or interact with the works.”
Jeff Rowlings, head of programme at Shape Arts, said: “Beyond the Visual, in crystalising much needed research into exhibition form, promises to channel the agency of blind and partially sighted practitioners in exciting and varied ways.
"We are delighted to support its progress and look forward to the opportunities it affords around new curatorial approaches and audience experiences.”
The exhibition Beyond the Visual will open at the Henry Moore Institute in November 2025 and run until March 2026 and will be accompanied by an extensive public engagement programme.