Back from the Dead – a touch tour of the story of Penicillin

Marie-Louise Kerr, Exhibition Curator – Back from the Dead

After my training session last summer with the Museum Outreach team, although I had attended another session to help out, I gave my first proper Touch Tour talk at the start of March. I was really excited about giving the tour – giving public talks is a regular part of my job but this felt like a new way of approaching the familiar. In the prep beforehand, Susan and I talked through the gallery space and display layout, thinking about good places to stop to talk and what hands-on elements might be incorporated. I thought through my usual talk information and where I should add additional descriptive elements to add interest or further details for the audience. The RNIB training was useful and made the process feel less daunting. What was even better was that it felt like a very natural way to approach talking to members of the public.


 On the day itself, we were thrilled to have 14 people turned up (& 3 guide dogs!) and, although it was rather “cosy” in the Special Exhibitions Gallery, the audience were patient with the squeeze and the time it took to move people and set up chairs (Even the dogs didn’t make a fuss. Thankfully – howls could have been off-putting!). Even better they really engaged with the talk. It is always great when an audience laughs in the right places! There were questions and sharing of stories (including a gentleman who had met Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin and another who might have a family member who worked at the Dunn School when Florey was there), which I always enjoy and feel really adds to theses tours – I ended up learning things as well as having the opportunity to pass on what I have discovered during the exhibition research. Hopefully a win-win situation!

 We ended the session by some group members making votives based on their own experiences of illness and antibiotics, which will be added to our artist-in-residence, Anna Dumitriu’s Ex Voto art installation within the Back from the Dead display.

 The Touch Tour was a first for me but I really enjoyed every element, from the preparation to delivering the talk, and I very much hope to be involved in similar sessions again.


Partnership working – visiting the Beaney

An important part of the project has been to meet up with all the other partners at regular intervals and hear what they’ve been up to with their Sensing Culture projects.

The most recent partner day was hosted by our lovely colleagues at Canterbury Museums Service at the Beaney museum.  Having never been to the Beaney before, I was looking forward to exploring the galleries as well as hearing all about their Sensing Culture project.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the day was to hear the culmination of their Arts Award project.  Blind and partially sighted children from 2 local schools had worked with composer Richard Navarro, to create musical pieces based on their interaction with objects at the Beaney and Canterbury Catherdral.  It was wonderful to watch and hear their own compositions, as well as the extraordinary sight of one pupil “playing” the bird case!  Using technology similar to that of used by some games consoles, he was able to move his hand across the front of the case and trigger the birdsong of some of the birds in the case.  It was nice to see a different form of twitter for a change!

Beaney arts award music

We were also able to visit the exhibition which displayed work produced during workshops carried out during workshops led by artists Wendy Dawes and Claire Buckley.  You can read more about their fantastic project at

It was interesting, not only to see the work, but to also hear how about all the work behind the workshops and to see how the Beaney had staged their exhibition and their advice on what had worked and was hadn’t.  It was all food for thought and full of lots of good ideas for any future work we might do here at Oxford.

A New Perspective – audio description training feedback

I signed up to do the RNIB training because it sounded interesting, but wasn’t sure how relevant it would be for my role as Collections Officer within the Life Collections. Within minutes of the training starting, I was hooked and could start to see the potential of it.

 The training started off with an introduction about the project and what its aims are, highlighting what we can/ will be able to offer Blind and Partially Sighted (BPS) people in the museum sector. There was a fun element to the training, this included partnering up and having one person guide the other round the room, this highlighted how vulnerable people can feel without sight. Another fun exercise was describing an object and having your partner draw what you are describing – we did surprisingly well!


 Then we got onto the tricky part – audio description! I’d never really considered what needs to be explained in an audio description, I assumed it would just be whatever is written on the label for that object. Oh how wrong I was! Learning how to include the label facts, as well as a physical description of the object with a limited word count was really interesting, and pretty hard. We had a practice on objects from across all the museums, I had a stereoscope and had no idea what it was, needless to say I struggled and had to be steered in the right direction by the trainers.

Finally, we put all our training to the test and split up into groups and headed out into the museum. We had to pick a 2D, 3D and a touchable object within the given area and write a tour that we could give to a BPS group. Describing the objects, giving facts about them, putting them into context within a case was hard, but then you also had to consider guiding the group to the objects. It was a lot to take on board, but each group did really well and we were all given pointers by the trainers as we went along to explain how we could improve our use of language, the amount of detail needed (e.g. how tall is the case) and reminding us that they will need to be told about obstacles that could be in their way.


 I gained a lot from this training, thoroughly enjoyed it and have recommended that my colleagues do it when the opportunity arises. It’s started me thinking of ways that I could apply the techniques learnt to the tours I give behind the scenes in collections, and what Life Collections staff can offer our Outreach Education team to enhance their tours and sessions – possibly live insects and models.

Amoret Spooner, Collections Assistant, Entomology, Museum of Natural History


Spreading the Word – making presentations accessible

In September, I was invited to speak at the Access All Areas conference organised by the Oxford University Museums Partnership in association with the Jodi Mattes Trust.

It was a great opportunity to spread the word about the Sensing Culture project but to also learn about the work that’s being carried out across the museum sector to make our venues more accessible to all visitors.

One thing that occurred to me as I was preparing my presentation, which I would not have thought about before this project, was – how do I make sure I make the presentation as accessible as possible?

The presentation was going to be interpreted by a BSL signer, but I wanted to make sure that any blind or partially sighted members of the audience were catered for.

access all areas

It’s easy to slip into the same old routine of Powerpoints with lots of text and images.  The traditional way of engaging people through presentations relies quite a lot on visuals, images, videos and animations etc.,  but I had come to realise that this may not be appropriate for many members of the audience.

So I did some research and found that carrying out a few simple changes, I could make sure my presentation was more accessible.

The key things that I took on board were to:

  • Limit the amount of text that was on the slide
  • Read out any text that was included
  • Choose a sans serif font
  • Make sure it is at least 18  point
  • Make sure there was high contrast between the text and the background
  • Describe any images that are included

These were very simple, but effective principles which I hoped made the presentation more accessible.

A lot of the principles are the same as that for accessible design, but it was the practice of describing any images that were included that I think made a big difference.  It was a really good opportunity for me to be able to put some of the audio description skills I had learnt when dealing with the museum setting in practise in a different context.

A Swell New Purchase

As part of the project we’ve been looking at different ways we can introduce tactile opportunities within the museums.

So we were really excited when a large parcel arrived at our office.

The swell printer allows us to make raised images to help interpret objects on display that can’t be touched.

It works using specially designed paper that reacts with heat.   You just print out your image onto the paper using a normal printer, then pass it through the heater as you would a laminator.  Then the magic happens!


The black inky lines react with the heat and swell up, making raised lines on the paper.

It has allowed us to enhance our touch tours and provide a bank of images that can be used again and again.  It’s a really great way of communicating patterns, textures and shapes of objects that we are not allowed to touch.   It is also a really quick process, allowing us to react to visitors’ needs, as and when required.

We’re still learning about how to create the best images that work well for the audience – but we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from  our users.

Sensing Culture leads on to new project

Oxford University IT department runs an IT innovation grant, looking for project ideas from staff which involve the innovate use of technology in a wider range of different areas.

Throughout the project, we noticed how well raised images can help use interpret our collection during the touch tours.  But again, we saw that it only really worked when there was a member of staff or volunteer on hand to help guide the user through the image and describe various aspects of the image.  We felt there could be a potential project in discovering how sound could be embedded into the images, in a way that would allow the users to explore the images how they wanted to.

We were lucky enough to be awarded a grant for an 18 month project which will look at developing raised images of the Ashmolean’s artworks that will also have embedded audio.

We were only able to achieve this grant funding do to the work and partnerships that has already been carried out through the Sensing Culture project.  We also have established links within the blind and partially sighted community which we can help us ensure we work in partnership to ensure whatever we produce meets the needs of our audience.

We were able to see an opportunity for progressing the work we’ve been doing with Sensing Culture and move it forward into an exciting new area.

Microsculpture- handling live insects and 3D printed replicas

One of our most successful touch tours so far at the Museum of Natural History has been a tour of their “Microsculpture” exhibition.

 As usual, the tour was split into 2 sections.  In the first half, we explored the exhibition, describing these enormous and absolutely beautiful images of the smallest specimen’s in the museum’s collection.   Our swell paper printer really added to the experience, allowing visitors to feel the outline structures of these amazing creatures. 


Next was the handling section of our tour.  Now, the only thing that is touchable in this collection are the insects themselves!  Insect handling is usually one of the highlights of any outreach or family session that we do and we wanted our touch tour participants to have access to the same experience.

 Luckily everyone was quite game more than happy to join in and had a fantastic time holding cockroaches, millipedes and stick insects.


However, not everyone will be comfortable doing this.  This is one particular instance when the usefulness of 3D replicas became apparent.  Having a model would be incredibly helpful.  But it was also important to the entomology staff that it shouldn’t just be any old model of an insect that was used, but one that was as accurate as possible. 

 They were interested to see if this scientific accuracy in the model was as important to our visitors.  We were able to test this out as they had a small model of a cockroach that had been made for them.  This model had been made from a mould of an actual cockroach from the museum’s collection and so was completely scientifically accurate.   img_3161

And it turned out that the thing the visitors at the touch tour loved about the model was it’s accuracy.  They could feel every little hair on its legs and the feathering of its’ antennae.  And they got to explore it really closely, more than they did the live specimens.  So we’re looking into whether there might be an opportunity to produce more of these kinds of replicas in the future. 

Learning to Look

Recently we held the first set of Audio Description Training sessions at the museums.  The sessions were  an introduction to audio description and gave staff members the opportunity to learn to look at their museums and their collections in a new way.

We opened up the training to all members of museum staff and we had a real cross-section of departments and disciplines represented.  This was really positive step for the museums.  Not only does it give our staff new skills, but helps to spread awareness of our BPS visitors and their needs within the whole museum, not just those who deal with visitors on a daily basis.

We had overwhelmingly positive feedback about the days and here are just some of the comments from those who took part.

The audio description training was excellent.  Museums often come to mind as very visual environments, and it was stimulating to experience it from a different perspective.IMG_3013.JPG  

 The training session was well-designed; the activities complemented and built-on each other.  As a member of the gallery team, I valued the opportunity to understand our BPS visitors’ expectations and desires, to see how our museum is seeking to better meet them, and to learn how I can contribute to that.  As an aside, I found much of the training to be relevant and valuable in my work with all visitors”.

Member of Front of House

 IMG_3016.JPG“ The day was well laid out and the approaches backed up with facts from audience research. This had revealed how important and valued it is that organisations provide good pre-visit information, clear audio descriptions, tactile opportunities and have staff who feel confident that they know what they are doing. The irony is that these points are appreciated by all visitors, no matter what their ability.

The tips for useful resources such as pen friends; family-friendly back-packs; touch tours and handling collections and the value of tactile models were plentiful and applicable to most museum settings. So we have no excuse! It was great to get this training just at the start of our exhibition planning and I hope to implement some of the approaches in the very near future. 

Exhibition Curator

For me the audio description process was very calming. It allowed me to be very focussed and really look in detail at objects and architecture that I was already familiarblog with. The process forced me to think carefully about what I needed to say and in what order it needed to be said. Making people feel comfortable within the museum space was also a key priority so thinking ahead and planning were crucial to ensuring a meaningful visitor experience.

I am very much looking forward to a future Arts Award project I am working on with BPS young people and their families. This training will be key to my planning and will enable me to offer a high quality and well planned project!”

Arts Co-Ordinator

Providing a Welcome

I’m Lonny Evans the Audio Describer working with Susan and the Museum Outreach Team to create Sound Pen Welcome packs especially for Blind and Partially Sighted people (BPS) across each of the four Oxford Museum Sites. Although I have been working with the BPS community for the last ten years on similar Guides for a range of Museum and Heritage sites across the UK (including projects as diverse as a Teddy Bear themed VI family friendly back pack for the V and A Museum of Childhood and a Sound Pen Guide to the Eric Ravilious Collection at the Towner Gallery Eastbourne) I think the Oxford Museum’s project is one of my most challenging to date.

Some of reasons for this are: firstly the scale of the project – an individual Welcome Pack for each of these four imposing sites with their extensive and important collections. Secondly – fulfilling Susan’s brief for precision and brevity, which involves a lot of careful editing and thirdly trying to provide something entertaining and informative to listen to – an accessible ‘way in’ for BPS visitors visiting the venue for the first time and who may choose to be unaccompanied.

To this end we have decided to use the Sound Pen – an affordable, robust, pen-like scanner which you can use to ‘read’ raised hotspots to access Audio information. This has worked very well in other venues for adults and children alike and along with my producer/designer Lindsey Smith we will create a different Pack with four hotspot information points for each venue.

At the present time we are organising the information into four categories:

1 – A Welcome to the Venue

2 – Orientation information for the Building

3 – An Architectural Description of the Building

4 – Three Recommendations for the Visit (with a focus on tactile exhibits and well lit, accessible locations)

In late February I joined Susan and the Outreach Team for a three day research trip to Oxford, working in each of the four venues. Susan had worked with a BPS focus group to establish what they most wanted from the Sound Pen Packs and we focused on these areas at each site. For me the three day trip was a very intense experience as I traveled from site to site trying to absorb the uniqueness of each of the venues and slowly starting to figure out my approach – particularly to the Architectural Description.

Places like the NHM overwhelm the observer with the monumental scale of the glazed court and the decorative detailing of the interior – how to summarise this abundance in under three minutes of Audio? Similarly with the Ark-like interior of the Pitt Rivers and it’s cornucopia of a collection. And following on from that the challenge of orientating a visitor around the main floor of the Pitt Rivers with it’s wonderful maze of Wooden display cabinets or of the Ashmolean with it’s classical frontage and modern extension, how to describe in a nutshell the sprawling scale of it’s multiple floors and tessellating, glazed walkways? Quite a challenge.

It was a great experience too studying the key items we had picked in each venue, like viewing the incredible feathered yellow and red cloak in the Pitt Rivers, that we chose because of the abundance of light that can be cast upon it within it’s display cabinet, or studying the twinkling silver wonder that is George III Microscope at the Museum of the History of Science or getting up close and personal with the wonderfully tactile Trilobite slab in the Museum of Natural History.

Returning to my Brighton Studio with books of research on each venue, pages of notes and sketchbook drawings and a phone storage bulging to capacity with photos of our key items from each of the venues I find I am very slowly starting to refine everything down to the key elements we are looking for as I script the content for each of the guides.

So wish me luck and watch this space as I reign in my impulse to describe everything, in order to create something precise and useful with a clear, welcoming and above all listenable style. We are at the very beginning of the process and no doubt the content of the script will be augmented and refined, by myself and Lindsey, Susan and the focus group and Oxford curatorial staff, right up to the morning I enter the recording booth to do the final Voice Over on the project! Which is all part of the collaborative process and the successful uptake of the final packs.

Our first Touch Tour

Learning from the work already carried out at the Ashmolean Museum and their series of touch tours,  we will be developing a series of similar tours at the other three University Museums throughout this project.

twitterOur first new venture was with the Museum of Natural History.  This museum is already catering for blind and partially sighted visitors with a number of specifically designed touchable specimens and reconstructions out on open display.  As well as enhancing the visitor experience for blind and partially visitors, they are a huge hit with all the visitors to the museum.

The 28th January saw the museum welcome it’s first visitors on a bookable audio described touch tour of the museum. With the help of a member of staff and  3 volunteers, the visitors were given an audio described introduction to the museum, with the opportunity to feel some of the amazing architectural features of this beautiful building.  We then navigated our way to the touchable specimens, where volunteers and staff were able to describe in detail what was on display and provide more in-depth information.

After our tour, we took a well-earned rest underneath the T-Rex in the middle of the museum and got our hands on some of the fantastic objects in the museums’ handling collection.  The objects used were chosen to give our visitors an introduction to what this museum has to offer.  This elephant tooth proving to be a real talking point.   IMG_1762

There was lots of great feedback from the tour – and we’ll be taking their ideas on board as we look at ways of enhancing the project.  Although the suggestion of a “sniff” tour for the guide dogs might be a challenge.

There will be more tours at the Museum of Natural History in April, July and October.  But first we’ll be looking forward to facing very different challenges on our next Touch Tour at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

If you would like more information on upcoming touch tours please contact or phone 01865 282456