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.

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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 outreach@oum.ox.ac.uk or phone 01865 282456

A Volunteer’s View

Blog post written by Museum Volunteer – Holly Stack

“Feeling the plush fur of a black bear, the dagger-like canine teeth of a saber-toothed cat, the bumpy surface of real dinosaur egg fossils… For an animal lover, it doesn’t get much better than this, and getting to share the experience can make it even better! I’ve been volunteering at the Museum of Natural History for three years, both behind the scenes in the collection and presenting some of the marvels of the museum to the public. Helping visually impaired visitors explore the museum has been one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had at the MNH. Translating what you see and take for granted into words and descriptions that bring the beautiful building and the objects within to life is a challenge, but a good mind-stretching one.”

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“The blind and visually impaired visitors are so enthusiastic about handling objects in the collection, especially the skulls and the taxidermy. Feeling the claws of the badger gives you a real appreciation for their burrowing abilities, and those sharp dinosaur teeth on the Allosaurus skull are delightfully scary to touch. Everyone, sighted and with impaired vision, enjoys exploring the mammal and reptile touch tables, adding a different dimension of fun to the museum experience.”