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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