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 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.”


“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.”

To Touch or not to Touch?


One particular problem we’ve encountered at the Museum of Natural History, is slightly unusual.  There are many objects in the museum that are on open display.  A lot of them the museum actively encourages visitors to touch – but not all.  Being able to touch objects on general display is an exciting and important experience at this museum for the general public, but even more so for our blind and partially sighted visitors.

As part of the project, we want to make sure that we can highlight and encourage blind and partially sighted visitors, as well as general visitors, to handle our “touchable” specimens, but at the same time making sure the other specimens on open display are protected from wandering hands.

The first step was to talk to staff at the museum so that we could obtain a definitive list of what can and can’t be touched.  We then started to think about signage.  The museum’s current signage is not really suitable for a blind and partially sighted audience, is often ambiguous and we were unsure whether visitors actually took any notice of it.  One way to find out was to watch the visitors in action and to see if they read the signs or resisted the urge to touch.

A number of volunteers were asked to sit and observe visitor behaviour in certain sections of the museum for a two hour period, marking down how many visitors engaged with the displays and how many touched them.  They were stationed in areas where there are objects on open display, but where the signage on touching is not always obvious.

Simon, one of the volunteers, commented on his observations,

I was given the area around the iguanodon and tyrannosaurus rex skeletons casts, two of the largest and most noticeable in the Museum.  While I was watching over 700 visitors came through the area and interacted in some way with the exhibits.  Over a third of them touched at least one of the displays.  In particular many visitors (of all ages) were keen to touch a reconstruction Tyrannosaurus Rex head on display next to the skeleton cast. The head was also a very popular photo opportunity and often caused much excitement among younger visitors. It was clear that for many an important part of their experience was touching these objects.”

We’re now looking into ways of highlighting our touchable objects that are both appropriate for both blind and partially sighted visitors and work for the general public.  Any suggestions welcome!


Asking the Experts

An important part of our project is making sure we talk directly to blind and partially sighted people.

Advertising through local support groups and the Oxfordshire Association for the Blind, we’ve been able to set up an Advisory Panel for the project of 6 local blind and partially sighted people.  They have agreed to meet with us over regular intervals throughout the project and give us their views, opinions and knowledge.  Some of the panel members are regular visitors to the university museums, but others are new to our venues.

Our first meeting was in November when everyone came together to the Museum of Natural History for the first time.  After a tea, biscuits and water for the guide dogs, we started talking about visiting museums in general and what can make or break a museum visit for a blind or partially sighted person.  One of the main themes was the personal interaction between the visitor and the museum staff and volunteers.  All our panelists felt that having someone to talk with them and show them around was preferred to audio guides or other forms of technology, as these don’t always suit everyone’s needs.  and having staff who were trained in able to guide visitors around also featured highly.

After a lively discussion, we headed out into the museum itself for our panelists to discover the Museum of Natural History’s new “Sensing Evolution” display.

We’re already looking forward to our next meeting in March.

What we’ll be doing

The overall aim of the project is to enable blind and partially sighted people to have a better experience when visiting our museums and be able to visit more independently. There are 4 main aspects to the project.

  •  Focus Group

 We will be setting up a focus group of local blind and partially sighted people who will consult with us on all aspects of the project to ensure that their needs are properly met.

  •  Meet the Museum kits

 We will be providing wayfinding and orientation information, which will be available at the front desk of each museum. This will include large print guides, braille, and a self-led audio described welcome to each museum. All of these will help to provide a better introduction for people with sight loss. We will also be looking at appropriate ways of training staff in visual impairment awareness.

  •  Bookable Touch Tours

There will also be a series of new audio described touch tours across all the museums. These will be bookable tours focussing on particular themes and special exhibitions.

  •  Audio Description on Request

We will be developing a training programme for museum tour guides in audio description. This will allow for any blind or partially sighted visitor to request audio description as part of an advertised guided tour, rather than having to be part of a special programme.