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.

Welcome to our Sensing Culture Blog

Sensing Culture is a HLF-funded project, led by the RNIB, looking at ways in which we can improve the visitor experience for blind and partially sighted visitors.

The Ashmolean Museum, the Museum of the History of Science, the Museum and Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum will be involved in a number of initiatives which this blog will detail.

As well as the Oxford University Museums, the project involves five other partner museum services in the south-east region – Brighton and Hove, Canterbury, Lewes Castle and Arthur Conan Doyle collection.

This blog will provide updates and information during the course of the project.