At Wellcome Collection we aim to make our exhibitions and events as accessible as possible, and this often means thinking outside the box – sometimes literally. As with many other museums, much of our collection lies in glass cabinets, so we have to ask ourselves: what are the ways we can take these objects out of their display cases and make them more accessible to our visitors? Catherine Walker explains more.
We can’t always change the physical space in our exhibitions, especially with valuable or delicate objects, but as Visitor Services staff we can use our skills to make objects more accessible. As a team we work hard to improve our levels of engagement across the board and to break down barriers to the collection. We want to make everyone feel welcome in the museum and it certainly doesn’t make sense to exclude anyone when we are in a position to reach as wide an audience as possible. We therefore provide several different ways of engaging – for example, through multimedia guides, speech-to-text and British Sign Language interpreted tours, audio-described events, and a growing handling collection. These make our collection more accessible, but they also encourage people to enjoy the collection in new ways.
One of the aspects of the visitor experience that I work on particularly is our offer to blind and partially sighted visitors. When developing our offer we considered focusing on audio guides; however, one of the things the Visitor Services team pride ourselves on is our personality. There is a lot of room for each Visitor Services Assistant to have their own interests and to interact with people as individuals. For example, while other venues might have standardised tour scripts, we research and write our own, focusing on our own expertise. We wanted to translate this personality to our provision for blind and partially sighted visitors and offer personalised tours rather than audio guides. This now means that we can offer flexible visits, led by the visitor, that will hopefully encourage a deeper level of engagement. Guided tours also allow us to counter some of the physical difficulties blind and partially sighted visitors might have; we can alert them to physical changes in the space, give them the space to get close to objects and describe the details that might be difficult to make out.
It is also a great experience for the Visitor Services Assistants leading the tours. Orla O’Donnell says: ‘I have really enjoyed doing audio-described tours. They have allowed me to gain a new skill but also allowed me to interact with blind and partially sighted visitors, which has been the best part for me.’ It has also been a really enjoyable experience for me personally. We get to meet lots of really interesting people, and audio description enables us to have conversations with more of our visitors. It means that we can get their perspective on objects in the gallery and what interests them. It becomes a discussion and a sharing of knowledge – an opportunity you don’t always get, especially when giving a tour to 20 people. It certainly adds to our confidence as a team. We are proud to offer flexible tours, allowing visitors to drop in at any time. Once our Visitor Service Assistants learn audio description skills, these can be applied to any object, creating flexibility and removing the need for rehearsal or too much preparation. The fact that our team is confident enough to provide a tour like this is a testimony to the training and to our staff.
The audio description training was provided by VocalEyes, a charity that provides audio description support for a range of venues, from museums to theatres. Implementing this training has been another enjoyable aspect of the experience, including working with the people at VocalEyes and going out to local community groups to encourage visitors to the museum. Out of this experience, we not only have more people visiting the museum but are also getting repeat visits. People enjoy the museum and want to come back, and we have a really positive presence on many blogs for blind and partially sighted visitors.
Now our offer has developed from audio description tours of the galleries to audio-described events. We have an event series called ‘The Thing Is…’, which is based around a mystery object. It is a discussion-based event exploring objects from our founder Henry Wellcome’s collection. We have adapted it to include an audio-described tour of relevant objects in the galleries, or of library material. We then describe the room in which the event takes place and the object the discussion is based around, so users get a ‘sneak peak’ before the talk begins.
For us it feels like we have achieved a lot in the year and a half we have been developing this offer. We had our first audio description event in April 2011, and now we have a regular audience within the community that wants to engage further with our collection. We have also trained more members of staff, so there is even more flexibility in our offer, and it is going from strength to strength.
For more information about our accessibility offer, please see our website. If you are interested in attending our events or if you have any questions about access at Wellcome Collection, you can call 020 7611 2222 or email email@example.com.
Catherine Walker is a Visitor Services Duty Manager at Wellcome Collection.