Making collections accessible to visually impaired visitors

Catering for differently abled people within arts and heritage venues is essential and rewarding but it can pose a challenge. At the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham where I work, we are grateful for the support of our volunteers who have helped us improve our accessibility for those with visual impairment.

© Ben Goodwin - The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Descriptive tours

Our two volunteer guides Marian Edwards and Barbara Fogarty have organised special events for groups from Sight Concern Worcester, the Stratford Association for the Blind and Worcester Association for the Blind. The groups were given live descriptive tours of the exhibitions and collections and were then asked to complete questionnaires so we could identify ways to improve services for visually impaired audiences at the Barber Institute. 

Marian is partially sighted herself and has direct experience of some of the barriers visually impaired visitors experience in museums and art galleries. She attended the In Touch with Art conference at the V&A in October 2010 and since then has proposed, with Barbara, that the Barber’s volunteer guides provide specific audio-descriptive tours for partially sighted and blind Friends of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. 

Other guides were trained and took part in the Cultural Olympiad’s National Open Weekend on 24 July, providing a series of free live audio tours within the Barber’s recent exhibition, Court on Canvas: Tennis in Art, which were recorded as podcasts.

Sensory sessions

In addition to these projects, Alex Jolly, Learning and Access Assistant at the Barber, has delivered tailor-made sensory sessions to students at Queen Alexandra College (QAC) exploring the Barber’s collection of sculpture through clay modelling and object handling sessions. Earlier in my career, I worked for the National Railway Museum in York and they ran similar sessions for the visually impaired. They were allowed to feel individual parts of a steam engine, with the use of each component explained as the tour went on. The visitors gradually built up a mental picture of what a steam engine looks like, as well as having a clear understanding of how one works.

Back at the Barber, Tess Radcliffe, Learning and Access Officer, is looking to develop a new handling collection using the University of Birmingham’s innovative 3D laser scanning technology (VISTA), whereby exact replicas of objects can be printed in 3D and used for exploration through touch.

But it doesn't take high tech and a huge budget to make a venue or collections more tangible, don't you think?