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'Opening Up Creative Culture' - Colin Hambrook discusses audio-description and the work of the RNIB Cultural Inclusion department / 25 April 2013

cover image of the book Shifting Perspectives showing a gloved hand touching a bronze sculpture of a face

Cover of the book Shifting Perspectives: Opening up museums and galleries to blind and partially sighted people

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I have long objected to the idea - encouraged in art school - that visual artworks, should by definition, only be able to 'speak for themselves' - and that any written or spoken text interpreting a painting or a photograph simply 'got in the way' of the viewer's imagination. Words, when used creatively, and in an accessible way add layers enhancing the viewer's experience of the artwork, rather than telling people what to see.

Yesterday, Zoe Partington, Cultural and Inclusion Arts Development Officer at the RNIB, presented the end of a three year programme of work looking at what galleries and museums can do to encourage access for blind and partially sighted visitors. She presented 'Opening Up Creative Culture' - a series of films about sharing learning about audio-description, which confirmed my thoughts on the potential of the medium to enhance collections, archives and heritage, both ensuring access to culture for blind and partially people, but also for giving anyone, another way in, to appreciate the arts.

The series of twelve short films - available on youtube - contain various perspectives. Gavin Griffiths talks about the importance of having access to culture and the nuts and bolts of what information he wants to hear when accessing art as a blind person. Audio-describer Louise Fryer gives an articulate and animated overview of what excites her about audio-description and the subtleties that make it an engaging experience.

The films come alive when interrogating the specific. In one of the films we get an in-depth look at what words you might use to interpret the smile of the Mona Lisa. In another Paul Fordham from Punch Records talks about how his perceptions of creating a contextual language changed during a project, working with RNIB and spoken word artist Evoke to produce audio-description for 'By the Rivers of Birminam' - an exhibition of work by photographer Vanley Burke, held at the mac Birmingham, last year.

From a position of not understanding why you would want to audio-describe an exhibition, Paul goes on to talk about how he came to realise many more layers of meaning in the photographs, and how listening to the result felt like he was discussing the work with a friend, as he walked through the exhibition.

At the Tate Modern event we got live pieces from Louise Fryer and from Evoke responding to a photograph from the exhibition, of a young black boy in his Sunday best, taken somewhere in the dusty back streets of Birmingham in the late 1960s. Louise gave us a  functional description, which was nonetheless creative through her carefully considered choice of words, giving us precise and subtle details of all aspects of the image.

Through poetry Evoke was able to give us an emotional connection to the image and to add layers of meaning which took it from the specific to a universal appreciation of a young lad on the brink of a life to come. By keying into his posture and facial expressions you got to know the photograph itself, but also got an understanding of the cultural context. Through his words Evoke was able to convey something of the time and place, of the life expectations and of the value of telling stories through pictures as well as words. You can hear examples of these descriptions on Punch Records website

Lastly Zoe Partington introduced us to a  CultureLink publication she has been working on at the RNIB. Shifting Perspectives is a well produced, glossy guide to opening up museums and galleries for blind and partially sighted people. The book identifies approaches to key aspects of service delivery which can help improve access to museums and galleries venues, collections and archives. Shifting Perspectives gives an overview of strategies for overcoming barriers of access to museums and galleries - both intellectual and physical - for blind and partially sighted people. It discusses the work done with seven different cultural organisations in working with blind and partially sighted people to produce a range of accessible environments.

Unfortunately the Cultural Inclusion Team at RNIB is to be closed due to RNIB focusing on strategic priorities in the new business plan and reduced resources. Zoe has worked in this field for over 20 years and will continue to develop creative solutions to museums and galleries across the sector. She said "the films are a fantastic resource via modern digital networks to take this forward and reach modern audiences and utilise the funding given by Arts Council England to the best economic and cultural value possible in light of recent cuts in the arts."

To contact Zoe for further support, advice or information on 07803607008 or email

'Shifting Perspectives' second edition is available to buy through the RNIB online Shop or by phoning the helpline on 0303 123 9999.


Colin Hambrook

9 May 2013

I watched that film several times and it is only after reading your comment that I realised that the word LEEDS is on the wall at the bottom of the photograph. Having met Evoke I know he is a young up-and-coming spoken word artist. I agree with you. It's a big omission and I'm surprised that no-one picked up on it during the production process. The photograph from the Vanley Burke exhibition presented on the day I went to was very different. Having Evoke and Louise Fryer performing their pieces one after the other was a big asset. With Louise you got a much more considered piece of audio-description informed by Vocaleyes training. With Evoke you got an emotional engagement that pulled you in. It's a shame they didn't put more of the work online.


8 May 2013

Colin and Liz, I know we started a conversation about this kind of audio description the other day, and I find it really fascinating. I agree that for me it adds layers rather than prevents your own imagination working an d after all you can choose when and if you listen to the audio description. I was always told that good art speaks for itself ie if it needs explaining it isn't doing the job its supposed to. I have always disagreed with this as well. It is far more interesting to know how the artist arrived at what they have created. The creative process itself adds weight to the final piece, in my opinion.

When it comes to museums I can only welcome any format that aims to engage the viewer and help them connect with what they are looking at (I am thinking of my 12 year old son for a moment,who will walk in a museum and out the other end 'seeing' absolutely nothing of interest unless there is activity involved to engage him). This can work for everyone.

My only issue with it is that with any audio description, there has to be a factual account of what is seen as well, to create a starting point for the creative interpretation. However, if this stage is not done accurately any layers built on top may be misleading, incorrect or just on the wrong path.I am curious to know if there are any guidelines, standards or checking systems in place to avoid this happening? We all make mistakes so it is likely to happen, but a robust system or some sort of certification of the audio describers might be useful? I followed your link Colin to the Punch site and watched one of the RNIB project films. It is '6. Graffiti on a wall near Antrobus Road. 1977'. Although it probably doesn't effect the flavour of the audio description, I did notice that the initial factual description of what I was seeing wasn't complete. The writing in capital letters actually reads 'GEFFEREY MORGAN LOVES LEEDS'. However the audio describer doesn't mention Leeds at all, which is odd as the way the writing is framed in the video it looks as if he knows it is there. It's ok for me because I can see it in the film and I have the freedom to wonder whether this is a reference to a favorite football team or the town, but obviously anyone who can't won't know it's there and those layers will be missing. As I said, mistakes are bound to happen. As someone who is about to embark on using audio description in my own video, it would be helpful to know more about what standards/guidelines there might be, so I can ensure I get it right. Any suggestions would be appreciated!


26 April 2013

Being a partially sighted storyteller myself, I've long advocated for the idea of using spoken word to help bring the stories within pictures & objects to life. However, it's not easy to get this message across and to have opportunities to 'try ideas out'. AD is predominently provided by sighted people, so tt's excellent that Zoe and the team were able to involve/include B&PS people throughout the project and to actively find ways to enable partially sighted people to explore their own literal and creative approaches to delivering AD. I attended the creative AD course at Ironbridge and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to creatively respond. The sector can learn alot from taking a leaf out of this book. These 12 short films offer a more wholistic and open ended approach and offer useful tips and advise to get started.

Access consultants need to see them to gain broader unerstanding. They will add value to creative equality training courses. I very much hope that Zoe can find ways to continue this important work, with or without the RNIB.


26 April 2013

I saw two of the films of Evoke's descriptions made with Punch on their site. Have they any plans to make the rest available? It would have been great to have seen those films in sync with RNIBs films. They'd complement each other really well in terms of theory and practice, offering an creative response to capture peoples imaginations.