Although it’s now 20 years since the introduction of audio-description of painting and sculpture in art galleries, this is still often the first question sighted people ask when I tell them that’s what I do. Before we go into the how, when and where, here are a few answers to the question from experts in the field – some of the blind and partially sighted visitors, many of whom have been coming to audio-described events since the very beginning.
“There are a hundred reasons, but just because you lose your sight, you never lose your interest.” – David, severely sight-impaired.
“You feel the space and feel the atmosphere in the environment of the paintings.” – Noula, severely sight-impaired.
“Art in all its forms should be available to everyone. Most people, like me, have been able to see to a greater or lesser extent at one time and can appreciate a description of a work of art.” – Chrissie, now almost totally blind.
“Everyone should have a chance to compare and contrast works of art in all their glory.” Robin, who now sees just a little colour.
In Britain, the news is good. In normal times, most of the London galleries now provide audio-described sessions for blind and partially sighted people on a regular basis. They each provide a slightly different experience but are all well attended and appreciated. On occasions as many as 30 or more visitors gather, many of them accompanied by a sighted companion who likes to stay and join in. In regional galleries, numbers are smaller, often because it’s not possible for economic reasons to provide a regular service and build up an audience. But when it does happen, it’s popular.
Regular live audio-descriptions at the National Gallery in London were started in the mid-1990s. Marcus Weisen, then arts officer and head of leisure policy for the Royal National Institute for the Blind, came to the gallery with what I remember as a slightly mischievous smile and suggested that as New York galleries had started live audio-description, it was about time we tried it too. I was outreach officer at the gallery at the time and enthusiastic about innovations of this kind, so I volunteered to have a day’s basic training with him, and then to do a trial live description for a single visitor some days later when I’d had time to think about it. (There is far more to training now, but we had to start somewhere!)
There are rules, but the most basic are the clarity of the journey round the painting and the spontaneity and inclusivity of a live session. The picture itself usually dictates the starting point and the direction it should go, but a clear path around the picture is paramount. Dodging backwards and forwards because your own attention is suddenly taken by a detail off the path or because you’ve missed something is distracting and confusing to these visitors.
Above all, never read out a whole written description. Do your homework, carry notes to remind you of facts and quotes to pop in if they’re helpful, but the rest is between you and the picture. It’s the immediate response in you – the feeling of ‘oh, you really should take a look at this!’ – that brings the picture alive to your visitors. Stop for questions, ask for responses at appropriate moments. Communicate your own wonder and delight in a picture and particularly how and why it was made, but go easy on the personal interpretations as your visitors will want to have their own. And even if you don’t like a painting, the process of describing it will open it up to you, and reveal hidden depths that will endear it to you more than you expect.
My first ‘dry run’ in the late 1990s was with a lovely woman wheelchair user who wore a white peaked tennis shade over dark glasses and below them, a big smile. We explored J.M.W Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed together and I began to see how exciting, how much fun this new venture was going to be.
A couple of months later, the first public description to an audience of some 15 blind and partially sighted people was a little more intimidating. A 17th-century Dutch flower painting by Jan van Huysum was the choice. It must have been in the spring, because we carefully laid out tulips and narcissi and some luscious grapes on the table for each of our visitors to handle. Beside these tactile resources was a large reproduction of the painting, which they took home with them if they wished. Visitors were eager to ask questions – in this case, how did the artist manage to paint so many fruits and flowers from different seasons in one picture? This was interesting, because it’s also the question that sighted visitors often ask.
After the description was done, we all went out into the gallery to look at the painting itself, with other, sighted, visitors around. This method is still followed at the National Gallery to large groups of blind and partially visitors who like to listen to the description in comfort, handle tactile resources in private without being stared at, but also enjoy the inclusivity of experiencing the atmosphere of a busy gallery.
At the Royal Academy, we did the opposite – look first and handle afterwards. This was done before the building opened to the public, so there was a feeling of being at a privileged private view. Elsewhere, there is simply a description in front of the painting. Sometimes this is in a cordoned-off area with seating, at others our visitors stand with members of the general public who have dropped by to listen. It’s a great moment when one of these people comments – as they often do – that ‘they’ve never looked at a picture like that before and please can they have a similar session for themselves?’
Tactile resources are helpful and popular. The smell of linseed oil or the light touch of a badger hair paintbrush goes down well. So does a length of velvet or a musical instrument that, with luck, someone can play. At the Wallace Collection’s regular Sensations events, a visiting expert often comes to join our visitors for tea and rather splendid cakes, and the occasion develops into a master class in their individual fields. Regulars have made perfume after a foray into the 18th-century galleries, discovered first-hand how gilded frames are made, written poetry inspired by a Rubens landscape, experimented with colour and shape and even listened to a short lecture on Indian armour given by one of their own. On special occasions, they don gloves to handle a bronze relief sculpture or an ancient piece of oak furniture covered with tiny carved figures.
So each gallery has its own way of presenting pictures and sculptures to blind and partially sighted people. But some things are constant – we do use the words ‘look’ and ‘see’. We describe colour – often with a sensory adjective that enhances its quality – ‘a sharp apple green’, ‘red as fire’. It helps to have a wide vocabulary and to use onomatopoeia – the ‘whoosh’ of Turner’s train as it thunders over the bridge. Simile is good, but metaphor not so good. ‘She’s a bird in flight’ can be confusing, whereas, ‘her arms are spread wide like a bird in flight’ isn’t.
Writing a description for a website is quite a different process, hopefully it’s rewarding for both parties, but there’s nothing like a live description, with a live audience asking questions, telling you if you aren’t being clear or accurate: ‘You’ve just said it’s green and now you’re saying it’s blue!’ You’ve obviously neglected to tell them the grass is in the shadow on one side.
You sometimes have to take the odd knock to your pride in the audio-description business. Some years ago, I was describing a print of Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac, and was brought to an abrupt halt by a somewhat caustic regular who knew her Bible: ‘And where’s the ram in the thicket, Bridget?’
In my own defence the missing animal was very well hidden and in fact, I seem to remember one of our partially sighted visitors found it first. It was an occasion when the picture didn’t ‘speak to me and tell me what it wanted me to say’ in quite the way I would have wished, but it all added to the fun of the afternoon and at least one visitor went home feeling delighted with herself.
Hopefully, all our visitors go home delighted with all the pictures – and, although we have fun, talk, and activities at these events – it’s the pictures that matter. We can’t wait till galleries are fully open and welcoming back all the groups with different needs and expectations from their visits, including our blind and partially sighted friends.
As the poet Criss Jami wrote: “If love is blind, then maybe a blind person that loves (art) has a greater understanding of it.” The brackets are mine.
Volume 35 no. 6 July/August 2021