Seeing museums differently

By Debs Aspland, founder of Life AsPland


As a mum to three children with a variety of special needs and disabilities, visits to any attractions or museums can raise a few challenges.  Preparation is key before any visit but often, accessibility for my youngest son is the most challenging.  He has no vision or light perception.

Imagine being in a museum with lots of wonderful items in glass cases, a hugely visual delight.  Imagine being in the same room but with all the lights out.

When people think about what it must be like to be blind, they close their eyes and imagine this gives them all the information they need.  One of the common things we see is a guide explaining the contents of the case.  However, if you have never seen an item, for example a fossil, just being told there is a fossil will mean nothing.

What can you do to help?

Audio guides are really good; however, they have to give context.  When referencing size, compare the object to something like a human head or arm or other body part.  This is something my son can relate to.

One of the best ways to do audio is to lead a visually impaired person around while recording yourself.  Ask them to ask you questions as you walk around and say if they are not clear about what you are trying to tell them.    Having a real time audio helps enormously.  People can pause audio if the rest of their group want to study something in more detail.  If there is not just one way to move around the venue, you could create a separate audio file for each space or room.

You can save the audio file(s) to a page on your website, people can access it via their phone.  Alternatively, you may have audio facilities within your venue already, just have a different version for visually impaired visitors.  For example, if your venue is a castle, saying “if you look out of the window you can see for miles so people could see if the enemy were arriving” will obviously mean nothing to a visually impaired person.  Try saying “if you feel along the wall, you will come across an indented space with a tall, narrow hole, these are the windows in the castle. You will notice there is no glass. Windows didn’t have glass.  The people protecting the castle could see for many miles as we are currently about 40 foot high.  That’s about the height of 7 people standing on top of each other.  The windows were also used as a place to fire arrows upon oncoming attackers”.

Tactile opportunities.  Having the chance to feel an object is a huge benefit.  One of our favourite attempts to make a venue accessible for guests with a visual impairment was Monkey World.  They had life size heads of the various monkeys and gorillas available and my son was able to feel the facial features and put the size of the head into context.

What would have made it better is if they had been able to give some idea of the height of the animal, along with some reference of what their coat and skin felt like.

Make sure you keep the items cleaned too.  My son very loudly declared how dusty the back of the monkey’s head was; I was mortified.

Consider how people will access these objects.  Monkey World had these items locked away and to access them, you had to find a member of staff to open the gates.  We understand why they are not available to everyone however, a bell system would have been helpful.

Having to find a member of staff raises many issues.  If you are a first-time visitor, you won’t know the layout and when you find a member of staff, you may not remember where you were exactly when you saw the item you wanted to touch.  If you find a member of staff who is very busy, you will feel uncomfortable asking them to help.  If you are visually impaired, searching out a member of staff often means relying on someone else to help.  It doesn’t help people to feel independent.

Think carefully therefore about how visitors will access any tactile resources you have available. Make it easy for the visitors without making it a real challenge for you and your staff.  None of us want to be the nuisance visitor.

Consider if you could introduce smells.  A range of scents can make a difference.  If, for example, if you are talking about battles, what could you use to introduce the smell of gunpowder?  If you are talking about slaves in a boat, could you introduce the smell of stale sweat?  It may sound repulsive but would provide an authentic experience.

It’s hard to consider the things we now know but forget we had to learn (e.g. what a window is and looks like) so why not work with someone who has true knowledge?  There will be local organisations who support people with visual impairments, get in touch with them to see if they can find some volunteers to help you. Often, when you are making your venue accessible for visually impaired visitors, you can use some of the techniques to improve the experience for everyone.

Get your team to think about what each room or space represents to them and how they would describe it to someone who couldn’t see, what other senses would they use to help them describe it?  Sometimes using just language, (e.g. “imagine being stuck in a bathroom that’s been used by 100 people but not flushed”) can be enough without any smell or taste options.  What does each space or room make your staff think of when they are in there?  Use your staff’s knowledge and expertise; often they will have ideas that so simple but really powerful.

Be inventive and creative.  Have fun with it.  Don’t think of it as yet another challenge to overcome, think of it as a really fun, educational activity.  You work at this venue because you have a passion for the subject.  Share your passion to make a difference.

Debs Aspland, founder of Life AsPland