The exhibition presents a collection of modern and contemporary American art pieces from the 1960s to today, including works by the most celebrated American artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. And now people with sight loss can enjoy the exhibition too, thanks to the work of the Tactile Maps and Images team at RNIB who helped create unique 3D versions of some of the famous prints being shown.
But who are the Tactile Maps and Images team and what do they do? The team is commissioned by event organisers to deliver exciting and creative tactile installations that enable people with sensory impairment to enjoy cultural exhibitions. As they are specialists in their area, they are uniquely placed to provide items that really enhance the viewing experience for people with different levels of sight – for example, incorporating audio description and braille labels into their work so that people who have been blind from a young age can form an understanding of an image.
Michelle Lee, Business Executive of the Tactile Maps and Images team, said: “The image is accompanied by an audio descriptive guide, as on its own it would not make much sense to someone without sight. The images in the booklets are accompanied by braille labels to orientate the reader to parts of the image which are mentioned in the audio descriptive guide to build up a 'picture' of the whole image and its layout. It's fully accessible but it does take time for someone who is blind to absorb all of the information via their fingertips.”
Raising awareness of accessible exhibitions for blind and partially sighted people
One of the issues Michelle mentions is the lack of awareness around the accessible work her team creates for many exhibitions and events around the country. She says it’s a shame that quite often the work is commissioned and created, but little is done to market it to blind and partially sighted people. Thanks to websites like Euan’s Guide and Vocal Eyes, there are now platforms that can be used to spread the word – although there is still progress to be made on making sure that people with sight loss know about the opportunities that are out there. Also, if museums and galleries start seeing more people interacting with the accessible elements, it might encourage them (and others) to focus more on their accessibility offering in the future.
To understand why an institution like the British Museum is so determined to be a frontrunner in setting the standard of accessibility, we spoke to Selene Burns who was involved in commissioning the work. She said: “It is my role to make sure that all visitors are able to access the Museum's wonderful exhibitions. For blind and partially sighted people this may mean working closely with the exhibition designers, creating additional resources or programming events. For each exhibition it is important to decide what approach is going to provide the most accessible experience for visitors. There are quite a lot of considerations to weigh up, including what types of objects are on show, conservation factors and the budget available.”
In terms of the American Dream exhibition, the Museum has also created a “Hands on” desk, where visitors can touch relevant objects connected to the exhibition. Selene explains that this can help provide context and, for example, illustrate printing processes used by the artists being exhibited. The tactile images created by RNIB were the only way visitors could get a sense of the mostly two-dimensional artworks through touch.