If you’ve visited the British Museum recently, you may well have come across one of the ring-bound books that are dotted around the exhibitions. From the outside, they could be mistaken for school textbooks – crinkled at the edges, cumbersome, and muted in colour. It’s only when you open them up and see the curiously beautiful, raised illustrations and braille texts within that things start getting seriously interesting.
As you’re reading this magazine it’s logical to suppose you go to museums and galleries in your spare time, maybe not every weekend but it’s a part of your life. If one day you lost your eyesight, would you just stop wanting to go? If you held a certain museum or gallery very dear, and frequented it throughout your life, it would be incredibly difficult to just abandon it. Luckily that’s where Jane Samuels comes in.
“Many visually impaired people that come to the museum have not always been blind, they’ve been careerists and they’ve had perfectly good sight throughout much of their life, but over time they have become blind,” she says. Jane is the access and equality manager at the British Museum – the tactile image books scattered like treasure throughout the enormous building are of her doing, and have been a work in progress for the last seven years. “My personal interest has always been in spreading arts and cultural opportunities to underrepresented audiences, with disability being one of those audiences. I’ve done a lot of work in prisons as well, and worked a lot with socially excluded audiences such as adults suffering from mental health issues.”
She arrived at the British Museum in 2003 where she set about improving access to one of London’s most important cultural institutions. She was put in touch with Sue King, the tactile imaging consultant at the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and together they have been quietly building an intriguing project.
“Up until 1997 we’d mainly been doing tactile diagrams,” Sue says. “We would take maths or biology textbooks and transcribe the text and diagrams into braille, so that was very much an academic, educational setting for those diagrams. Then we had an enquiry from the people at the Crown Jewels who wanted some tactile images – not diagrams because of the beauty of them. We started to develop the way we adapted our design criteria from that point. We got to understand the shape and the feel of the Crown Jewels which is actually more difficult to do than you think.”
In 2006 Jane and Sue began producing tactile image booklets for the exhibitions in the British Museum. “Jane had a vision to make the major exhibitions the museum puts on more accessible to people with a variety of different disabilities, one of which was blind and partially sighted people,” says Sue. “In those days access was considered very much to do with ramps and lifts – really just physical access – so what Jane was developing was intellectual access to these major exhibitions to open them up to a larger audience.”
Some people might question whether this costly solution to a very particular access problem was worth it, but the British Museum’s commitment to the project has been unwavering.
On average the museum puts on of two large exhibitions a year and every show since the Michelangelo’s Drawings exhibition in 2006 has been accompanied by tactile braille and image booklets. Considering each book can cost between three and four thousand pounds, this commitment to opening up the museum to blind and partially-sighted visitors is remarkable.
The selection of the images for each tactile book begins with Jane and the curator. “The curator really leads on selecting the core objects which need to provide an overview of the narrative of any given exhibition, and together we select on average around twelve objects. If we have less budget it might be ten, if we have more it might be fourteen.
“These objects need to be easily transferrable into a tactile image – if they’re too intricate it’s not that easy to interpret them so that does become a decisive factor in the selection. We need to have variety and diversity of shape and form and material, and those that have interesting stories to provide the most overarching summary of the wider exhibition.”
Images of the chosen objects are then sent away to the RNIB where a team of designers work on turning them into the beautifully stark, line-drawn images you see in the books. The adjacent page will be entirely braille, which when picking up the books as a non-blind reader feels quite mysterious. We’ve all seen braille before but it’s not something we necessarily fully understand. It’s pretty difficult to resist closing your eyes and tracing your fingertip over the dots.
This braille text explains to those who are visually impaired exactly what the image opposite is showing. It’s Sue’s job to write this summary – a skill she has no training for but at which she’s become something of an expert. “It’s about understanding from a curatorial point of view what’s important in the object. The description of the object is purely what is there, what you can see – nothing to do with the interpretation of the object. Because I’m not an expert on these objects all I’m doing is describing what I am looking at and what you need to look for.”
Sue’s ability to compress exquisite and ancient objects into short descriptions is incredibly impressive. As someone with little to no training in art history, she has the ability to concentrate entirely on what the piece looks like. “You give an overview of the whole thing to set the scene and then you break it down into the detail. You might start from the bottom or you might start from the top and come down. It can be very daunting, very difficult at times because you look at some things and think how on earth am I going to describe that?”
She’s right, some of the items in the British Museum are intensely difficult to describe. “There’s part of a fresco in Life and Death in Pompeii which is about trying to emulate marble, so they are trying to paint it to look like marble. How far do you go to explain that when it is just a lot of circles overlapping each other with different shading?”
Similarly in the other galleries which employ Sue’s skills, things can get extremely complicated. “If you take Constable’s The Hay Wain, we did that for the National Gallery. It becomes more about the map showing the layout of the various things in the painting rather than how Constable paints his trees, how he shows the water or the significance of the brick pillars and the wood. You just say they are there and show where they are; you leave out how he painted the trees because the tactile images cannot show how the trees have been painted.”
These fascinating challenges can vary from exhibition to exhibition too. In late 2011, Grayson Perry’s Tomb of The Unknown Crafstman opened at the British Museum. For a public gallery that predominantly focuses on historical exhibits, this venture into the world of contemporary art was an exciting one, but Sue’s job became even trickier faced with conceptual, intricate, and rather strange fine art.
“I think he was wonderful because he was open to it, where he could have equally closed down being the artist himself. It would have been wonderful for me to have sat down with Grayson and said ‘What do you actually think about what I’ve said about your work?’ because I’m not an art person. But I enjoyed doing his booklet more than a lot of things – he made sense to me in a way a lot of people haven’t. I’m a sciencey person so this arty world sometimes washes over the top of me, but he didn’t.”
And after seeing the tactile image books, Grayson became increasingly involved in the museum’s access programme, including the Handling Sessions it offers. These take place in a grand, teal-coloured room in one of the surrounding buildings, where a group of visually impaired visitors sit around a table and are treated to a very special, personal session with the curator of the show. They are each given a tactile image booklet of the objects selected by Jane and the curator, and they are given the chance to handle original pieces from the collection.
As the curator of his show, Grayson spent time talking through his exhibition to one such session. “The feedback from curators is always quite wonderful because they find that it helps them to reinterpret their own perception of the collection,” Jane says. “Because they hear from people that can’t see the objects, they understand the impact they have on people just through touch.”
Jane allowed me to sit in on the Handling Session for Ice Age Art: Arrival Of The Modern Mind, where a group of around ten visitors handled objects almost no one else in the world would be able to touch. The fact they were getting an in-depth, one-on-one tutorial with the curator of the exhibition was astounding. These were all people whose interest in history and the arts goes far beyond the enjoyment of aesthetics we tend to rely on. It was fascinating to hear what questions they asked and to see the sheer concentration needed to enjoy handling each object and the tactile image booklets. The less you can see, the more information you need to get the best experience out of something you want to enjoy.
It’s staggering this programme exists, that the British Museum goes to such lengths to enable those who have lost their sight to engage with such a monumentally visual activity. People like Sue and Jane are working incredibly hard on spreading the idea of tactile learning throughout the country. “I work with The National Portrait Gallery, The V&A, The Science Museum, The Natural History Museum, a lot of regional museums, it goes on,” Sue says. “But we are a long, long way from making this intellectual world accessible to blind and partially sighted people. A long, long way.”
Given how far they’ve come in the past seven years though, it seems probable that the likes of Jane and Sue and their respective organisations are up for the challenge.