Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Working with Deaf and Visually Impaired Groups at The Ashmolean - Jenny Hulmes

During my Traineeship, I have learned more about the ways in which museums and collections cater for visitors who are Deaf, or have a visual impairment. The Ashmolean Museum runs interpreted tours for these audiences and I was fortunate to assist Jude Barrett, the Museum’s Education Officer for Adults and Young People, with their delivery.

For the British Sign Language interpreted tour, I joined a deaf group and Jude in looking at the Museum’s temporary exhibition of Chinese paintings. Jude led the tour, whilst a BSL Interpreter translated what was being said to the group. What made the tour particularly engaging, was that we got to handle traditional Japanese brushes and paper in the galleries; enabling us to understand the various processes involved in creating these beautiful art works.

After we had explored the paintings in the galleries, I joined the group in the Museum’s Study Room, where we met and conversed with (with the help on the Interpreter) members of staff involved in collection care and management, and got to handle a selection of authentic Chinese artefacts used in painting, dating back hundreds of years. The tour offered a fantastic multi-sensory experience for the group who especially enjoyed going behind the scenes and seeing objects not on public display. I also put the BSL I had learned into practice, having small conversations with some members of the group about the objects.

Like the BSL tour, the tour for a group of visually impaired visitors focused on the Ashmolean’s exhibition of Chinese paintings. Before I joined the group in exploring the paintings in the gallery, we congregated in the Museum’s Education Studio where we spoke about the tradition of Chinese painting and carried out some object handling. The objects had been carefully selected to appeal to the groups’ stronger senses and included fresh bamboo and chrysanthemums, painting tools and materials. As the group had varying degrees of visual impairment, Jude provided a range of resources to meet the needs of each individual. For example, some of the group had slight vision, so Jude provided them with large bold prints of the paintings, others in the group had no vision, so Jude ensured they had access to raised images they good feel.

Visually impaired group carrying out object handling

Following the session in the Education Studio, we went up to the exhibition. I helped to guide members of the group. Once in the gallery, Jude and I talked about the paintings, what they represented and responded to queries. When talking about the paintings, I tried to be as descriptive as possible to help those with no or very little sight, form a mental image: I found that making links between the paintings on display with the objects we had held previously in the Education Studio helped with this. To increase the interaction with the paintings, the group were able to move their fingers gently over the paintings (which were glazed) to help them trace prominent lines and shapes.

What I learned most from my experience of working with the Deaf and visually impaired groups, is that tours designed for these audiences, need to be as inclusive as possible, catering for a diverse range of needs by avoiding the assumption that all visually impaired visitors require the same needs, and the same for Deaf visitors. To aid with inclusion and facilitate a range of different needs, a museum educator needs to be flexible and adaptable in their delivery, and make use of differentiated resources to increase accessibility to museum collections. I am currently planning the next BSL Interpreted tour at the Ashmolean, and am looking forward to putting what I have learned into practice.

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