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One-eyed museum visitor

In Museums on January 20, 2011 at 10:32 am

Last week I had a rather nasty eye infection, the details of which I won’t go into, but if you like gruesome things, then here you go. Before my eye had been properly diagnosed I made a visit to Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition which closed on 16 January.

In the museum sector we know that we have to make our content understandable and accessible to as many audiences as possible, irrelevant of visitors’ nationality, level of education or physical/mental ability. Museums have come on leaps and bounds in recent years in terms of providing enhanced access for those who have sensory impairments – large print booklets, audio-described audio guides and tactile models are now the norm in at least our larger museums and others are catching up.

I was in a fair bit of pain that day and wearing dark glasses as my eyes were sensitive to the light, so I thought it would be interesting to perhaps experience some of what visually impaired visitors go through as part of a museum visit. (Of course, I could never replicate actual disability, but perhaps the experience might teach me something.)

Perhaps the biggest thing I took away from this was the timing of my visit. I had, through only my own fault, not been to see the exhibition on a quiet mid-week afternoon during the middle of the exhibition run, outside of a school holiday. I had, in fact, decided to visit on perhaps one of the busiest days of the run, right before it closed. The place was heaving with people – even with timed tickets we had to queue for 15 minutes just to get in the door! I’ve always thought the lighting in Tate Modern was rather harsh, but with an added sensitivity it seemed even more unbearable. Nobody enjoys going to an art gallery when it’s incredibly busy – something which doesn’t seem to bother Tate, who will regularly oversell time slots – but it’s even more confusing and baffling when you’re battling with one sense out of order.

I wish I’d also taken an audio-described audio tour of the exhibition as Tate’s insistence on long, wordy introductory panels followed by barely visible painting captions in light grey at below waist level made identifying any of the works of art a challenge, especially through a crowd three-deep in front of the viewer.

That said, Tate are still capable of achieving something amazing – the range of institutions and private collections lending to the exhibition was mind boggling. They have a political presence in the art world which means they can attract loans and sponsorship from a wide range of donors, both artistic and financial. It’s a shame they insist on pumping as many people through their galleries as possible.

I’ve certainly taken an added sense of understanding of the needs of a visually impaired visitor. I’ll be thinking of them next time I design an exhibition scheme which features a world map tucked away in a corner, a blank wall with no directional information on it, a 300-word text panel and a labelling system at the back of a display case. They’re all simple things really – noted down in my list of top interpretation tips.

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