The delights of audio description have come relatively late in life for me. Theatre, an important part of my life since I was a small child has acquired added depth, richness and meaning with audio description. Although I have listened to opera, apart from a long-ago visit to Covent Garden during my OE and one or two films, I have only recently attended and been enchanted by audio described live performances.
Of course each of these has sound, often very familiar sound, in the case of Shakespeare or Puccini for example. But the world of fine art is very different. Vision is usually the sole means of access. I have spent many hours in galleries around the world, but the opportunity for an audio described tour of some of Nga Toi, our national collection on show at Te Papa, with a group of blind and vision impaired people could not be missed. I have some useful vision so I looked forward to new possibilities. The visit revealed interesting detail I never suspected existed. But I was also surprised by sadness. How many great art works I have looked at, yet not really seen?
It’s a bit like books. I used to think that I found some books boring because I failed to appreciate their literary merit, frustrating to an English literature graduate, a book lover and compulsive reader. That was until I discovered eBooks. Holding a large and heavy classic with small poor quality print close to my eyes is physically tiring and requires a high level of effort, which is a challenge to concentration, but on an electronic reader it would suddenly became absorbing. The problem was the medium, not my mind.
When visiting galleries a similar problem arises. I can quickly become sensorily overloaded, frustrated and bored, because I can’t see enough detail to connect at the meaningful and satisfying depth I want. At Te Papa the well- audio described works revealed intriguing hidden detail and depth that hooked and stimulated my imagination. Without audio description I must wade through tiring, confusing and seemingly meaningless visual clutter and I can’t read the guiding printed labels and information on gallery walls. Audio description means I can focus and connect at a deeper, more satisfying level and begin to have a similar experience to that of fully-sighted people.
Touchable textured examples of paint on canvas enabled us to explore technique and materials. Learning about the art of framing by an encounter with an elaborate touchable example was fascinating and enlightening.
A 3D-printed copy of a fragile and precious object gave a real sense of its shape and texture, a successful experiment with a powerful new tool for access.
I have always loved textile and texture, so being invited to touch sensuous and colourful Cook Islands tivaevae Out of the Glory Box (quilts) was something my fingers have itched to do. Our group sat around the spread quilt, much as the makers would have. We shared intimately the colour, texture and embroidery of a deeply personal treasure stitched with love by a group of women. I could imagine them singing, laughing, gossiping and sharing knowledge as they worked. I discovered that these are not quilts in the usual sense, but appliqué, sensible in a warm climate.
While advance reading about the artist or craft person and their work is helpful, it is the audio description of the work that brings it to life. It should not simply describe the item; good audio description breathes life into the work, communicating story and context, historical or modern, which would be available to a sighted gallery patron. The description of a portrait as “looking out at us” immediately established a personal sense of connection, an authentic relationship between the artwork, the subject and the viewer.
Blind and vision-impaired people rely heavily on spoken word for communication so the quality and tone of voice is important to establish rapport in audio description. Description should be narration, like storytelling, not simply read aloud. Our audio describer was professional, warm and engaging, obviously enjoying the work she described. We felt welcome and that we were valued visitors to Te Papa.
As this art tour was something new we were treated to hospitality, and over cups of tea we gave positive and constructive responses to our tour. Of the many visits I have made to Te Papa this will be one of the most memorable.
The question of cost was raised. An audio described tour does require a lot of work. However you could say the same about education at Te Papa. The guidance we gave was that if the experience is similar or roughly the same as that enjoyed for free by others then there should be no cost.
Disabled people have for generations been systematically, if not intentionally, deprived of our cultural heritage, as well as our own unique disability stories and history. New and interesting means of inclusion and equality, many of them mainstream technology, such as iPads, smart phones and 3D printers, are now much more readily available. Sometimes though, it is simply a willingness to do things differently.
Because the disabled arts, heritage and culture audience has traditionally been under-served and undeveloped there is much ground to make up. As an audience we are among the poorest and face barriers of cost, ease of travel, various kinds of access and even feeling unwelcome, or stigmatised as a “special” audience rather than part of the richness of human diversity visiting and represented in cultural institutions.
Children and young disabled people need opportunities to develop skills and appreciation or they may miss out for the rest of their lives. Older people should be able to rediscover what they may think they have lost. Including everyone is critical. Access to our culture and heritage is a human right. Without it we are the poorer as individuals and as a nation.
Arts Access Aotearoa, which helped set up the tour, is a national treasure, but cultural and heritage institutions have to wholeheartedly join in. A start has been made and well done Te Papa for taking access seriously and for engaging with the community as well as searching out international best practice. Expect expectations to rise.