In 2018, the University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) extended the opportunity for blind and partially sighted people to engage with collections through a pilot creative workshop series . Proving instantly popular, this work has gone on to become a core part of the Museums public programme, both pre and during the Pandemic.
Working very much in the frame of collaboration and drawing on the RNIB’s three-year, Sensing Culture programme (rich in creative practice case studies) the workshops are a flourishing and valued part of Museum life combining collection and exhibition exploration (touch, audio description and bespoke resources) that inspire invitations to respond, create and then share, facilitated by artist Sally Todd.
When the Pandemic led to Museums closing their doors it was hard to imagine how to take the programme forward, retaining the richness of experience so valued by participants. The collaborative approach and subsequent trust established, however, paved the way for a willingness to experiment and explore the opportunities that Zoom, the telephone and the post can offer.
The experimentation, afforded in this new, remote dynamic, led to three changes to the practice, each frequently cited, by participants, as being key to successful engagement; with each other, the collections and their art making.
- The remote sessions begin with participants sharing artefacts or items, in their lives that link to the collection focus e.g., Item’s representing animals at the start of the East Asian Art session. In doing this the session begins with the haptic, as it would at the Museum along with audio description, again as it would at the Museum; the difference being that rather than the Museum ‘going first’, it’s the participants who are given this first voice, inherently sharing their stories, interests, feelings and ultimately their identities.
… I like to hear about other people’s objects, it reminds us all that we are individuals … you’re getting to know that person through the objects and we all know that we have that time to talk about our chosen piece …
- Raised line drawings, made by the programme artist, are created and sent to people by post, along with art materials, before each session. Sally Todd, programme artist, introduces and employs these in a narrative arc that leads to an invitation to imagine and build personal responses, specifically to the emotional qualities of artefacts. Sally’s interpretation of the original artefacts for participants in the line drawings and her direct sharing of these form what she feels is an important part of a connective, creative chain. Although used in the museum the raised line drawings, alongside audio description, are used to describe form and composition rather than to invite personal interpretation.
- The use of music as inspiration during the making activity, music that evokes the provenance of the artefacts, has the capacity to hold people – individually and collectively and music that supports and promotes physical movement (in the making) aligned with the materials being used and the artists interpretation of the objects.
Who participates & why?
In December 2020, to help extend the relationships between participants and the Museums by understanding more about motivation, barriers, interests and the experience of remote engagement, Sally Todd and myself undertook a series of interviews with participants.
What follows is a bringing together of the transcripts of these interviews with the participants voices guiding us through the experience and their relationship to art and creativity.
Before the most recent sessions in March and April 2021, all those taking part in the remote sessions had participated in at least one live session at the Museum. Several have known the UCM museums for many years and have collection favourites and most take part in creative activities in their spare time. All have or are losing their sight in adulthood; two people have continued to come along to the remote sessions with a companion. The two interlinked sessions for the Human Touch exhibition extended the group with two new people (one with a companion) neither of whom have been before and one who has been blind from birth.
Those who contributed to the interviews universally had honed senses of curiosity, interest, and imagination; having been introduced to art and museums at an early age their relationships to them are rich and established. The Fitzwilliam in particular has a very special place for those who have lived and worked locally all their lives, visiting as children and sketching the exhibits, dropping in at lunch times to clear busy minds, bringing their children at weekends or as a meeting place with family and friends – favourite exhibits were noted that have drawn people back to them time and again giving them almost a cellular knowledge of their form and the ‘aura’ they emit.
I’ve grown up with the Fitzwilliam … I’d come in at lunchtime to look at my favourites and the more recent acquisitions, the Leonardo then Stubbs, the Veronese – if I only had 10 minutes, I’d go to the Armoury on my way to my very special, special object, the jade bull (now stolen) it had a real Zen power, emitting peace from its small form
The experience of being blind or partially sighted and that of losing your sight was emphasized by many we spoke too as being very different and possibly unique for everyone. Taking this into account, what people asked for was that any assumptions that sighted people may have be acknowledge, with a spirit of openness and confidence in engagement being key. Additionally, some people shared that their sight loss was linked with other health conditions, emphasising uniqueness of experience.
Whilst companions can be understood as aids, the sessions have been structured to offer the same experience to both parties. Feedback, in the interviews about this showed the companion, often a life partner, stepped out of their role as aide and into that of fellow maker and collaborator. Some people talked about their regret of having to rely on their companions (at times) and how valuable it was to have this shared and hopefully equal experience. With the primary participant, the blind or partially sighted person, being clear in their intent when signing up for the sessions, what is exciting here is that their innate understanding that creativity is ‘good for us’ is being passed onto someone whom they have a strong emotional bond, someone who may also need a ‘boost’.
museums, art and company always feel like they do me good, when I make the effort, its enriching…a little bit goes a long way – that we share this during the sessions is real a bonus
Encountering art …
We don’t always choose the ‘clubs’ in life that we become members of, on this topic many people noted that finding shared ground in the blind or partially sighted club wasn’t always easy, however, a shared love of art and desire to create and make – opens up the space to ‘know’ each other, to be inspired, to understand, to enjoy and to generate empathy.
With touch becoming a dangerous mode of connecting during the Pandemic, the importance of being in this club at the Fitzwilliam – having this space available- had become greatly heightened.
as someone who goes around navigating by touch – the world has become very frightening – to be able to turn that off and connect through art is especially valuable, to talk, to interact its almost priceless! What other people express, their sense of joy … wow!!!
People described a kind of hunger to ‘find out’ about art and the work of artists, their practice, motivations, skills, and lives and then also the Museums and their curation of narratives through collections, the conservation of artefacts and their role as custodians.
The type of art people were interested in or drawn towards was broad, a reflection of the diversity of the group (or club!); Barbara Hepworth’s work, as experienced at Kettle’s Yard and the blockbuster Vermeer exhibition at the Fitzwilliam were specifically noted as great opportunities to find out more – whether that be using an audio guide, companions to audio describe or bespoke museum programmes.
The experience of encountering art with no sight can be likened to that of doing a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces coming together or blocks being built to form the whole
I find art so interesting and its relaxing and rewarding to make, I love history, intrigued by arts provenance – how did it get to the Fitz? just before you called, I was listening to Neil McGregor the history of the world in 100 objects – I’m listening the second time round.
Of interest, in several interviews was that sight loss increased people’s desire to spend more time on the emotional content of art (sensory response or feeling intent) to move through and then beyond the physical form / compositional construct – both in the art being explored and invitation to respond. Attached to this notion was that art had become more physical, whether that be through touch, the use of the body in ‘taking a line for a walk’ carving a piece of soap or moulding with clay or wax.
In parallel to the loss of sight is the learning process that needs to take place to explore / understand the world through touch and audio stimuli. This homework or practice can be highly challenging, with so much learning to do. Of note here was a comment about this made by one participant (who is losing her sight) who described the sessions as being a place for her to do her ‘reluctantly undertaken touch-homework’ saying that ‘however in this context its enjoyable!’
Loss and change were present in many people’s current engagement with culture and experience of making, however their joy, the uplift, the magic (curiosity, interest, and ability to imagine) … was in no way lost along with people often responding to the changes in their health with resourcefulness and positivity.
The experience of being blind or partially sighted, during the pandemic, has been painful and possibly traumatic for some. With the need to ‘get on’ and survive being paramount, how will we, can we, engage with art as part of the healing that will be needed? This question was raised specifically by one participant who noted that being together on zoom (during the pandemic) has been an experience full of joy, contrasting with the fear she has frequently felt; she wondered, could this work, this space, be where people can be together to make a shared response that captures, with nuance, the experience of this time, this place?
For those interested in practical details, a snapshot of how & what …
Tools: All the sessions used Zoom, with art materials and raised line drawings sent in the post. Some participants accessed zoom using a touchpad on their devices and came along through audio and a couple of people had digital support from a companion. There were three team members in each session including a volunteer whose role was to document. An average of 11 people attended each session.
Structure: Sessions have been two hours long with an evolving format flowing approximately as follows: welcomes and the sharing of related objects from people’s homes; an exploration of the session theme and artefacts using raised line drawings; discussion exploring people’s responses to the theme, critically and emotionally; a short break that has included a group member leading people in a short yoga, stretching sequence; Sally (the programme artist) introduces the art materials and sets up the making invite, Sally often breaks this down into a series of warm up activities followed by a prolonged making period, Sally shares music during the making; sessions conclude with people sharing their making experience and creations with each other (through description).
- The Art of Assemblage; using found objects from the home and textured materials sent from the Museum, the making of assemblages that respond to the experience of lockdown.
- The Decorative and the Sculptural in East Asian Art, two interlinked sessions that used embossing foil and clay to create relief pattern and three-dimensional form’s that drew on the symbolism and representation of natural forms in East Asian art.
- The Human Touch, making art, leaving traces; using modelling wax, a beautifully sensuous material the invitations here were to make a glossary of touch, followed by a piece that spoke of self.
The following quote is from a participant who responded to the invite to continue working with the wax at home:
The attached photos show my hand in horse-riding position … fingers are tight; the third and little fingers are ‘softer’, as they have the direct connection to the horse’s mouth, allowing a gentle and subtle play.
I chose this position because it shows a very active, but gentle hand; it represents an element of control and ability when I am only too well aware of losing both, and the consolation and privilege of being allowed to touch a living creature.