Some museums are really getting it right when it comes to making their exhibits accessible to those with visual impairments. The British Museum is leading the way and Judith Furse applauds their efforts.
Recently, my niece and I visited the British Museum. It was wonderful!
I’ll tell you all about it in a moment, but I have to say that visiting museums and historical buildings hasn’t always been this enjoyable. Too often, access has been difficult, with long, steep, flights of steps to negotiate and endless galleries to plod through, while my experience of the exhibits themselves has been limited to listening to friends and family reading the printed descriptions of the items while I try and work out what on earth it is that everybody else is looking at.
Sometimes I’ve struck lucky, though.
A visit to Shelbourne Manor some years ago was a case in point. From the moment I stepped through the door, the owners, Major Gybb and his wife, took me under their wing.
The first thing Major Gybb said to me was, “Have you tried our seventeenth-century harp?” As though I was in the habit of entering other people’s homes and twanging their antique stringed instruments without their permission!
I was invited to touch the medieval embroidery on a bed cover and there was a heart-stopping moment when Mrs. Gybb placed an object in my hands with the words, “This is a sixteenth-century rosewater bowl from India.”
It felt gorgeous, but I was terrified that any moment I was going to drop it. It was a relief in the end to hand it back!
It was a hugely enjoyable visit but, looking back, it stands out as being unusual. Most museums and historic buildings I went to weren’t like that. Over the years things, though, things have changed. The National Trust are trying to make their properties more user-friendly for everyone and museums are getting more imaginative about helping the visually-impaired access their collections.
Which brings us back to the British Museum.
One Saturday in February, my niece and I went to their exhibition about Ashaburnapal, king of ancient Assyria. I booked tickets in advance through the museum’s access office and we duly turned up at the appointed time.
We were taken into a tutorial room where, along with others who had booked for the occasion, we were given a fascinating talk by a curator and a professional audio-describer and a number of objects were handed round. It was so amazing to hold a cuneiform tablet in my hand and feel the embossed symbols on it. We were also able to hold an earring mould and a bell which would once have adorned a horse.
Many objects in the exhibition were too fragile, ancient or precious to be taken out of their protective display cases, of course, but we were given tactile representations of engraved tablets whose originals we couldn’t touch.
After the lecture, we were taken up to the actual exhibition where the audio-describer talked us through the exhibits. There were some great sound effects, too, such as the noise of battle to accompany the military items on display, and bird song and lute music when we got to a picture of a garden scene.
Thank you, British Museum! As a lover of history, holding ancient objects is absolutely magical and it means so much more when, without this opportunity, I would have been left solely to rely on my imagination.