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> > > Close up talk @ Tate Britain

Liz Porter recently experienced an audio-described talk at Tate Britain, focussing on a variety of work in the galleries permanent collection. She reflects on access for visually impaired gallery visitors, looks at the merits of this kind of access provision and asks how this service could be improved.

Photograph of Liz Porter

Photograph of Liz Porter

I really enjoy going to museums, exhibitions and galleries. My experience of engaging with the art is greatly enhanced when some kind of audio description is included. I’m not a major fan of literal description, but when nothing else is on offer, the hand held audio guides help enormously.

I’m more in favour of the ‘personal tour’. Many venues already mount regular touch and audio-described tours. Of course much has been done to improve access for visually impaired visitors. Conferences such as In touch with Art organised last year by V & A and St Dunstan’s, have helped move things on by providing space for service providers, curators and access officers to debate with visually impaired creatives and audiences, encouraging us to go beyond what is usually expected. I’d particularly like to see museums embracing the visual imaging technique that Rebecca McGuinness demonstrated at the Conference. The concept allows for wider interpretations and active participation and can be led by sighted or visually impaired facilitators.

Last October, I was invited to find out what Tate Britain offer. Kirsteen McSwein (assistant curator with responsibility for access) is very enthusiastic and wants to develop a more creative approach to tours for visually impaired visitors. The ‘Close up’ talk, a two hour session started with coffee. We were a small group of mainly elderly visually impaired people, which suggests the usual problem of how you affectively market sessions to get more people to enjoy them. Our guides for the morning were Mary Maidment (who led a touch tour of Epstein's Jacob and the Angel) and Gillian Cutbill (who provided gallery audio descriptions). We also experienced Martin Creed’s work 850 (the runner!)

Epstein’s ‘Jacob & The Angel’ is an enormous piece and the subject matter is fascinating. Our guide Mary was knowledgeable and very enthusiastic but it was difficult to hear what she was saying because the acoustics are poor in this part of the gallery. I would have liked a fuller version of the story whilst we sat around the piece. The sculpture is mounted on a large high plinth, which unfortunately, made it impossible to explore the entire piece. There were two wheelchair-users in the second group, for whom it would have been more inaccessible. Mary handed pieces of marble around the circle, which gave a sense of how heavy it is but to get the full impact of size and scale we needed to be able to feel the whole thing. Whilst clearly access will always present certain dilemmas, I think we should still have the chance to experience work like this at whatever level we can.

Tate Britain is a magnificent building and it was wonderful to move through the galleries with a bit of verbal description of the architecture en route. We walked through a huge neo-classical hall, with high ceilings, stone walls, pillars, flagstone floors a massive and long space in which the Martin Creed ‘Runner’ took place. Runners in training gear (provided by the sponsors) literally ran up and down the gallery. Representing the epitome of what you are not allowed to do in an art gallery, Creed provokes us to consider art in rebellion, perhaps a shade for his light bulb? (former Turner Prize winner) He’s certainly getting varied responses.

Finally we came to a gallery exhibiting paintings dated between 1906-1988, which was curated to illustrate work that mixes the meaning of the image with the application of paint. We discussed work by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Walter Sickert, Matthew Smith and Frank Auerbach.

Again our guide Gillian provided enthusiastic and knowledgeable descriptions. Incorporating literal description of size, placing of subject and colour, giving us an idea of artistic method and materials used; influences and meanings. We then fed back our responses. This was more of a two-way discussion, and brought to light some of the difficulties in accessing the work experienced by some of the elderly people who used to have vision.

I particularly enjoyed looking at Bacon’s painting of Van Gogh an emblem of the misunderstood artist - parody of the struggle and pain an artist faces. The painting is looking for the isolated artist. It marks a transition period in Bacon's painting when he began experimenting with thick gestural marks - applying the paint as if he was icing a cake. It was first shown in the Hanover Gallery - one of a series of six pictures - hung wet on the gallery wall. Gillian had photocopied the Van Gogh painting this referred to, which gave us an interesting comparison. Whilst Gillian was concentrating more on the Artists interpretation, I got excited about the possibilities for creative interpretation through other art forms such as spoken word, poetry and storytelling, (I could see a lot of stories in this particular piece of work).

Another painting by Auerbach was very dark and grey thick layers of paint showed a semi-abstract figure on a bed. The idea behind the painting is that it wants to give the viewer the sense that they are touching someone on a bed in the dark.

This generated some discussion about looking at a textural piece of work that is behind glass, and so clearly is more like a sculpture needing to be touched. Gillian had bought an example of a block painted with layers and layers of thick paint to give us an idea of how it might feel. This was a good idea but I still felt one step removed from the ‘real’ experience. Kirsteen is exploring ways to have practical workshops alongside their tours. I think this would work very well when looking at pieces such as this to give participants an actual experience of working with paint to build layers. The more multi-sensory the better.

All the pieces we looked at had some reference to disability and I’m not sure if this was intentional. If so, it would have been great to have a discussion about the differing attitudes to disability at the times the painting were done and look at our own feelings today, although I guess this would need to be carefully managed given different generations’ attitudes and experiences.

One of the best projects where this has happened was done at The Birmingham Art Gallery, who involved 6 disabled artists to give their impressions of 6 major pieces of work. These were juxtaposed with the artists impressions. The Matise piece ‘The Blind Girl’ particularly interested me. You do a handset tour of these pieces which includes audio file, text and BSL, but of course live tours and the education potential is massive. I’d love to see more museums following suite as the texts produced from this project were fascinating.

The next 'Close-Up' talk will be held in the Manton Studio on Tuesday 24 February Morning Session: 10.00 - 12.00. Afternoon Session: 13:00 - 15:00

Anthony van Dyck painted the seventeenth-century aristocracy in their finest satin, velvet and lace to parade their importance. Blind and partially sighted visitors are invited to immerse themselves in their world - spend the day with us or visit during the morning when we explore the exhibition, or in the afternoon when we create our own collages.

Free, booking essential. Booking separate for each session.

Tate Britain are also offering one-to-one tours of the Francis Bacon exhibition. For further details please contact Kirsteen McSwein by email on or via the main ticketing number on 020 7887 8888.

For information about access and facilities for disabled and deaf visitors please go to the Tate Britain website

DAO would like to hear about your experiences? What examples of audio-description have you experienced in museums and galleries? What works for you? What would you like to see happening? Please post comments below.

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