Jul 23, 2021|Research|8 minutes

Creating a Community-led Accessible Audio Guide

A Conversation with Royal Holloway University of London

This summer the Royal Holloway University Picture Gallery released a unique audio tour - an innovative take on traditional ‘audio description’ for partially blind visitors - on Smartify aimed at increasing access to the collection. Rather than dryly describing artworks the team at Royal Holloway worked with partially blind participants, volunteers and gallery staff to create an audio experience that is a work of art in itself.

Smartify recently had the chance to catch up with Professor Hannah Thompson, an expert in ‘blindness gain’, about the team's experience creating the audio guide. Read on to discover how this incredible piece of collaborative work was created and how your institution might create their own accessible, community-led audio guide.


My reasoning is really that art is not logical and mathematical so why should descriptions be?

Professor Hannah Thompson

Could you start by telling us a little about the tour and your goals in creating it?

We wanted to make a tour of the picture gallery that was accessible to blind and partially blind people but we also wanted to involve a lot of the college community in the tour and we didn’t really have any budget to pay a professional audio describer. I decided to experiment with some different ways that I’ve been thinking about audio description. Rather than giving listeners an objective sense of a painting, I wanted them to feel like they were in the gallery themselves hearing different voices and different approaches to the paintings.

We recruited volunteers and told them a little bit about what I call ‘creative audio description’ which involves embracing your own position as a viewer - what is it in the painting that really speaks to you? Why do you feel a particular connection to the painting? What makes you want to look at it? Rather than describing it in a kind of precise, technical or mathematical way.

My reasoning is really that art is not logical and mathematical so why should descriptions be? I wanted to create descriptions that had an aesthetic side to them rather like the art itself. Every volunteer chose a painting and they came up with their own description of it which we recorded and that made up the tour.


It seems like the initial approach was about looking at the resources you had available then, rather than looking to external suppliers. Is that correct?

We basically needed people to create the tours and in order to facilitate that, I ran workshops with the volunteers talking through some of the issues around what kind of accessible language you might want to use; how to talk about colour, how to talk about different senses etc. Paintings are often described as primarily visual but there's lots of other senses going on!

Technology has moved on so much that you can get quite good recordings just on phones. The quality isn’t professional level but I think it kind of gives a sense of the spontaneity of the recordings.

For me when I listen to it, it feels like there are these people who are giving a really personal sense of a painting. It makes me feel more connected with the paintings and with the experience of being in the gallery than I think I would be with a more clinical description.


How long was that creative process from idea and iteration to the full tour?

Well … we got shut down by the pandemic. The plan was to make almost 90 recordings for every picture in the gallery and we started in January recruiting people and running workshops in February. We had to stop that in the second or third week of March and at the end of that we had 15 recordings. We’re hoping to restart whenever the picture gallery reopens.

It felt important to us that people were creating the descriptions whilst they were in the gallery rather than looking at a picture. A lot of the experience is about where the picture is in the gallery - if it’s right up the top in a corner and it's really hard to see for example, or if it's right in the middle of the wall and you notice it immediately when you come in.

They also talk about the frames, the position of the painting, the sound of the gallery, what it feels like to be in that space. It's a very cluttered space, so all the pictures are influenced by what pictures are near them so they talk a little about that as well which is really interesting.


The beauty of it is that it makes the visit autonomous.

Professor Hannah Thompson

What was the process like from the Smartify end? How was it for you using the Smartify platform?

Smartify already existed in the gallery so it was great to have that already in place. You could go into the gallery, hold your phone up, scan a painting and get information straight away and we wanted to add audio onto that. The written text is already accessible to blind people if they use voice over or any text to speech options inbuilt into their phones but we thought given that Smartify has this capability to upload sound files, wouldn’t it be amazing to be able to do that!

The beauty of it is that it makes the visit autonomous, so a blind person could go into the gallery and scan their phone around and see which pictures their phone picks up and listen to the audio about them.

I’m really looking forward to what happens when people can be in the gallery with their phones. I think that will mean a lot of people will end up listening to the audio as they’re kind of reading about the more contextual historical information.


That’s really exciting to think about! Obviously you haven’t been able to launch on site, but how has the tour been received online?

The listening figures are really high for it, it’s one of the highest of the Royal Holloway tours. Which suggests to me that it isn’t just blind people who are using it. A lot of people are interested in what happens when art is described in words - people who are not visually confident, who are not confident looking at art, or feel they don’t know anything about art - or feel a little bit excluded from being in the gallery setting for example.

It’s a kind of guided looking, it tells you which bits of the painting to focus on and how to organise your looking and I think a lot of people really value that.

I’ve also been approached by a couple of other museums who would like to put similar things in place and really like this volunteer-led approach.

Because it’s low in resources but also involves the community and provides an accessible resource at the end of the process - it’s quite a win-win for everyone involved.

It works brilliantly online. We didn’t plan it like that but it’s really helped the picture gallery stay online during the pandemic and enabled people from all over the world to get access to the paintings and access to interesting content about the paintings.


In a sense it's a participation project that goes towards the ethos of the “museum” not just being a producer but as an interactive space, a facilitator.

Exactly, and the museum isn’t controlled by the hierarchy of museum curators and directors but it becomes more the property of everyone. It becomes everybody’s culture and everybody has a say in how it’s presented.

I think diversifying those voices that engage in museum content creation is really important because museums can become a mirror of the elite. We wanted to make sure there were lots of different voices and people who have particular connections with specific paintings.


Every person’s response to a painting is valuable and valid.

Professor Hannah Thompson

Do you have any advice for museums looking to create something similar?

Don’t be scared to talk about visual things like colours. A lot of people ask me “If we’re describing something for a blind person should we maybe not mention colour?” and I basically say that hardly any blind people have no colour perception and even if they don’t, blind people live in a sighted world where people talk about colour all the time. They read about it, they hear references to it so people understand - even if they don’t have a mental image of what colour looks like they still understand it’s connotations and its relationship with other colours. There’s no need to be frightened of offending people.

Every person’s response to a painting is valuable and valid. There aren’t really any right or wrong answers, there’s no one way to describe something - especially when you are talking about art.

Language is subjective and every word we choose is chosen for unconscious and conscious reasons so as long as you know who’s speaking and what their position is and where they’re coming from then I just really encourage people to describe what was important to them about the picture.

It started off as something for blind people but it’s become a really important part of the gallery’s offering for everyone - both in terms of visitors and the community of the gallery who have had a chance to be part of what the gallery creates.


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The Royal Holloway University Audio Description Tour

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written by

Molly Skinner