Two recent projects with IWM Duxford demonstrate how increased access to a museum and heritage site experience can be achieved most effectively through involving blind and partially sighted people and a team skilled in audio description writing, editing, recording and training.

IWM Duxford strives to make its history and collections as inclusive as possible and integrates visitor access into each new project or development. Opportunities and choice for blind and partially sighted people have been increased during 2013 with recorded audio description integrated into the Historic Duxford trail and staff trained to deliver a descriptive aircraft tour.

Recorded description

Historic Duxford exhibition and outdoor trail encourage families to explore the airfield as it was from 1918-61. The exhibition in the Watch Office introduces and immerses visitors in first-person memories and the RAF base’s history. Visitors can also engage with the history of people and place through visual and audio information at any of the eight external interpretive panels, with an integrated wind-up audio device.

Blind and partially sighted members of Historic Duxford Inclusive Access Consultation Panel identified audio description early in their involvement with the project; as a way in which the trail could be made accessible for them.

Access panel members Pauline Brown and Stuart Hayes give feedback on using the prototype wind-up audio device. c.IWM
Access panel members Pauline Brown and Stuart Hayes give feedback on using the prototype wind-up audio device. c.IWM

IWM Duxford then appointed VocalEyes to create the audio description and make the Historic Duxford trail engaging for blind and partially sighted people. VocalEyes formed a team with appropriate skills: an Audio Describer, Audience Advocate and digital Recording Technician, overseen by Artistic Consultant Roz Chalmers as Editor. Their objectives were:

Descriptions of 8 key airfield buildings/areas, written, tested, edited and recorded for visitors to select as an option at the interpretive panels.

• Guidance and editing for 2 scripts written and recorded by IWM Duxford exhibition team, for an audio pen available within the exhibition.

Involvement of members of Historic Duxford Access Panel in implementing their suggestion through testing scripts and audience advocacy.

Writing description

Kirstin Smith, VocalEyes Describer, worked closely with IWM Duxford exhibition team to write the scripts. She explains her approach to the project:

‘IWM Duxford is a vast site with buildings dating from the First World War to the present. The trail reveals the history of the buildings through the stories of people who used them. In terms of description, the challenge was to weave this history with the visual experience of being there.

VocalEyes has been building its portfolio of architecture description over the last five years, notably through the London Beyond Sight project. As with much interpretation, these projects demonstrated the importance of pairing description with the story or piece of information that gives it focus and direction. IWM Duxford Exhibitions Officer, Sarah Russell, was keenly aware of this balance. As we worked through drafts for each panel, we developed an understanding of our mutual languages – interpretation and description – and how they can be integrated to best effect.

The short descriptions had to convey the architecture, landscape, interpretive panel text and photographs, without resorting to a repetitive, formulaic structure. Sarah provided learning outcomes for each panel, designed to be accessible to interested 8-12 year olds. Avoiding complex technical language gave the description a much freer reign.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect was that the history was more immediately exciting than the visuals – as well as huge hangars, there were several apparently unremarkable huts. Audio description is not always about communicating visual fireworks, but giving the information that enables people to feel present in the place, and thereby access the heritage on offer.’

Involving blind and partially sighted people

Kirin Saeed, VocalEyes Audience Advocate, worked together with IWM Duxford and blind and partially sighted members of their Access Panel. She explains: ‘Many of us have an understanding of audio description but often are unaware of its potential or indeed its limitations. A complex exhibition requires a link between audience and venue.

Kirin Saaed and Pauline Brown listen to the Historic Duxford trail. c.IWM
Kirin Saaed and Pauline Brown listen to the Historic Duxford trail. c.IWM

The trail enables visitors to consider buildings in their environment. This could have been a barrier to access for blind or partially sighted visitors. External exhibitions are difficult environments to negotiate as sound, lighting and surface areas can vary. These are often the main tools that blind or partially sighted people use to navigate new and complex spaces.’

The Access Panel members were invited to test the script in situ, facilitated by Kirin. Being able to offer advice on the sound, length of description and script enabled them to have greater ownership of the audio trail. A prototype device was available for constructive comment on making it as easy as possible to use, with the addition of tactile indicators. The Access Panel are now eager to promote the exhibition and trail to other blind and partially sighted people in the area.

Marion Mansfield gave feedback throughout the project development, she says: ‘The trail stops were the highlight for me – a landscape of brick huts brought back to life through vivid description and veterans’ voices – and all outside where the action took place. The description [of the photograph] of Woody Woodhall at his desk with his monocle, that really humanises it. Meeting the people from the past by hearing their stories while you’re standing on the spot, it’s very powerful. It transcends time, and there are quirky hooks – like hearing about the rings for tying up the horses – it all far exceeds expectations.’

The process and results for IWM Duxford:

Kay Cooper was Historic Duxford Access Champion. She explains how IWM Duxford’s challenge was to ‘empower blind and partially sighted visitors to engage with Historic Duxford on equal terms with their sighted family and friends.’

The audio description was ‘teamed with evocative soundscapes and fascinating veterans’ reminiscences to connect visitors to the historic landscape. Integrating audio description into the package has not only equipped blind and partially sighted visitors to engage with their surroundings but has enriched the experience for everyone, and resulted in a journey to enjoy together.’

Working with handling objects during training at IWM Duxford. c.Vocaleyes
Working with handling objects during training at IWM Duxford. c.Vocaleyes

Training: The Aircraft Tour

IWM Duxford asked VocalEyes to provide audio description training for their Explainers and managers from the Informal Learning and Exhibitions teams to make an accessible and engaging aircraft tour for blind and partially sighted visitors.

Learning objectives for participants were to

be aware of some of the barriers a visitor may face when visiting a heritage site or on an aircraft tour;

be confident and skilled in welcoming and guiding;

understand and put into practice the general principles of audio description;

be skilled to develop and deliver descriptions on an aircraft tour.

The training has embedded skills across IWM Duxford teams with increased understanding of audio description and how it can be used effectively; in addition to enabling staff to welcome visitors, know what is on offer for them and provide a descriptive experience.

Key points for audio description projects

The combination of recorded description, training staff (about audio description as well as in delivery technique) and audience advocacy all contribute to making a more meaningful experience for blind and partially sighted visitors to share with their friends and families.

Three key points for museum professionals thinking about audio description are demonstrated at IWM Duxford:

Consider a full visitor experience with choices rather than one-off provision.

Involve describers early in the project development process.

Engage blind and partially sighted people actively in the process of developing and delivering audio description.

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