An Unlimited bursary made it possible for me to explore museum accessibility as a partially blind photographer experiencing ongoing sight loss. Thanks to Oxfordshire Museum I was introduced to Liz who has a profound hearing impairment. We were encouraged to visit this regional museum situated in an 18th-century house in Woodstock on Mondays when the Museum is closed to the public. The Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, a military museum on the same site also agreed to us coming in on a Monday to work unhindered. At first, I was considering how much could I see to navigate the Galleries and appreciate the display cases, and whether Liz could hear the audio exhibits. After a while, and this is where the Unlimited bursary has been so invaluable, I began to think of access as less about the accommodation of inability and more to do with feeling acknowledged. Both Museums encouraged us and wish to learn from our experiences. This feels like just the beginning with many positives to explore further.
A series of my photographs are accompanied by Liz’s recordings from the notes she made after each visit. Her notes are included as an archive for those interested in museum accessibility. Part of the Unlimited bursary was for me to learn how to make field recordings. We recorded in the relevant Galleries and the garden to try and include the different atmospheres.
Working as a volunteer I must lip-read members of the public who have questions about the facilities or the exhibits of the museum. I frequently fail at this communication, my facial expression goes blank and the paid member of staff must ‘rescue’ me by stepping in to answer the question.
The first photograph I made with Liz was in the Smocks Gallery. Jemma, the Museum Manager helped us set up so that we could work in darkness. I wanted to use my little torch. The incandescent light on Liz reminds me of cellophane across her face and the effect shows the strain it takes for her to hear most conversations. I thumped the floorboards with my foot for Liz to move into position or we called out monosyllabic instructions to one another. It felt like the mannequins in their heavy linen smocks, perhaps once worn as overgarments by shepherds and waggoners in 18th-century Oxfordshire, were serene observers behind glass.
A lot of patience would have been required to do the pleating first and the decorative stitches onto the smock base shapes, which were squares and rectangles, meaning no waste of fabric. There are about five main decorative stitches that would have had to be mastered. Smocking provides some ‘give’ to the garment making it more comfortable to wear, also the smocking made the garment stronger and more waterproof.
I have no idea how I made this photograph in the interactive Dinosaur Gallery, one of Liz and my favourite rooms that is particularly popular with visiting families. What I visualised beforehand was Liz blurry and life in Jurassic Oxfordshire on the blue-green walls in sharp detail. Liz was turning the pages of a children’s book as she read out loud very fast. She couldn’t hear me ask her repeatedly to slow down, which made me laugh and go with the flow. I love the exuberant expressions of the dinosaur heads and the cosiness of the space kitted out for children.
It feels like a safe non-threatening place for me. It is incredibly popular with families with young children – they often take up residence for an hour or longer in the gallery lounging about on the blue and red bean bags (one of each colour) and the dinosaur tail cushions that are arranged to jut out into the middle of the room in a curve.
I really like working as a volunteer in this room, tidying it seems like tidying my sitting room at home, a lot of bending down to pick up things and get them back in place!
The Woodstock Gallery has a particular smell, old clothes and worn leather may be, and the air conditioner keeps the room cold. Its background hum and the acidic lighting above the display cases made me think of a Hitchcock film. Liz and I found the session draining, so I suggested that I try to convey the unsettling atmosphere alone. Instead, her notes with a recorded excerpt accompany my photograph. The sense of relief I felt as soon as I left this Gallery is summed up in the reflection of the exit sign in the Mayor framed portrait behind the mannequin.
High up as you enter through the door of the Woodstock Gallery there is a banner, not easily seen, that says Woodstock in Oxfordshire was the very first Woodstock. This is a reference to the now many places called Woodstock around the world. I think of the residents of other Woodstocks coming to this museum and finding something that is of personal interest to them and their own Woodstock.
The walled garden, maintained by volunteers, is modelled on a Victorian garden and has a life-size fibreglass model of a Megalosaurus and dinosaur footprints hidden amongst Jurassic plants. It was mid-February, and the trees were still bare, but as Liz’s notes mention the earth was “pushing forth white snowdrops, mauve crocus, yellow aconite and blue scilla” and there was a sweet scent of the winter-flowering box. Behind Liz is the low-rise glass-fronted building that houses the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum. I was aware of the birdsong as I tried to observe Liz lost in thought looking at the mother and child sculpture.
This garden does seem to have comfortably found its purpose as a public space for individuals and groups, a play space, a space for meeting and chatting and a place for just sitting and doing nothing. I’m not envisaging it as an eighteenth-century private garden of Fletcher's House.
On the Oxfordshire County Council website, the Introducing Oxfordshire Gallery lists • items representing 500,000 years of human history and natural history of Oxfordshire, • carnival costume, and • amazing 3D display. I saw the carnival costume only. Instead, my vision took in what I imagined once to be the Fletcher’s House sitting room with its sash windows overlooking the garden. Liz and I were interested in the formal AnnaBelinda dress in the glass display case. Accessibility has a wonderful hook to draw everybody into the museum, storytelling. The AnnaBelinda dress represents Belinda O’Hanlon. I would love to hear her story.
It's brilliant that the curator has an AnnaBelinda dress on display! I moved to Oxford in 1983 to work in an office in St Giles and AnnaBelinda dresses were very much prized in my twenties, but I never owned one.
My initial interest when I entered Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum was to experience the effect of sunlight through the glass façade etched with life-size figures of men and women. Duncan, the Front of House and Marketing Supervisor agreed to switch off the lights which hampered my ability to see to photograph. Liz can be seen in a model of an Anderson shelter, based on the shelters used in WW2 by families as a place to hide when the air raid siren sounded. Liz had a vastly different impression of the gunshots’ soundscape to mine, and she shares this in her recording.
Wandering along the outer space, which is a corridor that encircles the inner, I walk through hessian drapes. Museum sound effects on a motion sensor sound like the wind until Karren tells me it’s gunfire. I probably would not have noticed the sound effects on my own, but she notices it straight away and asks, “What can you hear?” This question actually frightens me a bit and I am surprised and think: What have I missed and why am I so stupid?
The Unlimited bursary gave me time to think about what defines accessibility. Near the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum reception tucked in an alcove is a large mirror at the same level as the wheelchair stored under a rail with coat hangers and a folding stool. It appears a well-designed, functional space that considers visitors with mobility impairments and a place to hang coats. As I experience an increasing sense of isolation because of diminished sight and not wishing to be a burden to others, I gravitate to where the shared conversation is unexpected, often humorous, even if the access is poor.
© Karren Visser. Accessible, funded by Unlimited, 2022 – 23.