Oxford touch tour. Photograph of a staff member placing a large beetle into the hands of a tour visitor

Placing a large beetle into the hands of a tour visitor

Background

The Oxford University Museums & Collections’ (OUMC) involvement in Sensing Culture, has been led by the Museum of Natural History and includes 4 museums in total. The Museum of Natural History, a Grade I listed building, opened in 1860 and houses internationally important collections. Among its most famous features are the Oxfordshire dinosaurs, the Dodo, and the swifts in the tower.

 

Challenge

We wanted to try and establish continuity of access across all our venues, so that visitors receive a similar experience, no matter which of the University Museums they visit. The overwhelming feedback from our focus group work at the beginning of the project, showed how much people appreciated interacting with the museum through its staff, rather than through a piece of technology. For two of our museums, which have nothing on open display that can be touched, we had to convince them to explore alternative ways of engaging with the collection, to provide meaningful experiences for blind and partially sighted visitors.

 

Oxford touch tour. Photograph of two women viewing/tracing their hands over a tactile image

Two women viewing/tracing their hands over a tactile image

Solution

The Ashmolean had a long history of delivering touch tours and we wanted to make the offer across all of our venues.  Offering a programme of touch tours across all the museums would allow us to improve access for everyone and provide the face to face interaction that our focus group valued. New themes were suggested by staff who know the collections better than anyone. The tours are booked and managed centrally, then delivered at each venue. They last an hour long, with half an hour spent exploring objects on display in the galleries and half an hour spent still within the museum/gallery space exploring related handling objects.

 

 

 

 

Outcomes

Oxford touch tour. Photograph of visitors handling fossils during a tour

Visitors handling fossils during a tour

Our touch tours have now gone from strength to strength. We started with an audience of 5 or 6 visitors and are now regularly attract between 15 to 20 participants per session – plus guide dogs! We have delivered twice the number of tours we originally set out to deliver and the tours look set to continue across all the museums beyond the life of the project.

Since beginning the touch tours, we have also developed our own, bespoke training session that we can deliver in-house, to equip our volunteers and staff with the skills they need in audio description and sight loss awareness. This is helping them to deliver the touch tours successfully and consistently, a challenge that we faced in the beginning.

 

 

 

‘Great that you have lots of helpers to help and give individual

attention. Excellent once again – hope funding continues.’

‘I have learning difficulties as well as being blind and I found the session great’

‘Long may these sessions continue.’

Touch Tour Participant (BPS) feedback – OUMC

 

Oxford touchable. Photograph of a fossilised ammonite

Touchable fossilised ammonite

Top Tips

  • Visitors like to be in the museum space. Although a side room or teaching space may provide better facilities in terms of controlling light levels and noise, it often negates the point of people actually visiting the museum in the first place.
  • Invest in a tactile image printer – it makes producing them quick and simple.
  • Support your tour with experienced and trained volunteers. Our volunteers have had sight awareness, sighted guiding and audio description training. The consistency of using the same team of volunteers has, over time, given our visitors confidence.

People love an expert – Our visitors have really appreciated having curators, researchers and other “experts” help deliver the tours.  Being able to support staff members in talking to an audience they may not be familiar with (as well as offering training), has meant that more members of staff outside of the traditional engagement roles have been keen to be involved in the tours.

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