Tactile time travel? Reviewing the accessibility of Bolton Museum
There’s a common misconception that blind people can’t enjoy the cultural experience that museums and galleries offer. At Henshaws we’ve proved on many occasions that’s simply not true. Not least with our monthly Galleries and Museums Group. Now, with the help of our service users, we’re going a step further and exploring exactly how accessible some of Greater Manchester’s museums are and crucially, how they could improve.
Last November Alice visited The National Football Museum; her review of the visit can be read here. This month Kim visited Bolton Museum, a local authority, Victorian museum, right in the centre of the town. Their collections include local history, decorative art, fine art, natural history and Egyptology.
Kim visited one Wednesday morning to explore the museum unannounced, as an individual with sight loss, and I joined her. Kim has optic neuritis, which was caused by a virus that had lay dormant in her body, but was triggered in her early 30s. It caused a number of sight complications including severe myopia, glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts. She lost her sight completely for three years but after a course of steroids she now has some peripheral vision and can see some colours.
Because of its links with the cotton trade Bolton Museum has a significant Egyptology collection, which was recently re-displayed in a brand new gallery. The new gallery opened in September 2018 and features over 2000 objects. As a brand new refurbishment we were hoping it would be very accessible, was it? Let’s find out from Kim…
Planning the Visit
“I visited the museum’s website in order to plan my visit and found all the information I needed regarding opening times and how to get there. The website was accessible with a screen reader, I use JAWS. I found it to be quite a busy website but I easily found the Access Statement.
Every visitor attraction website should include an Access Statement, which is a page of information detailing exactly what they offer visitors with a range of disabilities. The page had a lot of information regarding the facilities they provide and covered information for different disabilities. The website also has plenty of information regarding ‘what’s on’ at the museum and detail regarding the content of the collections.
Getting there and arrival
The museum is right in the centre of the town. For drivers there are on street Blue Badge parking spaces right outside the building and visitors can be dropped off at the entrance. There are steps leading up to the main entrance with handrails and a permanent ramp to the side. Bolton train station is just a ten minute walk away and there is a bus stop right behind the museum. There is also a free town centre Metroshuttle bus service, which stops right by the museum.
The museum shares a building with Bolton Library, which is on the ground floor. As we walked in to the building we were greeted by a member of staff who told us about what was on in the museum that day and directed us up to the galleries. We used the lift to go up to the first floor galleries, although I couldn’t identify the different buttons. Braille buttons here would have helped. The personal welcome was great but there was very minimal signage in the building. However, once we arrived on the first floor a member of staff saw us and directed us to a handling table currently out in the local history gallery.
We found the toilets easily and they were spacious and light. I often find toilets in public buildings very difficult to navigate as they are commonly all white, but here there was very good contrast. I could differentiate between the cubicles, wash basins and the hand dryers.
During our visit we took in the brand new Egyptian gallery, the local history gallery and the art gallery. In the local history gallery they had a handling table out, which happens every Wednesday morning, run by volunteers. I got to handle a variety of shells and a shark’s skull (with some sharp teeth!). There were also some old swim wear replicas from the costume collection.
We were lucky this coincided with our visit, but the museum can organise handling sessions for all visitors on request if you call and let them know in advance. This is great way to open up the collections to anyone with sight loss.
The rest of the local history gallery was largely inaccessible to me. It is an old gallery, with everything in glass cases. There was no audio to aid my understanding of the subjects covered, or any alternative formats for the interpretation of the objects.
We moved on to the new Egyptian Gallery, which I was excited about. The lay out of this gallery was better. The space was really bright and some of the main interpretation panels very large. I couldn’t quite read them but I imagine others with less severe visual impairments possibly could.
There was a replica of a stela, which I loved touching and feeling the texture of the different scripts, including hieroglyphs and demotic. It would have been even better if there had been some large print or Braille information about what I was touching, or even better some audio.
There were a number of objects in this gallery I could touch, which was fantastic. It was a really atmospheric exhibition. I really enjoyed digging through the Egyptian costume box as well, which is possibly not directed at people my age, but I loved none the less!
At the end of the gallery we walked in to the replica tomb of Thutmose III, from the Valley of the Kings. This is a wonderful and powerful exhibit. I felt completely different walking in, as if I was entering a real tomb. It was interesting to see the mummy in the case, which I could just make out a bit. However, there was little interpretation I could access in the tomb. There was an animated film projected on a loop on the wall of the tomb. It captures the story of the passage into the afterlife, based on the tomb’s illustrations. The music was great and the story fascinating, but I had to have it read aloud to me by Debbie. It’s a shame that there is no audio for the film, which would have been easy to include.
I really enjoyed my visit but I did find the vast majority of the content of the exhibitions was visual, with few alternative ways to access it. In regards to reading the interpretation in the galleries, I found no large print, Braille or audio, either on display or on request from staff. However, the staff were fantastic. They have all had disability awareness training and were really friendly. We spoke to three different members of the team, who all took the time to talk to me about the galleries and the exhibits. I learnt a lot from them about what was on display and the thought process behind the new Egyptian gallery.
When I asked for alternative formats for the labels or text panels though (i.e. large print or Braille) I was quite surprised to hear there wasn’t any. However, I was reassured that these elements are being worked on for the Egyptian Gallery and will be added in soon. I feel for a brand new project of this scale that this should have been integral to the planning stage and in the exhibition from day one. I also enquired about audio of which there is none. I have used audio tours before and found them to make a huge difference to my experience of an exhibition. I appreciate that audio is more technical and costly to maintain. However, these days with smart phones, apps and QR codes audio does not need a huge investment of costly equipment.
If you have a visual impairment I can definitely recommend a visit to Bolton Museum, but you should probably ring in advance and let them know when you’ll be visiting. If you do that then their wonderful team will certainly make sure someone is available to give you a tour and support your understanding and experience of the exhibits.”
Want to find out more about accessibility or share your own experiences? Euan’s Guide is a disabled access review website used by disabled people to review, share and discover accessible places to visit.
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