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Going to a museum, whether it be a small local exhibit or one of the most famous museums in the world should be a fascinating exploration of knowledge, wonder and discovery. But for the 2 million people in the UK who are blind or partially sighted, this experience can be significantly reduced. A project at the Oxford e-Research Centre aims to improve the museum experience for the blind and partially sighted.

Image copyright Oxford University Museums

"I get really frustrated when I go to a museum and there's no way to experience it. Having things you can touch and feel just opens up a whole new world"

Mrs Pamphilon, who runs a social group for visually impaired people in Oxfordshire

Currently museums tend to provide raised 'touch tiles' which give a physical indication of the visual shapes and textures of an artwork to improve the experience for blind and partially sighted people (BPSP). However, research has shown that the raised images are both difficult to interpret and miss fine nuances of the piece often requiring specialist audio description provided by a trained member of staff. Previously the cost and logistics of this approach also restricted what museums could provide to BPSP visitors.

What will the project do?

The Oxford e-Research Centre, working jointly with the Oxford University Museums, is looking at using inexpensive, innovative technology such as 3D printers and Raspberry Pis to address this challenge. An additional complexity will be that the interface will need to be multi-modal, appealing both to the sense of touch and hearing. Iain Emsley, the lead Research Associate on the project at the Centre said “one of the really interesting things for me is trying to get an interface working across two senses with the timing issues therein. This approach will enable the visitor to hear specific and relevant information about an object as they touch it.”

The initial part of the project, led by the Museums with support from Dr Torø Graven (Department of Experimental Psychology), focuses on understanding the tactile sensations that can be used to assist BPSP to experience the tiles (e.g. line fineness, texture of lines and surfaces, shape of features such as curves and angles, use of colour for partially sighted people), what kind of audio description should accompany the tiles and how it should be activated.

The R&D strand, led by the Centre, will determine how best to develop cheap and efficient methods of creating touch tiles that can provide the tactile sensations identified in strand one. It will also develop practical and replicable approaches to integrating audio delivery into the touch tiles.

What will be the impact and intended reach of the project?

It is hoped that the technology developed through the project will have significant applications both for the BPSP community and broader museum audiences. New tactile ways of engaging and understanding the collections should not only enhance the museum experience for BPSP, but should also provide significant further incentive for them to visit museums and collections more often. In addition to the BPSP community, the project outcomes are also likely to be of significant benefit to visitors with dementia or autism and beyond museums it also holds the potential to support equal access for BPSP students who wish to study arts-based subjects at University.

"Our aim is to create a tool that can allow blind and partially sighted people to independently engage with some of the world famous visual arts held by the Oxford University Museums, in particular the Ashmolean. We will be building on our existing knowledge from working with local BPS communities and taking it forward in an exciting new direction. We hope it will not only benefit BPS visitors, but improve the visitor experience for everyone coming to the museums".

Susan Griffiths, Community Engagement Officer at Oxford University Museums

Project Staff

Jessica Suess - Digital Partnership Manager, Oxford University Museums
Nicola Bird - Community Engagement Officer, Oxford University Museums
Susan Griffiths - Community Engagement Officer, Oxford University Museum
Iain Emsley - Oxford e-Research Centre
Dr Torø Graven - Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford