Audio Description – My First Experiences

Glen holding a square piece of zebra fur with Sarah, one of the guides at the Natural History Museum.

In this post and video I’m going to discuss my first experiences with audio description in London, for museums, galleries, theatre shows, cinema screenings and walking tours.

Before I moved here I never used audio description all that much. I didn’t really feel the need to. When I was watching the TV I would just sit close enough to see it, as I could do that at home. Same with things on my computer like Netflix, Now TV or catchup services. And when I went out to the cinema with friends, I just got enough of the picture to be able to see it, I could see well enough. There would be little bits I’d miss, but otherwise I was happy just to watch the movie as it was. And there wasn’t really anything of interest in terms of theatre or museums near me either. None of them offered audio description, that’s for sure.

But since moving up to London, there’s been a lot going on that I’ve become aware of, particularly from VocalEyes. They’re a brilliant charity that highlight and arrange audio description events and touch tours at museums and theatres. And in terms of theatre productions there’s also the Official London Theatre Access List, highlighting shows that have audio description (including some not listed on VocalEyes), as well as captioned, signed and relaxed performances.

So I’ve been trying a few of these audio description experiences recently, and I’ve been enjoying them very much, so I thought I’d talk about a few of them.

Natural History Museum

This was the first museum where I got to experience audio description and handling objects. I went with a local visually impaired group that I’ve become a member of – East London Vision. It was one of my first outings with them.

We went to their Investigate Centre, which was really good. We had a couple of members of very friendly staff with us, and they let us handle lots of different things, like snake skins, giant turtles and an old meteorite, among many other items. They told us all about them, and we could chat to them and ask questions. Everyone got a chance to feel the objects, it was really good.

Glen holding a square piece of zebra fur with Sarah, one of the guides at the Natural History Museum.
Picture credit: East London Vision

Since then I’ve been back to the museum a couple more times, because there’s so much to see there. And if you look at their Access page, you’ll see they have a few audio described tours available for some of their galleries. These are very well put together and are very interesting to listen to as you explore.

For example, one tour is available for their main Hintze Hall. The most obvious attraction here is the massive skeleton of a whale, which replaces Dippy The Dinosaur. You can see it better from up above I’ve found. From below it’s quite dark on the underside, because of the way the lighting is coming from above. But when you go up on the balconies, so you can see the light shining down on it, it does look amazing.

Large blue whale skeleton hanging in the large hall of the Natural History Museum. Its mouth is open and it looks like it's diving down towards the crowd below.

On the same visit I also tried the audio tour of their Human Evolution gallery. it takes you through the 4 sections of the gallery, focusing on one or two specific things in each area to described in detail. So I enjoyed that, and I intend to try their other audio description tours at some point as well.

A skeleton laid out in a glass case at the Natural History Museum.

I also went to their Whales: Beneath The Surface exhibition, and that was really good too. It didn’t have audio description, but it did have a large print guide. My only criticism with that was it wasn’t always easy to find out which way to go, because the route jumped around a little bit, and it was also bound back to front, so you had to read the pages in reverse order. There was a sort of logical order to it all, but you had to hunt for the next exhibit on one or two occasions. So that could be a bit better. But otherwise it was really good, and it’s great that museums are making the effort with large print and audio description like that.

A large skeleton of a whale that was found in the River Thames.

Other galleries I’ve explored at the museum recently are their displays of Birds and Fossil Marine Reptiles. They don’t have audio description or large print guides, but they’re still well worth a look. they have a lot of of fascinating specimens, and it really showcases just how beautiful and varied the natural world is.



Museum of London Docklands

I went to this museum with Mum, as VocalEyes had been advertising an audio described tour of their Sailortown exhibition. And it turned out that we were the only people booked on to that day! So we got a personalised tour with our very generous guide. We thought perhaps he wouldn’t bother if there were just two of us, but he was happy to take us round. And it was really interesting, he was really nice. It is quite dark in there, so it was quite useful to have someone to describe what was going on.

We got to hear some sounds. smell some things, sit in a small war shelter that was used by emergency services, and find out all sorts of interesting facts. There’s so much interesting stuff in there, I’ll definitely have to go back for a further look around.

British Museum

British Museum entrance. The top of the wide steps are 8 tall pillars, spaced along the width of the steps, above which is a triangular roof section containing various carved figures.

This was my most recent visit, to see Hokusai: Beyond The Great Wave (Hokusai being a very influential Japanese artist). This was also advertised and put on by VocalEyes. They had a describer there, while a curator of the exhibition came round with us as well.

And it was fascinating. I haven’t explored art galleries before, and I’ve always wondered if I’d find them a bit dry or boring. But this really brought it to life for me. Firstly we had a handling session, so you could see and feel the woodblocks that he used, including one that was carved out with the design of the painting that was going to result from it. It was so intricate and detailed. To feel that, along with all the brushes, paper and materials that he used to produce his imagery, really helped to underline how creative he was, how intricate his work was, and how complicated it was. And that made us appreciate the artistry all the more in the exhibition itself.

We went through a few of the key images in the exhibition – not every single one, because it would take way too long, but we went through quite a few of the exhibits. They were described in detail to us by the VocalEyes describer, and then the curator was able to give us all the context and meaning and other information behind it.

So the audio description and the extra information really gelled and connected together nicely. It really brought it all to life and made it interesting. So much so that I actually got a DVD all about it as well. I never thought I’d buy an art DVD, but this one proved to be very interesting. Especially because it has close-ups of paintings like The Great Wave and others, so I could see detail that even on the day I couldn’t quite see.

But on the day I was able to use my monocular to look at the paintings. We also had a large print guide there as well, which I was using in conjunction with the audio description. And that was useful because, as well as large print text, it also has large versions of the paintings. Slightly simplified drawings if you like, though they are still quite complex. But they have labels on as well, pointing to the different areas of the image. So by using that, it was basically a map for me. By comparing the large print drawing with the actual painting, using the labels to guide me, I could find and focus on elements that I might otherwise have missed.

So using all those different tools – the audio description, the curator’s description, the large print guide, and my monocular – really helped meto  understand and appreciate it all much more. And that’s the kind of thing you need with art I think. It’s easy to look at paintings and think that they look nice, but it’s quite another experience to actually hear the stories and meanings behind them. It does make it all the more interesting.

So if you think art’s boring, and you’re visually impaired, I would strongly suggest looking on the VocalEyes website for museums near you, and just trying out one of these art tours. Because you might be surprised. I certainly was.

Beauty & The Beast

I went to a showing of this film at the cinema recently, as part of a focus group helping the RNIB test an app. They’ve done some testing once or twice before in a home environment I think, but this was one of the first times they’ve tried it in a cinema. It’s not one of the RNIB’s apps, it’s an app that someone else has developed, and indeed the app developer was there.

It’s basically an app that lets you have audio description for movies on your phone. So instead of getting a headset given to you in the cinema – which I’ve not yet tried myself – you just take your mobile phone instead. You download the audio description track before you get there and then, when the film starts, you press Play on your device, and it will synchronise the audio to the film. In other words, it will listen to the film, and work out exactly what part of the audio description it needs to start you off with.

And it worked perfectly for me. As soon as the Disney logo started appearing, I hit the Play button, and the description started straight away. So while the logos are playing, you’ve got a chance to adjust the volume and get it at a level that’s right for you. The description for the film was great too, and the film was enjoyable as well, I think certainly enhanced by the description.

Again, I could have watched the movie without it, but having watched it with it, I do actually think I could prefer watching movies with audio description. It does pick up a lot of the facial expressions, props that people pick up, elements of costumes that I can’t quite see clearly, etc. All of those things helped me to keep up with the story, rather than missing them or catching up with little bits later. I think I got so accustomed to not using it before that I hadn’t really considered it.

So if that app continues to be developed as the trials go along, I think it would be really useful. I know cinemas have been a bit reluctant to allow people in with mobile phones, but if this kind of app can work, then there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be rolled out more widely. So we’ll see what happens there, it will be interesting to see if anything comes of it.

The Mousetrap

The outside of St Martin's Theatre. The theatre name is in white text on a blue background across the top of the doorway. Above this, hanging in front of the windows, is a large sign that says Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, 65th Year. The play's title is in pink script lettering, the rest is in pink block capitals.

My recent trip to the theatre has been my favourite activity I think, with the Hokusai exhibition a close second. I hadn’t been aware of audio description in the theatre before, so when I started reading about it when I came up to London, I was very curious about it.

I do love the theatre, even though I haven’t really been that often for a while. When I used to come up to London as a kid, we used to go to pantomimes and musicals. I remember going to see Oliver and Wind In The Willows for instance. And I went to see The Lion King two or three years ago with some friends of mine. But none of those were with audio description.

So I recently booked for Mum and I to go and see The Mousetrap at St Martin’s Theatre, where we would get a touch tour and then the audio described show itself. It turned out there were quite a few people there for it, so it was clearly popular.

The touch tour took place a couple of hours before the play, and there were two describers from VocalEyes there to help us. We got taken through the back corridors of the theatre and up on to the stage, where the cast got to say hello and tell us who they played, which also gave us a sense of their voices. They didn’t stay for the touch tour, because they obviously have to go off and relax and get ready for the show, which is fair enough. But it was nice of them so say hello.

And then the VocalEyes guys described the stage to us and everything that was on it, before letting us go around and have a close-up look and feel of everything, talking us through it as we did so. For instance, there’s a big old clock on the mantlepiece, which is the only item that’s been there for the entire run. Everything else has changed in one form or another over the years, but that clock is the one constant that’s always been there. And there are a couple of photos on the mantlepiece, one of which is actually of Agatha Christie herself, who wrote the play. And we were allowed to sit in the seats as well, which were very comfy.

And then we got led round the back of the stage, where we got to feel things like the jackets, ski poles, fake snow, etc, and have a look how they generate the sound of the wind and the knocking on the front door. All these little secrets of the backstage area were really interesting. And it all helped to give us some great context for the show, including where everything was, such a where certain doors off the stage lead to in terms of the story. Then we got to go outside and have a walk for half an hour while the theatre was getting ready to welcome everyone.

When we got back to the theatre again, we got presented with our headsets for the performance. I hadn’t known what to expect there – I assumed it would be headphones that go over your head, but they actually hang down. It’s a bit like a doctor’s stethoscope, but instead of the wire at the bottom, it’s basically just a unit that just hangs under your chin, and hangs off your ears. It’s perfectly comfortable too.

There are just a couple of small controls on it as well. The main dial turns it on or off and adjusts the volume, while another little switch changes the channel, so you can tune into the frequency of the VocalEyes describer. They are elsewhere in the auditorium, presumably behind a window or something so they don’t disturb any people near them. They will have seen a previous performance, either on DVD or live in person, in order to write their audio description script, then they speak it to you live on the night. You can’t really pre-record audio description for a theatre show, because it’s slightly different every night. After all, the timings are slightly different, things might go wrong, the director might change something, etc. So it has to be done live on the night.

And it worked really well. I was really impressed with it, as was Mum. It really helped to fill in the key things like the facial expressions, and there were a few little props which were crucial to the story that we had to know about, so it was good that they were mentioned. It really helped to fill in all the gaps that we would otherwise have missed. If I’d watched the show without it, it wouldn’t have been as satisfying, I’m sure of that. You need to know all the elements, whether they be clues or red herrings, to fully appreciate it.

Indeed, The Mousetrap itself is a brilliant play. If you’re not sure if you’d like something like that, go anyway. Trust me, it’s really well written and put together. All the different guests that arrive at the guest house all have their own story and characteristics, they’re all very different. And it all comes together nicely, with twists and turns and red herrings. I was never entirely sure who the murderer was. I had one or two names in mind, but I didn’t guess the final outcome. So definitely go and see it if you can.

A large wooden sign that says - This performance is number 26980 of Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, the world's longest running play. The black numbers are behind square holes, allowing them to change for each show.

Cities Talking App

This isn’t quite audio description, but it is an audio tour app that I’ve been experimenting with a bit, so I thought I’d mention it. I did a tour using the app around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens a little while back, which was narrated by Christopher Biggins, and it was very interesting and easy to follow the route around. I was also able to wander off and find other parts of the park as well, because Hyde Park’s massive and beautiful, and then resume the tour.

And then more recently I tried another tour on the app called Death And Rebirth, which takes you around various parts of the Square Mile. The streets around there are a bit more of a maze, and for me the map didn’t really quite work so well. So it was a little bit hard to find things, and I got a little bit lost here and there. But I was able to find quite a few of the things that were mentioned, so it was worth giving it a go.

Talking Statues

A round, blue plaque with the text Talking Statue, Hear Rowland Here, Be Amazed. Before the Be Amazed line, it has 3 options, allowing you to tap your phone against the plaque, type in a short web address, or scan a QR code.

During my most recent audio tour with the app above, I came across one of these ‘talking’ statues, which I hadn’t been aware of before. Basically, it has a plaque on the side, and if you scan the QR code on it, the person represented by the statue (voiced by an actor) will ‘call’ you via the website and tell you about themselves. It’s a really good way of doing it. So I’ve downloaded the map for all the statues from their website, and will try to see how many of these I can find. I’ve already visited a few on my walkabouts already, but hadn’t spotted these plaques, but then I wasn’t looking for them at the time.

I know there’s a cat voiced by Nicholas Parsons, and I know other voices include Jeremy Paxman and Hugh Dennis, among various other people. So it should be interesting, I think it’s a really nice initiative. It’s a shame that there aren’t more statues in London that do that. But there’s quite a few already, and there’s some in other places like Manchester and Leeds as well I think. So they’re well worth looking out for.


And that’s it. Those are my experiences of audio description in London so far. They’ve been brilliant, and I’ll definitely be doing more of them. Audio description really enhanced the experience in each case, which helped me to enjoy and appreciate it more. Even though I can see fairly well, there are still various details that I miss, so it’s great  that I can still be aware of them. It’s nice to be there in the moment and enjoy things properly just like everyone lese.

In particular, the next theatre show I’ve got booked is Harry Potter And The Cursed Child. It’s a two-part play, and I’m seeing both parts on the same day. Mum’s paid for that as my birthday present for this month. And there plenty of other things that I want to go and see, including musicals and more museums. It’s tempting to book everything!

I’ve also got an Access Card now, which I applied for very recently. That helps to give information to venues like The O2 about your condition – not necessarily to get audio description, but it’s just something else I thought I’d mention while talking about theatres and venues.

So there is a lot of this kind of stuff out there. As I say, check out sites like VocalEyes, and the Official London Theatre Access Listings to see what performances are out there. You can experience the culture and the arts, the theatre and the cinema, museums and galleries, and you can go out for walks, and so on. There’s no reason to think that having a disability here is a barrier, because the support’s there and the technology’s there. So if you’re a Londoner and you’re visually impaired, or if you’re visiting the city and you’re visually impaired, there’s plenty to check out. And there are things going on elsewhere in the country too, some of which VocalEyes will tell you about as well.

So that’s it for now. Thank you very much for reading, I hope you found it interesting and that you learnt something from it!

Author: Glen

Love London, love a laugh, love life. Visually impaired blogger, culture vulture & accessibility advocate, with aniridia & nystagmus, posting about my experiences & adventures.

11 thoughts on “Audio Description – My First Experiences”

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