Following on from yesterday’s post about the V&A Museum, I want to tell you about a couple of other museums I’ve visited recently, both of which involved audio described tours.
Bank Of England Museum
A couple of weeks ago I went to the Bank Of England Museum for a tour with my friends from East London Vision. We were split into 2 groups to make it easier for the staff to take us round, so each group started at a different part of the museum. But we all saw the same things.
We were told about the history of the Bank Of England and how the production of money has changed over the years, all of which was very interesting. And we were allowed to touch various things along the way, including an image of the Roman goddess Britannia, a huge metal chest, and a plate for printing raised text on banknotes. Plus, best of all, you can hold a real gold bar as well. It’s locked away very securely in a box of course, with CCTV cameras pointing at it from every angle, as you can see on the screens above it. But you can put your hand through a hole to grab the bar from underneath, and lift it up a short way. It’s great to be able to feel it, and it’s very heavy too!
So it was a very interesting visit, and I came away with a few items from the gift shop as well – including a £50 note fridge magnet, a large gold-covered chocolate half-penny coin, a gold bullion shaped chocolate bar, a keyring with a small replica of a gold bar attached, and a big money box in the shape of a gold bar. Obviously the chocolate’s been eaten now, and very nice it was too! You can find out about audio described tours and other accessibility information on their page about visiting the museum.
The Wellcome Collection is a museum that focuses on health, life, science and medicine, looking at what it means to be human. I went there a few times with the family when I was very young, although I have no clear memories of it. I just remember it was a place that we really enjoyed. So when I saw that VocalEyes had organised an audio described tour one evening at the museum, I happily signed up. It was in the evening, after the museum had closed to the general public, so it was convenient to attend after work and we had the place to ourselves. It’s also nice and easy to get to, just around the corner from Euston Square station.
Once we’d entered the building, going up the steps past their lovely Christmas tree, we were taken to a room where we could have drinks and nibbles and a general chat with each other, while waiting for everyone to arrive so we could start. Then we were introduced to all the members of staff – or Visitor Experience Assistants as they’re called. There were quite a lot of them too. They’re all really nice and clearly enjoy working there – and who can blame them, it’s an fascinating museum. So we were split into groups of 4, and each group was taken to different places within the museum by a couple of members of staff.
So for my group, the first stop was the Medicine Man gallery, where we were shown and told about a Chinese dragon chair. It was originally thought to be a torture chair, though it’s more recently thought to be a chair used by mediums who believed they were possessed by gods, and wanted to show off their superhuman god-given powers by being able to sit on it. Because it’s covered in big, sharp steel blades, across the seat, up the back, and sticking up from the armrests – hence the assumption that it was a torture chair. In fact, sitting on that would kill you! Yet it’s also very ornately decorated as well, with beautiful floral motifs all over it, and dragon heads on the ends of the arms, which would seem odd for a standard instrument of torture. So the museum had to do quite a bit of research to find out its real purpose.
It was great to have it described to us, because it’s in a dimly lit glass case with a couple of other equally ominous looking chairs (including a dental chair people could be strapped into!). So it was a perfect choice for audio description. I could see some of it using my monocular, but the description really helped me to visualise it more fully. It’s one of millions of objects collected by Henry Wellcome, whom the museum is named after, and there were loads of other smaller items on shelves in that room, all of which must be very interesting to hear about. We only focused on that one big object though – it would take hours to describe everything in the room!
We then went into the Medicine Now gallery, which is much brighter and has a lot more artistic displays connected to medicine and health. And we were told about a huge, fat, wax sculpture called I Can’t Help The Way I Feel, an artwork by John Isaacs. Some people find it horrifying – apparently one visitor in the past has even called it vomit-inducing – while others, like myself, find it strangely fascinating. The more you look at it and discuss it, the more you see that there could be various ways of interpreting it. It could be seen as human, because it’s got 2 legs beneath the huge mass above it and it is fleshy coloured, but then there’s no head or arms either. Given how unpleasant it looks and the artwork’s title, a common thought is that it reflects how some people see themselves on the inside, as being unattractive and without identity, even though that’s always untrue. Others know otherwise and will try to change that person’s mind, but on the inside that person cannot help feeling the way they do. Other people may have other views on it, it’s very open to interpretation and discussion, which is why it’s interesting.
So those were the two objects we looked at in detail, and they were described really well to us, in terms of how they look and what they represent, so we all enjoyed it. We then went back for some more refreshments, and I had a lovely long chat with one of the ladies who had been showing us round, Tilley Milburn. She’s done such a variety of amazing things, expressing herself in all sorts of fun and creative ways, often accompanied by her adorable patchwork stuffed pig Del, who we also got to see. So it was really interesting to talk to her, she’s very chatty and friendly.
We were then offered the opportunity to go and look at the exhibition entitled Can Graphic Design Save Your Life?. As someone who works in the print industry, I have some appreciation and understanding of design. So I went down there with a few other people, and we were told a bit about the exhibition as a whole, and then discussed a couple of aspects of it in detail. We were first told about the big white flags just inside the entrance to the exhibition, showing large red symbols of a cross, a half crescent moon, and a diamond. All of which are alternative symbols for the same purpose in different parts of the world – everyone knows who the Red Cross are, so it all stems from that. Hearing the history in detail was very interesting.
We were also told about cigarette packets, and how they are being deliberately designed to deter new, young smokers buying them. It’s really interesting to hear the thoughts behind that, and the deliberate ways in which the boxes have had to be designed under the regulations imposed on them. And there is evidence to say it is having the desired impact – it’s not a silver bullet that will stop smoking for everybody, but it’s a good step in the right direction. And we saw an anti-smoking animated advert from the 1960s as well.
Again, the lady showing us around this exhibition was really enthusiastic and keen to share her knowledge with us. As with the other staff members we met, she clearly loves her job and that shines through. She’s not a graphic designer herself, but she’s had such an interest in it that she really knows what she’s talking about. So it was great to chat to her as well.
It was then time for us to go, but I did sign up to the mailing list for the museum’s audio description events that they put on, as they regularly put on various types of access tours, as well as more general tours for the wider public as well. So I’ll definitely have to go back there for a more extensive look around. It is a fascinating place.
So there you have it, another couple of museums that I’ll have to return to and explore further at some point. I’m very happy with the number of museums I’ve been to this year, I’ve seen a wonderful variety of different things, either by myself or on the wonderful audio tours I’ve been on. We’re really lucky in London to have so many great, free museums on our doorstep, and I’m never going to run out of things to look at and enjoy in these places, especially if accessibility continues to improve. So I’m looking forward to exploring more museums and exhibitions in the near future!