Last weekend I took my first ever visit to The Wallace Collection, which is a museum full of paintings, sculptures and furniture collected by multiple generations of the same family. When I was younger I had no idea this was just behind Oxford Street, and a lot of shoppers in that area have probably been blissfully unaware of its existence. Of course, even if I had known back then, I wouldn’t have been interested, as I was never into art as a child, and didn’t pay it much attention for a while as I got older.
However, since moving to London, I’ve been able to start exploring and developing an appreciation for artworks and visiting galleries, particularly thanks to guided tours and other interactive and accessible methods of exploring such spaces. As very much an art novice, I am enjoying learning about it and seeing some of the delights on offer. It’s like a fascinating new world, more so than I’d initially expected perhaps. So that was one reason I was looking forward to this visit.
This was also the third and final outing I was doing as part of a PhD study into museum accessibility for the visually impaired, being worked on by Rafie Cecilia. Our previous visits were at the Victoria & Albert Museum last year, and the Museum of London in February. I also met her again during the ultrahaptics testing at the V&A earlier this month, but that was for a different study. It’s always a pleasure meeting her, and it’s wonderful that she’s putting so much time and effort into this work, to support people like myself who find it harder to explore museums compared to normally sighted people. And now she and her colleague Maryam Bandukda have set up the Disability Innovation Research Society, bringing together researchers to discuss disability innovation and accessible technology, which is great. So I was glad to be meeting Rafie again.
And talking of accessibility, that sounded really good in this museum as well, with the website stating that they had an audio guide for the visually impaired, plus Rafie had recommended a special app I could use to find out more about the artworks. So that was another big reason for me to go. I’d heard very good things about the Wallace Collection, and getting information about the various exhibits sounded like it would be pretty easy. So now I want to tell you how it all went.
The Great Gallery
On Rafie’s recommendation, I decided to explore The Great Gallery on the first floor. And it’s obvious why she suggested it, because it’s nothing short of stunning. It’s a perfect introduction for a first time visitor. The walls of the long room are filled with gorgeous portraits and landscape paintings, some of which are huge, and there are items of furniture and statues around the edge of the room too, along with a few in the centre as well. There’s lots of space to move around, and the room is very well lit.
There are no ropes or glass cases in the way of anything either, so you can get very close to the exhibits, although you’re not allowed to touch them of course. It is a very tall room as well, so some paintings are very high up on the walls. I had to use my monocular (my little telescope) to look at those as best I could – but then I was using it for the paintings in front of me as well, to look at the smaller details. Sure, I was able to stand close to the paintings for a good look – the parts that I was tall enough to get near to at least – so I did do that. But even then, stepping back and using my monocular still really helped me to pick out the finer elements.
There isn’t one particular theme to the room, although there are paintings that have similarities, naturally. Some involve animals like rabbits and birds, some of which are living and some that aren’t (often both in the same artwork). And there are plenty of beautiful scenic landscapes as well. And all of these nature and scenery artworks are packed with all sorts of little details wherever you look. It’s incredible how much is packed into them, yet they don’t feel crowded or overdone. You could easily stand in front of many of these paintings for a good few minutes to take everything in and absorb it all. The Rainbow Landscape was one of the more memorable paintings, as it’s very impressive and has lots of little details if you look closely.
There are also paintings involving gods and goddesses, and the stories behind them are fascinating, as you learn just how controlling and cruel they could be, just to exert their power. it doesn’t take much at all to put them into a fatal temper! For instance, the goddess Artemis was so upset at being caught in a state of undress by a hunter called Actaeon, even if he’d merely stumbled upon her by accident, that she turned him into a stag and his own dogs tore him to pieces!
That was one of the stories that seemed to stick in my head. But then, bizarrely, that same painting came up as part of the Odd One Out round on Have I Got A Bit More News For You on BBC1 a couple of days later! I only watch the extended version of the show on Mondays, rather than the shorter Friday edition, so I hadn’t known it was on the programme prior to my visit. So it was a very strange coincidence!
There are also various portraits, which again are really well done, including the famous portrait of The Laughing Cavalier. Plus there are lots of little statues on display, on top of ornately designed items of furniture like chests of drawers. And there were very ornate chairs around the room as well. So there’s a wonderful array of different artworks to look at in the gallery, and when we finished after about 2½ hours I’d only covered about half the room! So I need to go back and look at the rest at some point, not to mention the rest of the museum on top of that.
Of course, while it’s lovely to just look at everything, it’s even better if you can find out some information about each of the artworks. I wanted to understand what I was looking at, especially the details I couldn’t make out clearly, and I wanted to learn about the stories behind them. There is a book in the gallery that you can pick up and read from, but with my eyesight that’s not an easy or comfortable way of doing things.
On their access information page it says that “There is an audio guide created for people with visual impairments. Cost is £4 including a large print floorplan.” So I definitely wanted to try that out, and I assumed it would be audio descriptive. I don’t mind paying a bit to hire it if I get a lot out of it. And on that page as a whole, they are keen to emphasise their accessibility, which is great. The same goes for their Youtube channel, where they have an introduction in British Sign Language and advertise access events for the deaf, while a video by children mentions wheelchair accessibility, and a number of their videos are captioned. So they appear to be making an effort.
Given all that, therefore, it was very surprising and disappointing that they didn’t have an audio descriptive guide. That in itself isn’t a first for me in a museum – the Imperial War Museum had the same issue recently, for a visit I made and a separate visit made by some friends of mine, which was a great shame. However, in this instance, it felt more disappointing because the staff didn’t seem to know what they were looking for, or that was the impression I got at least.
Neither the receptionist, nor the colleague she called over, nor the manager they then called down, could find it. And they weren’t sure if it used one of the regular devices with a different setting enabled, or if it was a separate device altogether. The receptionist seemed surprising by that, acknowledging that it was written on the wall by reception, as well as on the website, so she was expecting it to be easy to find. And I later learned from Rafie that this wasn’t the first occasion a request for the audio guide had been unsuccessful.
As a compromise, therefore, I was given the standard audio guide free of charge, to see if it proved to be of any use. So that was better than nothing, and I was willing to give it a go. It was basically a mobile phone handset, on which you type the number of the artwork, press the green button and then hold it up to your ear just like taking a phonecall. Finding the numbers on each artwork wasn’t easy to begin with, as they’re not very prominent. But once I figured out where they were, I was able to use my monocular to read them and type them in. The screen on the handset displayed the numbers very large and clear, so I could see I was typing them correctly.
Trouble was, the numbers didn’t work, and I made absolutely sure I was typing them right. Of the first 5 artworks I tried, 4 said they didn’t have any commentary, and 1 brought up the wrong commentary altogether. So I can only assume only certain items have commentaries, but there’s no way of knowing which ones they are.
So I gave up on using the audio guide for a while. But then later on, when the app I was using on my own phone suggested there might be audio available on a few paintings – I’ll explain why in a moment – I tried the audio guide on those. And I got a very unexpected result.
This time, instead of just saying a commentary wasn’t available, it said the commentary was only available on the “family tour”. Which makes absolutely no sense to me, and seems rather unfair. Why does the fact that I’m single and childless, or not attending with my parents or relatives, prevent me from hearing commentaries about paintings? I can’t wrap my head around that one, especially as there was audio available on my mobile phone app instead. So let’s get on to that, as that did work better.
Rafie had recommended the Smartify app to me, and I did enjoy using it here. It’s very simple – you hold your phone up to a painting, sculpture or item of furniture, and it instantly brings up a page of information about it, along with an image of the artwork. And it really is instant, I was impressed at how fast it was. It’s like the app Shazam that recognises music, but this is for art instead.
Sure, on one or two rare occasions it took a bit of positioning to get it to recognise the artwork, and in one case it did get it wrong. But the overwhelming majority of the time it was spot on. It was even able to recognise the paintings high up on the walls, despite the fact that the ceiling lights where shining on parts of them and I was a long way below them. So that was great.
The app is also designed with white text on a black background, which is the easiest way I find to read text, so that was ideal. You can’t change the text size, but it was good enough for me. I could have got my phone to speak the text to me, and I’m informed it works with Voiceover as well. So I could have accessed the text with speech if I’d wanted to. But I didn’t have my headphones with me that day, as I didn’t expect to need them, so I didn’t do that. I was happy reading normally because the text was clear on the screen.
And for some of the artworks, it also gave me an option to listen to a recorded audio commentary. Without my headphones handy, I couldn’t really do that, as I didn’t want to disturb everyone else around me. But it was a nice discovery nonetheless. And because the app also shows you the artwork numbers, matching those in the gallery, I figured the audio guide might also have the same audio. Hence I tried entering the number into the audio guide, and was surprised to get the “family tour” message. So I don’t know if it’s referring to the same commentary track or not, as I had no way of comparing the two.
So I used the Smartify app throughout my entire visit in the gallery, as it was very useful, and it was the only accessible source of information at my disposal. The written descriptions, which are copied from the Wallace Collection website as far as I can tell, are really good. And they do sometimes include little descriptions of the various details within the paintings, so that allowed me to look at the art more closely with my monocular and figure things out that I would otherwise have missed. So it was the next best thing to audio description in that sense. The app keeps a history of the most recent images you’ve looked at as well, so you can scroll back a little way and bring back up details of an earlier artwork. So that’s handy.
The app is free, and you do have to register for an account, which I didn’t mind doing. They’ve partnered with quite a few venues where you can use it, including many in London, as well as others in Europe and the USA. So I’ll definitely be keen to use it when I visit other galleries in London that they’re connected with. Obviously there are copyright issues that have to be resolved before they can collaborate with other museums, but hopefully they’re working on expanding it to more of them.
The dream scenario for me, of course, would be if the app could incorporate audio description tracks as well, perhaps followed by a spoken version of the text about the artwork. Scanning an artwork and getting that kind of description would be brilliant. It could be something you enable in the settings so it plays by default when you scan an artwork. That way, normal sighted people using the app won’t hear it if they don’t want to. I’m not expecting it to happen, but it’s something that would be lovely to have.
So I really like that app. It’s quick and easy to use, with a nice interface and lots of useful information about each exhibit. Curiously though, there’s absolutely no mention of it on the Wallace Collection’s website that I can find. Which seems really strange, given that it is so useful, and they would have had to collaborate with the app’s developers to make it work.
So if Rafie hadn’t mentioned it to me, I’d have had no idea it existed. Consequently, I would have been stuck exploring the gallery with an ineffective audio guide, and would have had to try and read the guide book to get any information. So I wouldn’t have enjoyed or understood the artworks so much, and I wouldn’t have been able to spend as long in there because my eyes would have tired much quicker. So I was very fortunate to be told about the app, it saved the day really.
All in all, therefore, my visit was a mixed bag. The gallery itself is gorgeous, there’s nothing to complain about on that score. Everything in it is a delight to look at, even for someone like me who knows barely anything about art. You just get absorbed in looking at everything, it’s so impressive. If you like art, or have any kind of curiosity about it, and you have good eyesight, then make sure you go, it’s amazing.
However, it’s let down by the lack of accessibility. There was no audio guide available for the visually impaired, despite being advertised on both the website and by reception. And I couldn’t get any commentaries on the standard audio guide either, because they weren’t available or were restricted to families. The numbers by each artwork aren’t very easy to see either.
On the other hand, the Smartify app is brilliant, as it works really well and the descriptions were easy to read on my own device. So I was very glad of that as my source of information. But it’s not mentioned by the museum itself, so unless you happen to hear about it elsewhere, like I did through word of mouth, you won’t have the benefit of using it.
With all that in mind, I probably will go back there at some point, because I know I can at least use the Smartify app to get information as I explore. However, it would be in the knowledge that I won’t be getting as much out if it as I’d like to due to the lack of audio description. So if the museum can sort out their audio guides and make people aware of Smartify, that would improve the experience for myself and others considerably, giving more options with which to access and enjoy their wonderful exhibits. Because they do deserve to be enjoyed and appreciated by as many people as possible.