A Visual Description guide for the Science Museum’s new Technician’s Gallery
The Technicians gallery has a major role in highlighting the vital work of technicians in our daily life, concentrating on the creative arts, advanced manufacturing, health sciences and renewable energy. It is hoped that the gallery, created in collaboration with Marvel Studios, the NHS, National Grid and the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, will inspire more young people to consider a career as a technician.
With this task in mind, it was important to make the experience for young people as accessible and relevant as possible. A key demographic that was thought to be under-represented was 11-16 year olds who are blind or have a sight impairment. If the gallery was really to do its job in raising the visibility of technicians and their work to as wide an audience of young people as possible, then this demographic needed addressing.
The challenge was that many initiatives to make museum galleries more accessible to visitors with visual impairments have tended to fall back on conventional approaches of visual description narrated by somewhat bland and predictable middle-aged voices. Little of that would be of interest to 11-16 year olds, let alone inspire them to consider a career in these sectors. So a completely new approach was needed.
Front and centre of Smartify and The Science Museum’s approach was the target audience itself. Working with the RNIB and VICTA, a charity dedicated to providing activities and services to young people who are blind and partially sighted and their families, a focus group was created of 16 young people representing the full range of visual impairment, from milder impairments to completely blind and multi-sensory impairments. This focus group then played an active role in co-creating the kind of experience that they felt resonated with them the best.
The co-creation process was led by Smartify’s Content & Partnerships Manager, Peter Knowles. Bringing more than a decade’s experience of creating award-winning inclusive, digital experiences across UK cultural heritage; he was partnered with Arji Manuelpillai, an acclaimed Poet, performer and facilitator with an impressive track record of working with diverse, young audiences and inspiring creative activity in the arts; and Dr. Hannah Thompson, who at the Royal Holloway and Bedford University of London, has established new and compelling forms of Visual Description experiences.
A formidable body of work was created for the focus group to respond to. Smartify spent time on-site at the target industries profiled in the gallery space: from wind turbine manufacturers to advanced manufacturing and some of the UK’s foremost R&D labs in healthcare; engaging with actual technicians and listening to their stories, as told in their working environments. These stories, combined with discussions that focused on how young people with visual impairments would prefer to respond to the practical limitations and opportunities of the gallery space, formed the context of the created product.
The end product is a digital experience that breaks ground in Visual Description tours in several ways. Each zone in the gallery is introduced by a spoken word performance, co-created by Arji Manuelpillai and the focus group who hand over to a range of characters scripted and produced by Peter Knowles. These characters: Vivek, Jan, Ant, Imani and others are technicians and trainee technicians who give inspiring and exciting insight into their work, whilst also representing the diversity of talent and background that are the technicians of today. The whole experience is skillfully interwoven with the practical directions and spatial descriptions that enable an independent and inclusive experience for anyone who has a visual impairment.
The experience is available to anyone with a smartphone, and is accessed by QR codes visibly placed throughout the gallery space.
The whole process at The Science Museum was led by Anna Ravenscroft, the Interactive Gallery Interpretation Manager, whose vision underpinned the whole venture, Louise Fletcher, the Digital Producer dedicated to the Technicians Gallery , and the phenomenal Gallery team of Robyn Maybank, Fiona Slater, Dafni Konstantinidi Sofrana and Rebecca Raven.