In this piece, former Event Organiser Hannah Doherty speaks about her experience of turning light into words to create a tour for visually impaired people at the TSB Festival of Lights.
Like so many others around the world, New Plymouth District Council’s experience under lockdown meant an unprecedented overhaul of the way we work and operate. This was an innovative time for Puke Ariki as a museum, since the area of accessibility was at the forefront of our agenda, as we worked creatively to troubleshoot how we were to reach our audience with restrictions on our ability to travel, gather and work as usual.
Immediately we began the push of digitised collections, virtual tours and at-home scavenger hunts right into the fingertips of our audience at home. One of our lockdown outcomes as a museum was the chance to upskill in the art of audio description, thanks to guidance from renowned audio describer Judith Jones from Te Papa.
For the uninitiated, audio description is about translating visual media into spoken language in such a way that allows a person with a vision impairment to have the same opportunities to experience an installation, artwork or artefact, as well as create their own meaning from that experience.
Our first experience putting audio description into action was an Audio Described Sense Tour of the New Plymouth District Council’s TSB Festival of Lights. This was made possible thanks to the support of Puke Ariki and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, who took on the challenge of preparing descriptions for 16 light installations that were not yet installed, if completed at all. In developing our descriptions we knew it would be a case of trial and error. Using exercises to develop our skills certainly helped us become familiar with describing what to us is obvious. Getting feedback from a friend or co-worker without any visual context was the best way of workshopping what worked and what didn’t.
Our greatest challenge was describing installations that were still under construction up until just days before the festival launch. Manta Rain, the feature hanging over the iconic Poets Bridge, was one of the pieces we didn’t get to see in person until the night of the audio described tour. Instead, the artist provided a digital rendition of his concept which certainly helped, but often the final product would have its differences. In the case of Manta Rain, the light projection which formed the kinetic effect of the manta ray’s fins, were more subdued, and were best experienced from directly beneath the installation, causing some last minute tweaks to its description.
We began the night by piling into two seven-seater buggies, with myself taking a walking group trailing behind, and set off for a complete loop of New Plymouth’s Pukekura Park, a big challenge for a fresh audio describer, for a festival that in many ways relies on the visual element.
The tour was delivered live, in person as we wandered through the park. This gave guests a personalized experience, and we were able to answer any questions, or tweak any descriptions to suit our audience. In the future, there is the option of delivering this experience through a headset for guests to experience the Festival at their leisure, any time over the six-week period. Our guests who joined us on the night, however, appreciated having a designated tour, before the Festival was open to the public, to experience the park in a night just for them.
Over the course of the night we found ourselves getting to know our audience, which allowed us to ad lib our descriptions to suit the needs and styles of our guests. At times, the well-rehearsed descriptions that took hours to craft and word precisely were thrown out the window, but in the end allowed for a more bespoke experience that supported our guests and their experience.
Despite going into the tour over prepared, our capacity to be agile with our description was the key to the night’s success. Just like in the case of Manta Rain, our ability to be flexible and think on our feet was something that was emphasised under Judith’s guidance. Judith never gave us a style guide or manual, and instead emphasised keeping our descriptions neutral with inclusive language, delivered in a way that’s interpretive, emotive and even poetic.
Having the freedom to wander the park and listen to the installations without the crowds of the public that soon follow after opening night was a special moment, and our guests appreciated the gesture of being able to safely experience the park on a night that was just for them.
Audio description has opened the door to many possibilities in creating more accessible experiences, and I certainly hope that we will continue to be supported on our journey to work more with our blind and low vision community and beyond, and as our doors open back up, we ensure that they are open for everyone who wishes to participate in our festivals, museums, galleries and theatres.
If we’ve learnt anything over the past year, it’s the power of people’s desire to share experiences and connect with each other, and now that we have the privilege of this being a reality once again, we hope to continue to shine the spotlight on access and inclusion, in a way that is more innovative and meaningful than ever.
Thanks to Simone and Emma for your support.
Since writing this post , Hannah has taken another job at Puke Ariki as a Community Partnering and Engagement Specialist – a role that she feels will allow her to build upon the progress made in the realm of accessibility and inclusion.