Accessibility Across the Ages at the Victoria & Albert
By Elizabeth Palms, WPAMC Class of 2020
The Victoria & Albert Museum contains a myriad of stories. It narrates not only the history of British art and design but that of countless other peoples around the world, and the Collection’s history itself testifies to the imperialist zeitgeist in Victorian England. Its history raises questions about who lays claims to design and who dictates, taste and the museum seems to now be incorporating these questions into its interpretation. Discussing these narratives warrants more time and space than a brief blog post can provide. For now, I want to discuss the observations I made at the V&A about the institution’s continuing efforts to make design accessible to ever-widening audiences. The two major case studies that I picked up of these past and present efforts during my visits are the Cast Courts and the tactile stations scattered throughout the galleries to enhance visually impaired visitors’ experiences.
The first-year Winterthur Fellows visited the V&A on a chilly Friday night. We began with a discussion and exploration in the Cast Courts, which lie at the core of the institution’s collecting history (Fig. 1). The “V&A Story” section on the museum’s website emphasizes the central role that casts of classical, medieval and Renaissance sculpture and architectural details held in the V&A’s founding:
Casts formed a substantial and highly regarded part of the V&A’s early collections. […] The “improvement of public taste in Design” and the “application of fine art to objects of utility,” which were among the Museum’s primary aims, meant that casts of architectural and ornamental work were necessary educational tools. The pieces were regarded as “superior to drawings,” and students […] made use of the casts for sketching and drawing practice.
During our visit to the Cast Courts, we encountered people sitting down to sketch (Fig. 2). The online presentation of The V&A Story reminds readers that, “For Londoners without the means of travelling abroad, these casts provided a fascinating glimpse into the marvels of European sculpture.” Whether to provide a means of training for aspiring artists and craftspeople or to expose the public to classical works that they otherwise would be unable to behold in person, the Cast Courts marked an early step to make design accessible at the V&A.
The V&A now seems less concerned than it was in the 19th-century with an anxious effort to disseminate “good taste” to British public. Its website observes that: “Our mission is to be recognized as the world’s leading museum of art, design, and performance, and to enrich people’s lives by promoting research, knowledge and enjoyment of the designed world to the widest possible audience.”
During my free afternoon, I returned to the V&A to walk the galleries at my own pace. As I wandered, I noticed a number of panels in front of various artifacts that read, “Please Touch.” Before I got a better look these panels, I assumed that these would be for children or for comparing certain types of materials, finishes, and the like. However, as I stopped to read the text of the first panel, I found it had highly engaging questions that prompted visitors to think about design; each of these panels had pullout panels featuring the entire text board in Braille. (In fact, I have never seen more Braille in any museum than I found at the V&A.) While the V&A also has audio tours, tactile books available in many of its galleries (perhaps they will have them in all of their galleries someday), and “regular talks for visually impaired people, some of which provide an opportunity for handling objects,” I found the presentation of these “touch objects” most noteworthy.
While there are special Touch Tours at the V&A highlighting these objects, I thought that it was special that anyone, but especially a visually impaired visitor could experience this object on his or her own if desired. The touch object that has particularly stuck with me was a 17th-century baluster. Its corresponding label text (repeated in Braille) described the design and the lathe turning that went into making the baluster in a broader context, it also describes the decorative motifs visitors would find at different physical locations along the baluster (Figs. 3a and 3b). This information was beneficial to any visitor, not just those who are visually impaired. To feel the smoothness and curvature of the wood, the flair of the urn at the bottom, and the smaller carving details beat reading about a baluster any day.
In another instance, I encountered a text panel in front of a wall of classical paneling from a British interior. In this case, the text board had a relief drawing of the paneling. There was Braille describing each section of the entablature and pilasters next to the corresponding sections on the relief diagram. This would certainly help a visually impaired visitor to feel their way around the physical aspects of this otherwise large piece of paneling even without the Braille descriptions.
Tactile stations also allowing visitors to feel and compare materials or manufacturing techniques to better understand craftsmanship. In the 19th-century British galleries, my classmate James Kelleher and I stopped at a table featuring “Materials and techniques, 1830-1900.” On this table top were things such as side-by-side examples of textiles woven on a draw loom and on a jacquard loom or of cut glass and pressed glass. The text for each object began with questions about how the object felt and how it might have been made.
This station, whether people realize it or not, was a connoisseurship lesson in decorative arts. Our handling privileges in the Winterthur Collection as Fellows are truly wonderful. They make the connoisseurship training we receive special and effective. “You get to do what?” is the response I often get from family and friends who ask what I do all day “at school.” And admittedly, I nod proudly back. It is easy to take our handling privileges for granted at Winterthur and forget just how crucial object handling is to our understanding of materials, techniques, and design. As James and I tried our hands at distinguishing cut glass from pressed glass and draw-loom textiles from jacquard loom textiles—we actually have textiles and glass blocks on the docket this semester—we both commented on how great it was that the V&A includes stations like this.
The public history realm has been buzzing about the interpretive merits and conservation perils of allowing visitors to touch objects. It is important to note that not all of the touch objects are original objects—some of them are reproductions. I think that the V&A’s decision to incorporate “touch objects” makes the design that it heralds more accessible to all. Though I certainly cannot speak on behalf of the visually impaired, I can imagine that the idea of going to a museum of visual art and design might be a bit daunting or discouraging for many people with disabilities. These touch stations don’t fix everything, but they afford many visitors the opportunity to bring the objects to life in their minds and participate in the many design narratives that the V&A presents in deeper ways. For some people, tactile learning is essential, and for others, it just has great appeal. People love the power that comes with touching a museum object, and the opportunity alone might draw visitors in to learn something they might not have otherwise.
After visiting the V&A, my mind has been swimming with how Winterthur already has incorporated tactile visitor experiences in their exhibitions and, in the future, could move tactile children’s programming beyond the Touch Room. I remembered feeling real and faux Channel tweed swatches in each hand in the Treasures on Trial exhibit, for instance. Thinking back to the origins of the Cast Courts, I wonder if Winterthur would ever consider having “sketch days” when a few rooms of the house could be opened to members of the public wanting to sketch the interiors. Making design accessible will be an ever-evolving story in the museum world, and I think we can look to the V&A as a major inspiration for change.