Access to Art

Caroline Marcus was the National Gallery’s Access Officer in 2009 and wrote this article for Museum-iD.

“You made it possible for me to experience a painting for the first time in decades…”

The National Gallery’s with Access to Art’s inclusive evening for older visitors

“The evening was truly memorable and most of all I relished getting to know my new friend, Emily. As a 90 year old, Emily was not only inspirational but a beautiful lady and it was absolute pleasure learning about van Gogh, Constable and Turner in her company” (A2A volunteer)

On 29 June, 2009, The National Gallery held its first special event for two hundred older visitors and volunteer facilitators. The event was instigated by the Gallery’s Director, Nicholas Penny, to highlight existing inclusive practice and recent new developments and initiatives in the area of accessibility.

The National Gallery is committed to the widest possible access to the national collection of Western European painting from the late 13th to the early 20th century, which it houses, conserves and displays. Visitors can view iconic works from Michelangelo to Monet and the Gallery aims to break down any barriers which may prevent access to the collection. It does this through enabling easy physical access to the collection; access to scholarship and information about the collection and through the provision of stimulating programmes encouraging everyone to enjoy and study the collection in many different ways.

Existing programmes
The Gallery’s Access programme offers tailored talks to meet visitors’ diverse needs. There is a vibrant British Sign Language programme for Deaf visitors and a monthly interactive verbal description session, Art Through Words, for blind and partially sighted visitors. Visitors receive information about the sessions in alternative formats including Braille and large print.  Regular talks are given by Deaf lecturers in British Sign Language (BSL) or are delivered in spoken English with BSL interpretation. The Access Officer regularly consults users through focus groups, evaluations and informal discussions in order to ensure the programmes meet specific needs.

Development of Partnership evening
Access is a lot more than good building design. It’s about being able to get to a gallery, having support available and, of course, how the art is presented. It’s about a positive gallery experience. We have been working closely with the National Gallery to make this evening special and something our members will remember for a long time. Many are in their 80s and 90s and this will be a chance for them to return to paintings they may have seen in their youth.’

(Jane Turner, Director Access to Art)

The special event was developed in close partnership with the charity Access to Art, a UK registered charity which makes it possible for disabled and older people to visit museums and galleries in London. Many members of the target audience were wheelchair users and some visitors were hard of hearing; blind or partially sighted and experienced memory loss.

Access to Art Planning
Access to Art has 200 or so disabled and older members who live across London. A vast amount of pre-planning enabled the event to be such a success. Access to Art contacted known older people’s organisations, nursing and residential homes and day centres; publicised the event in local newsletters appropriate to the sector and established community transport networks. Various factors were taken into consideration when planning the event, including timing (a summer evening at 6.30pm) and the weather (that it should probably still be light and warm). Access to Art assessed the transport and access needs of each visitor and planned their individual support for the evening. They provided wheelchair accessible transport for those unable to reach the gallery by themselves and ensured that each visitor had no longer than a two hour journey to the gallery. Arrangements were made for the minibuses (twelve in all) to park and offload safely near to the gallery. Eighty volunteers were required for the evening. These included fifty from Access to Art’s own pool of trained volunteers and thirty recruited from older people’s organisations, who were given special training before the event.

Volunteer activities
Volunteer activities included driving and providing an escort on the minibuses; stewarding outside the gallery and providing one to one support for each visitor as gallery assistants. As well as meeting the visitors on arrival (from minibuses, train stations, taxis, car parks and bus stops) volunteers provided individual support such as handling wheelchairs, guiding partially sighted visitors or acting as companions. National Gallery staff were recruited across Departments for the event and given clear instructions by the Access Officer as to individual roles during the evening. These included meeting and greeting visitors and informing visitors of the sequence of timetabled events during the evening.

Dissemination of information
Visitors expressed initial interest to Access to Art who handled all telephone enquiries. The invitation was designed by the Gallery’s Design team and displayed van Gogh’s Sunflowers. This iconic image was used as it was a familiar image to many visitors and projected the ethos of visiting a familiar friend but with the anticipation of meeting new ones.  It was produced in high quality materials so that it projected a positive message that the event was important and to encourage visitors to keep a souvenir of the evening. It also had a functional purpose as it disseminated the timetable of events during the evening. It was sent from the Director and Trustees of the National Gallery, together with Access to Art in order to show that it was considered an important initiative, yet written in an informal manner to encourage visitors to feel comfortable in the Gallery environment:

There will be talks with lip-speaking interpretation and songs during the evening or you can just enjoy time with the paintings. Constable’s Hay Wain (Room 34), Monet’s Gare St-Lazare (Room 43) and van Gogh’s Sunflowers (Room 45) will all be hung at a lower level to enable close viewing. Or you might like t sample our new sound interpretations of paintings or try our Favourite Paintings booklets, which include Braille, tactile line drawings and written  transcriptions in large print. Resources will be available at the entrance to Room 34 on a first-come first-served basis.

The lowering of several celebrated and popular paintings enabled visitors in wheelchairs to examine the paintings at close distance. The lip-speaking supported 10-minute talks and tours were supported and enriched by music historians, who added music and song to enhance the interpretation of specific paintings in the collection. For example, Lucie Skeaping sang a 19th Century sea shanty accompanied by lute from the time of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire. It was a moving moment when the large audience participated in singing the chorus ‘Heave my boys together’ towards the end of the evening.

A new audio guide selection was made available for blind and partially sighted visitors. It contained modern sound interpretations of the collection and demonstrated how resources can be utilised effectively to meet the needs of diverse audiences. The Gallery’s newest resource was launched during the event: a special booklet entitled ‘Favourite Paintings’ for blind and partially sighted visitors featuring tactile images, detailed painting descriptions in large print; high quality colour reproductions of details within the paintings and Braille interpretation. The booklets had been carefully researched, developed and implemented by a Diversify student (Museums Association) working in close collaboration with the Royal National Institute for Blind People. A Deaf-blind visitor attending the event enjoyed using the new resource and was able to explore and discuss painting details with his volunteer for the first time.

In addition, students from Wimbledon School of Art ‘stepped out of the frame’ and into the Gallery, wearing costumes they had made, inspired by the paintings. They delighted the visitors as they wandered through the rooms, adding to and enriching the experience.


Art Through Words session

Many visitors found the lecture for blind and partially sighted visitors very imaginative…

In addition to the events described, a verbal description and object handling session was held in a separate area to the main event. This was to demonstrate techniques used in the monthly Art Through Words sessions and was attended by both regular and first time blind and partially sighted visitors. The session was based around van Gogh’s Chair. The painting was described in animated and imaginative detail by a lecturer and visitors were invited to explore the texture of the paint and techniques the artist used by feeling pre-prepared boards primed with paint to replicate van Gogh’s techniques. Visitors were invited to handle objects closely relating to those in the painting including a rush chair and pipe, smelt the tobacco and onions to evoke the senses and to enter the world of the painting. 

Facilities provided by the Gallery
In order to hold an event of this scale, the Access Officer provided a detailed event plan and risk assessment and ensured that specific facilities were available on the night. It was necessary to use all communal spaces and toilets in the Gallery to provide adequate physical access as level access was an essential requirement for wheelchair users. However, as the Gallery is a Grade I listed building, there was limited level access in some areas. Despite these challenges, creative solutions were sought and access was made available at multiple entrances to allow for the volume of visitors entering the building. The arrival times of each minibus was staggered in order to avoid congestion at the entrances. A lift engineer was situated on site for the evening in order to fix the lifts in the eventuality of break down. Wheelchairs were required in large numbers and were sourced through numerous organisations including the National Portrait Gallery. Despite careful colour coding and tagging and appointing a wheelchair team to account for wheelchairs, a few still went missing (though eventually found).

Inevitably there were a few challenges with an event of this scale. The Gallery shuts down for security reasons at 6pm and reopens for evening events at 6.30pm. This caused confusion and frustration for some volunteers and guests as information had not been passed onto them, despite the Access Officer briefing volunteers at a training meeting; Security issues had to be addressed as it was anticipated that many visitors would forget to bring their invitations as an entry ticket. Gallery assistants were briefed to use their discretion and it was accepted that a few ‘interested’ members of the public were likely to pass through the doors unnoticed and participate in the event. The vast amount of planning time required for such an event should not be underestimated. Despite intentions to run two similar events a year, this has been changed to once a year, having assessed the reality of time involved.

Constructive visitor comments

 I do not think wheelchairs and the blind mix

There has been an enormous amount of positive visitor feedback but there have also been some comments which demonstrate the need to rethink aspects of future events. One visitor felt that due to the large numbers of wheelchair users and their positioning in front of paintings, it was not possible to meet the needs of blind visitors. As the event attracted large numbers, it would be better for some visitors to attend the monthly Art Through Words sessions, which are less crowded and can accommodate individual needs in a more personal way. One journalist criticised the fact that the paintings were temporarily lowered and wanted to know why every painting in the Gallery could not be lowered on a permanent basis. This prompted a valuable debate amongst visitors who were wheelchair users and disagreed with this view, feeling that it could also be exclusive. One blind visitor felt that the verbal description session focused too much on individual interpretation whereas another visitor stated ‘you made it possible for me to experience a painting for the first time in decades.’ There are always lessons to be learned. However, the fact that the Gallery lowered the paintings for the first time demonstrates that access is being addressed and valued as part of the Gallery offer. It is vital that this is now sustained and that initiatives highlighted during this event are not one-offs but springboards to future access initiatives. It took significant time to lower just three paintings for the evening but it was a positive move. During the event, children, wheelchair users and visitors with no mobility requirements enjoyed seeing the paintings hung at a new height and commented that it challenged their perceptions and made them take the time to look in a new way. The Access Officer is therefore planning to establish the lowering of select paintings as part of the Gallery’s regular offer. She is also planning to expand provision for hard of hearing visitors and is piloting new initiatives in live subtitling and hand held pods with subtitled interpretation in partnership with the organisation Stagetext.


The accessible evening at The National Gallery was a great success, so let’s hope it inspires regular accessible events around the country, nay, around the world. I want to include rather than exclude. Art for all.

Many visitors expressed their enjoyment of the evening. The use of varied elements, including music, sound and visuals appealed to a range of learning styles and acknowledged the diverse ways in which all visitors learn. Through the provision of interpretation in alternative formats; inspiring lectures that appealed to different learning styles; lifts and level entrances enabling physical access, the Gallery aims to benefit all visitors. The National Gallery collection has always been and continues to be accessible, enjoyable and welcoming to the widest possible public.


With thanks to

  • The BAND Trust
  • Jane Turner, Director, Access to Art
  • Details of the British Sign Language programme and Art Through Words programme can be found on the National Gallery website