A Picture in 1000 Words

A Picture in 1000 Words

Te Papa host Judith Jones audio-describing Nicholas Chevalier's Cooks Strait

As I listened to Judith Jones, one of Te Papa’s hosts trained in audio description, describing the tumultuous sea, the approaching storm and the strange geography of Nicholas Chevalier’s Cook’s Strait New Zealand c. 1885, I ‘saw’ the painting as never before. For the other tour participants, listening acutely, this was their first encounter with the work.

The occasion was a pilot tour of Ngā Toi │Arts Te Papa, Te Papa’s dedicated art exhibition, for blind and sight-impaired visitors. Given that nearly 12,000 New Zealanders are blind or have low vision, we identified a need to increase access to our art exhibitions. Kate Button lead the development of the tour in consultation with Arts Access Aotearoa and the New Zealand Blind Foundation. We carried out a walk-through of the exhibitions with potential participants to identify works that were likely to stimulate interest and discussion. There were some surprising picks, notably the interest in a ‘broad’ definition of art and the issues that raises, and some challenging contemporary art.

Installation photograph showing installation of artwork, Can do Academy #3, featuring a utility sink and paint spattered wall.
Fiona Connor, Can do academy #3, 2014, Auckland. Purchased 2014. Te Papa (2015-0004-1)

Along with Judith’s verbal descriptions, the experience was enhanced by opportunities to learn about form and process through touch. The conservation and object support team were incredibly supportive, sourcing and producing props for the tour:

A sense of scale:

Conservator inviting tour participant to feel details of frame sample for Chevalier painting.

A sample frame moulding produced for Nicholas Chevalier’s painting enabled participants to get a sense of the detail and scale of the work.

Digital devices:

Tour participants handling 3D model of firescreen made from whale bone scapula

A reduced scale 3D-printed model of a remarkable painted whale bone fire screen (http://www.arts.tepapa.govt.nz/on-the-wall/fire-screen-made-from-a-whale-scapula/8212) conveyed the curious shape of the work.

Touching tīvaevae:

Tour participants sitting around large tivaevae quilt, feeling stiches and shapes.

Sitting around a tīvaevae (not from the collection!), participants noted the stitches and texture, appreciating the process while hearing about the significance of these treasures in the artistic and cultural life of the Cook Islands.

Feeling form:

Tour participants feeling paint sample produced to emulate sweeping brushwork of Albrecht painting.

After pacing out the extent of the work, participants handled a painting sample created by the painting conservators that mimicked the sweep of the gestural curves of Gretchen Albrecht’s In a shower of gold, 2011.

But enough of what we did, you can read a participant’s response to the experience here. http://www.lowvisionary.com/

We will run more of these tours during this season of Ngā Toi │Arts Te Papa. Keep an eye on the events page to find out more: http://www.arts.tepapa.govt.nz/events/



  1. I remember attended a class at Aratoi some years back, and I looked at a picture and could see more in it then the person who showed it to me, perhaps my eyes were stronger than hers, but found it fascinating…

    1. Author

      Thanks Adele. You are so right! I think that’s why, as a curator, I always enjoy sharing the experience of looking with others. We often see, or prioritise different aspects of a picture depending on our position: what we want to see, what we think we should see, how we’re feeling at the time…the list goes on… That’s why we should keep looking, and why, if we can’t, we deserve to have someone help us see as a means to beginning to appreciate the work.

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