UP Museums introduce guided tours for people with disabilities for a full sensory experience

Posted on February 14, 2020

People living with disabilities are often left on the fringes of society. Everyday experiences that you’d normally take for granted, like visiting a movie theatre or an art gallery, are often painfully out of reach.

With this in mind, the University of Pretoria (UP) Museums have now added interactive guided tours for people living with disabilities to their offering.

Piloting this programme is visually impaired second-year BA student Rohan Crafford and his guide dog, Dixi. Crafford and Dixie have been trained hands-on by Nicole Hoffmann, Museum Interpretive Officer at the UP Museums, to help improve the experiences of visitors through the museum collections. Dixi, a member of the Guide Dog Association, is the Museum’s first canine visitor and she returns for repeat visits every now and then.

Crafford said the experience is a first for him too.

“It is generally not a very rewarding experience for blind people to visit museums, because the experience one has is usually not very complete. At the UP Museums, however, great trouble was taken to make sure that my experience of the Museums would be rewarding. The UP Museums is not a cold institution that’s unfriendly to students. On the contrary, I believe that the UP Museums make history both interesting and accessible. This is the first complete and rewarding museum experience that I have had,” he said.

Crafford added that what made the experience particularly rewarding is that it fulfilled the curiosity he’s always had about historical objects found in museums.

“I was exposed to many wonderful things which, otherwise, I might not have been introduced to. To name only one example: sculpture. I had known what sculpture is and that there are sculptures on campus, but I was allowed to engage with the three-dimension artworks as Miss Hoffmann guided me on tours and introduced me to the new sculpture art route on campus. This has had a significant influence on me,” he said.

Head of the UP Museums Dr Sian Tiley-Nel said while this move to make the Museums a more inclusive space was a significant step for UP, it is also in line with the vision they have of ensuring that the Museums are enjoyed by all who are a part of the UP community and that university museums have potential as social spaces, not just educational spaces.

“For decades museums have been trying to improve access to people living with disabilities. I think universities have a particular role to play because of students with disabilities. So, this is a first on the UP campus, and a first in the sense that Dixi is now a regular feature in terms of the Old Arts Building. She is in fact our first canine visitor and we are so pleased that we can be inclusive to four paws too. We approached Rohan to assist us and Nicole Hoffman, in her capacity as the Museums’ Interpretive Officer, worked with Rohan and Dixi for a number of months. There have been other students that are in wheelchairs that have visited our museums, and as you know, the campus has increasingly improved access to all buildings.

“The unfortunate thing is that the Old Arts Building, as a historical building, is considered intimidating because of its architecture. So, it has this imposing façade. But what staff and students don’t know is that we have a ramp and there is a lift. A decade ago, we weren’t able to provide that kind of accessibility but we have fortunately become able to do so. The museum has also upgraded to a unisex bathroom. What the experience with Rohan has taught us is that people with sight don’t quite enjoy the full experience of the museum, so we encourage people to make use of all their senses within a museum gallery, from enjoying the coldness of the slate floors and the texture of the sandstone walls, to taking note in the change in smell. Rohan is keenly aware of his sense of smell, which adds to his museum experience. Everything that’s in a university museum is not just about the objects or collections on display and the information that accompanies it, it’s a full experience,” Dr Tiley-Nel said.

 *The UP Museums offers tours that are fun, informative and interactive. Bookings are essential! Contact the UP Museums on: 012 420 2178 or [email protected] for more details.

- Author Masego Panyane

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