Research into blind people’s experience of art backed by new AHRC fund

Image: Aaron McPeake, Once I Saw it All 2022

The £250,000 fund will support research to enhance blind people’s experience of art in museums, and culminate in an exhibition in 2025.

The first recipient of a new £250,000 fund from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has been announced.

‘Beyond the Visual: Blindness and Expanded Sculpture’ will include research to enhance blind people’s experience of art in museums, taking place at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds from October 2024 until March 2025.

The three year project will also feature public engagement events, and will culminate with a 2025 exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, foregrounding work by blind and partially blind artists.

The capital comes from the AHRC’s new Exhibition Fund.

The resulting exhibition is expected to become the first major UK-based sculpture showcase predominantly featuring works by blind or partially blind artists within a national institution.

It will be led by University of the Arts London’s Dr Ken Wilder and Dr Aaron McPeake who is registered blind, alongside Dr Clare O’Dowd from the Henry Moore Institute.

Partnering on the project is Shape Arts, a disability-led arts organisation which works to improve access to culture for disabled people.

Artists Wilder and McPeake have been collaborating for nearly two decades, and previously spearheaded an AHRC-funded network – with partners the Henry Moore Institute and Shape Arts – exploring non-sighted modes of engaging art, which culminated in a public symposium hosted by London’s Wellcome Collection.

Working with the researcher’s network, the project is also hoped to generate the first international database of blind and partially blind sculptural artists.

The 2025 exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute will draw upon the collective knowledge of this multidisciplinary network.

Beyond the Visual will explore engagements with contemporary sculpture using senses other than sight, “challenging the dominance of sight in the making and appreciation of art”.

Together, they question the assumption that art appreciation and creation are confined to those with full visual perception

Dr Ken Wilder, Reader in Spatial Design at Chelsea College of Arts said: “I’m looking forward to co-curating Beyond the Visual with Dr McPeake and Henry Moore Institute Research Curator Dr Clare O’Dowd, in investigating the role that touch, sound, smell and proprioception – the perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body – play in engaging with sculpture.

“We want to ensure the exhibition offers a complete experience to the beholder, enhancing tactile and non-visual sensory interactions with the various artworks. Whilst blind and partially blind people have been identified as a primary audience, the exhibition is not intended only for the blind but open to all. Instead, it aims to not exclude an audience that is often marginalised by exhibitions in which visitors are not able to touch or interact with the works.”

Professor Christopher Smith, AHRC Executive Chair said the project represents “another step in AHRC’s commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion and to supporting our brilliant and innovative museums and galleries.”