'Ways of Seeing' project description

Ways of Seeing: Sensory Impairments and the Ancient World

In his 1972 book, Ways of Seeing, John Berger revitalized art history by declaring that ‘seeing comes before words’. He insisted that the relationship between what we see and what we know and communicate is unstable, and that looking is a political act.  What remains to be challenged is whether viewers always have 20/20 vision, and whether they are only capable of articulating their thoughts and feelings using a spoken/written language. This project seeks to build upon recent work on the viewer in antiquity, and by extension modernity, by placing the viewing experience in a new light, sound, and touch.

Museums provide audio description for blind and partially sighted people, whereby words create sensory experiences, and these are sometimes accompanied by touch tours.  Deaf people use sign language to communicate; this visual/spatial language is a completely different mode of communication from those based on words, and one that offers an alternative, arguably enhanced, engagement with art.  Case studies are drawn from current access provision in London’s museums in terms of audio description, touch tours and British Sign Language tours, and specially-curated pop-up events.  

The focus on the ancient world is appropriate, given how Classics has contributed towards the ableism that pervades the Humanities, whereby ‘being human’ assumes no impairments, and disabled people are forgotten.  This, in turn, is a neglected aspect of the classical legacy.

This project will be developed into a monograph, with online audio and video clips to demonstrate aspects of AD and BSL in relation to art description.  The interdisciplinary approach will have broad appeal in the Humanities beyond Classics, and have relevance to museum studies, art history, architecture and archaeology. While these disciplines have long engaged with museums' collections, their access programmes have not been explored.