Getting hands on with history; audio described tours at Cutty Sark

Cutty Sark is again taking part in Disabled Access Day and on 11 March we’re inviting visitors to join the audio described tour and get hands on with history on the world’s last remaining tea clipper.

We caught up with Ben and Emma, two of the Visitor Assistants who have been trained to deliver the Audio Described Tours on board, and asked them what makes Cutty Sark such an interesting place for blind and partially sighted visitors. 

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Emma: “The standout feature of these tours has to be the tactility. It really is a unique opportunity to get hands on with the ship’s structure, very interactive and fully immersive.” Ben agrees: “Cutty Sark is, by the standards of museums, a very hands-on place to visit, with guests encouraged to touch the ship's original iron frame, wooden hull planks and rigging lines. For visually impaired visitors, this provides a wealth of sensory information that in other museums would be left entirely to description.”

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Delivering the tours is a great experience for the Visitor Assistants. “Some of our visually impaired visitors will be visiting Cutty Sark with a completely blank canvas and it is a privilege to be able to paint that canvas through our words,” says Emma. “Setting the scene and building the world of Cutty Sark up through description is an interesting challenge. The visual information we take for granted on a daily basis needs to be communicated effectively to create an all-round sensory experience, not only through clear descriptions, but by employing smells and tactile opportunities throughout the tour. Cutty Sark itself presents its own unique challenges - with a greater need to consider logistics than you would in an open gallery space!” For Ben, the key is making links to everyday objects: “The windlass mechanism for example is about the size of a small car, the ship's cargo winches can be compared to old-style clothes mangles, and deck houses to rather grand garden sheds!”

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Ben mostly enjoys the feeling of being able to give visitors who might otherwise not get the full experience at Cutty Sark something extra: “Although many visually impaired people visit the ship with sighted companions who can interpret the visual world of the ship for them, our inside knowledge of the ship’s many interesting features lets us go into a lot of detail.” Emma: “My favourite moment so far has to be showing a blind gentleman how to coil rope on the Main Deck - he did it beautifully and put many of us to shame!”

Find out more about our audio described tours.