As part of its outreach work, the Centre for British Politics sponsored a tour of the exhibition I curated – Picturing Politics – for a group from Henshaws society for blind people. Since the exhibition first opened in November, I must have done over 15 tours but never one for a visually impaired group. There are obvious difficulties in talking about a type of visual political communication to a group who cannot see that communication. The practicalities of this are overcome through the genius of Anne Hornsby an audio-describer who described and explained exactly what the poster looks like, before I then talked about the political and historical nature of that image.
The inclusion of the audio-describer on the tour altered the way I did something which had become tried and tested. In some respects, it changed the way I even thought about the thing I research and write about almost everyday as part of my PhD. The most obvious example of this was the audio-described element. There can’t be many people who look at posters quite as intently as I do, but to hear another person describe each poster, the way the lettering is laid out on the page, how the wording and images work, what the people look like, was really interesting. My thesis does this, and it was enlightening to hear someone else go into similar detail. I think Anne and I ‘read’ the posters in the same way, I would use similar adjectives to describe them, but she noticed some details that I had not appreciated, and she interpreted a few things in a different way than I had done.
The exhibition contains around 60 posters, and in a typical tour I might talk in depth about half and make at least a passing reference to the rest. This was simply not possible with the Henshaws tour. When being audio described, it is not possible to give the tour like this, as it would take many hours. Consequently, Anne and I chose ten posters to concentrate on. We spent such a long time in front of each image the people on the tour sat down in front of them. Furthermore, it was pointless referring to other posters in the exhibition that we had not spoken about because the group could not see them. This completely changed the nature of the interaction between the group, the posters and me. As the group was sat around the poster, there was real emphasis on the individual image.
Such focus made me realise just how much I think of posters in terms of the history of other posters, where each exits within the historiography of the whole; indeed, I often speak and write of them in these terms. But the Henshaws tour brought back to me this is not how voters look at posters, they see, experience (and perhaps sometimes concentrate on) the individual, and this is clearly something which should not be forgotten.
Chris Burgess is a PhD student. He researches the history of political posters.