Kurt Jackson’s work captures a sense of place and of the essence of individual rivers: from the Thames, river of deep mud and slowly-moving history, to an path in Provence down an almost-dry riverbed, using both traditional media and multimedia installations. At River, on show at the Horniman Museum until January 25, I was very taken with a painting which I recognised immediately as the Thames – the depths of blue water and brown mud could only be the mouth of the river I have known since childhood.
Adjoining it was a film without audio showing him at work in Southend-on-Sea, essentially on the landward side of the painting, a juxtaposition that I enjoyed. Juxtapositions were a key feature of the exhibition – the Thames at source and outlet, for example, movement and stillness, sparkling stream and sluggish meander, each conveying a particular sense of place and time at that point on the river’s journey.
I’ve seen his work before and always enjoyed it, but here I’m going to look at the presentation of the exhibition and think about accessibility issues. There was a display of ceramics, bronze, and small watercolours, cleverly displayed without distracting labels, just number labels which could be referenced to an adjacent side panel. Unfortunately, the display case itself cast a shadow on the panel, which also contained cream text in a small typeface on a blue background, and thus was difficult to read.
In terms of access for deaf visitors, there was also an interesting film following the Avon – an area also very familiar to me – from end to end, this time with a soundtrack that was not subtitled. I could hear some of it, but it wasn’t enough, and I wondered why there were no subtitles.
I would like to encourage exhibition designers and curators to take a more integrated approach to the questions of access provision. It’s a difficult one where a video is an art installation in itself, rather than an accompanying commentary, which I would normally expect to see subtitled in a museum or gallery context.
From the artist’s point of view, I can understand that a video work might be regarded as an integral entity in itself, and that subtitles might obscure or compromise the installation. But for an artist regularly working across different media, and who “subtitles” his own paintings with his observations at the time of painting, I couldn’t help feeling that providing perfectly placed subtitles to his videos would be an interesting challenge to complement his video output, should he wish to take it up!
In more general terms, access solutions are organised by the museum or gallery which exhibits the works. These solutions need be neither perfect nor expensive – it’s not as daunting as many think In this case I felt that it would have been easy enough for the museum to obtain or create a transcript, reproduced as a few laminated copies of A4 sheets that visitors could read at will. A running header of the appropriate location along the Avon would have aided visitors picking up the transcript in mid-loop.
Last year at the Dame Laura Knight exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, a historic film excerpt on which subtitles could not be ‘retrofitted’ was displayed with a transcript on an adjoining wall panel in the same typeface as all the other information labels. That was a similarly low-cost solution, and as an integral part of the labelling, showed curatorial flair in exhibition design to provide a neat access solution that didn’t look ‘special’.
On a similar note, the wall label next to the Southend film could have said that there was no accompanying voiceover, just so that visitors knew the score (and that there was no score . . .) After all, if you’re as deaf as I am without the CI, you don’t know what has a soundtrack and what hasn’t, and it costs nothing to tell visitors what they’re not missing. It’s welcoming and puts them at ease: if it’s the only video installation you have, and it’s silent, then you won’t get visitors complaining there are no subtitles!
It matters. Quite randomly, in our party of five, there was myself and my sister-in-law’s mother-in-law, who has age-related hearing loss. One in six people in the UK has some form of deafness (however they categorise themselves). That’s one in six people who would benefit from an integrated approach to curating exhibitions (and that’s for deafness alone).