Charlie and June have volunteered at the museum for the last 8 years. They work together on the handling tables around the museum explaining a variety of replica artefacts to our visitors. A favourite is the Surgeon’s table with the Tudor doctor’s equipment for making medicines and treating injuries. What most visitors do not realise is that Charlie is visually-impaired.
Their association with the Mary Rose began in 2006 when their local support group, the Portsmouth Visually-Impaired Action Group, was invited as a focus group for the new museum. Trevor Sapey (now our Community and Outreach Officer) led a special supported visit which involved a handling session in the classroom. The visit highlighted the broad range of needs that fall under the heading of ‘visual impairment.’ At the end of the visit, Trevor asked if anyone would like to volunteer. Charlie and June jumped at the chance: “We’d love to!”
Talking it over with the museum managers, they felt working on the artefact handling tables would be most suitable for them. The six foot table with artefacts laid out was a small environment in which they could use their skills most effectively and feel comfortable at work.
During their induction they followed the same path as all our volunteers, learning their way around and pairing up with experienced members of the team. On their first solo turn on the handling table, their first customers were a group of 40 Italians with very little English!
Charlie says: “It’s a very friendly museum.” June adds “The main thing when starting as volunteers was that we knew that we were welcome and that people understood our particular needs.”
“I just want to be treated like everyone else.” When necessary, the museum will tweak the standard volunteer programme to suit but the alterations usually required are minimal. For Charlie, one example was special tours of the new museum while building work was going on to help him orientate himself and provide reassurance in moving from the well-known old museum to the new one. All opportunities are open and taken up with enthusiasm: training, staff and volunteer day trips and the Christmas party!
The museum has benefited enormously from the specialist knowledge Charlie and June can provide. One very successful project was with artist Heather Bowring in 2007. Heather is a local tactile artist and the museum commissioned her to create a tactile painting of the Anthony Roll – the only contemporary painting of the Mary Rose and a key piece of evidence in the story. Charlie was involved from the beginning.
June says: “The joy of Heather’s work is that everyone can enjoy it sighted and not, adults and children.” Charlie adds “Some of the other staff and volunteers were sceptical about how useful the painting was but now they see it being used by visually-impaired visitors they are converted! I met a blind man from Australia who was amazed by it.” Working alongside Charlie and June has helped improve understanding and, most significantly, the confidence of staff and volunteers in helping those with visual-impairment in the museum. Everyone in the organisation has benefitted; Chief Executive John Lippiett said “It was wonderful to see the absolute pleasure it brought Charlie as he felt his way across [the painting].”
June joined staff at the museum as part of our ‘Every Visitor is Special’ Access Conference in 2008 to explain how tactile resources can be used alongside artefacts and large print texts to help visually-impaired visitors.
The new museum has provided a new challenge for both staff and volunteers. Christopher Dobbs, Head of Interpretation, often uses our volunteers (many of whom have specialist skills and knowledge) as a sounding board for his ideas. Interpreting the museum for the blind is an ongoing project. Charlie appreciates the amount of time and thought that goes into resources such as tactile pictures and large print text. He knows that Chris is keen to ‘get it right’ but he recognizes it’s impossible to please everyone. Chris says: “It is wonderful having someone like Charlie on our volunteer team because we can test our ideas during the creative progress and he can develop new displays with us. I also find it inspiring, seeing how he can read our tactile paintings and images and spot things in a picture that I hadn’t even noticed.”
What’s their advice for other museums thinking of recruiting volunteers with special needs?
“You don’t need to change your museum much – be welcoming, talk to people honestly about their requirements and be flexible. What’s good for people with special needs is good for everyone – for the visually-impaired handling is key but it’s also one of the most popular elements of the museum generally.”
Charlie Carroll passed away in November 2014. Our thoughts are with June and the rest of his family.