November 2008

Sir James Thornhill’s masterpiece, the Painted Hall ceiling, is made accessible to blind and partially sighted visitors and young children through story-telling and the aid of a colourful tactile rug.

On 30th October 2008 the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) launches an incredible new learning resource, a tactile rug, specifically designed for blind and partially sighted people in the Painted Hall at the ORNC.

This intricately handcrafted rug has been commissioned to enable blind and partially sighted visitors to explore the complex imagery of Sir James Thornhill’s 18th century masterpiece, the Painted Hall ceiling, through touch and visual description.  In tailored sessions, the fascinating characters displayed on the Painted Hall ceiling are brought to life as they are woven into different materials, textures, sounds and exciting tales.  The rug is also designed to be used by children aged 3 to 7 as part of lively story-telling sessions entitled “Tactile Tales”. 

Since 1997, the ORNC has run a vibrant learning programme, which enables different audiences to access and learn about the buildings of the ORNC. Despite this, the magnificent 15m high Painted Hall ceiling has remained inaccessible to visitors with visual impairment and younger children due to its height and complex allegorical theme. Inspired by a visit to the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, the ORNC’s learning team decided to develop a hands-on learning resource for these underrepresented audiences. The ORNC commissioned a local artist, Amanda Allen, to transform King William III and Queen Mary II as well as mythological figures from the Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall into a tactile story-telling rug.

Unlike James Thornhill who took 19 years to complete the Painted Hall, Amanda successfully fulfilled this complex brief in 12 months, creating characters which are representative of Thornhill’s original detailed depictions and are child friendly. Intricately hand woven, she used wools, silks, velvets, rope, felt, feathers and even rubber snakes to piece together three-dimensional features, luxurious garments, bright emblems and furry creatures from the Painted Hall ceiling. The rug will be displayed on a regular basis for drop in sessions for blind and partially sighted and, in addition, special guided tours will be programmed. During “Tactile Tales” workshops, groups of children will also be able to explore this beautiful and striking artwork as they sit on the floor of the Painted Hall, listen to lively stories, feel their way around the different surfaces of the rug or look up at the original ceiling above them. The Greenwich Foundation’s education team will offer story-telling sessions during the week for school groups and at weekends and holidays for families with younger children.

The Greenwich Foundation’s education team worked with a range of people to create the rug and accompanying sessions.  The former Head of Greenwich Vision Impairment Service advised the Greenwich Foundation’s education team throughout the development, ensuring that blind and partially sighted visitors would be able to envision the Painted Hall in their mind.  A series of consultation sessions were also held with 3 to 4 year olds from a local Early Years Centre to develop ideas to feed into the rug design and to trial the new storytelling session using the completed rug.  A professional story-teller helped to develop a cohesive story, which weaves in all the characters depicted on the rug.

Helen Beioley, Director of Development & Marketing for the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College, comments:

“The Painted Hall is a magnificent sight, and we wanted to find a way to bring out its drama for everyone, including people who are blind or visually impaired. We also wanted to find a way to introduce the rather complicated allegorical theme in a fun and engaging way. This outstanding creation achieves both these aims and is a good indication of how the Foundation is approaching the interpretation of this important site in advance of Discover Greenwich, which is opening early 2010.”

Georgia Collins, a blind teenager who trialled the tactile rug, comments:

“Great idea that blind and visually impaired people can be the same, have the same experience as sighted people. With the story-telling too we get lots of visual imagery as well as through feeling it.”

Ben Breen, a blind teenager, adds:

“It is amazing. You can get all these ideas. You build up three dimensional objects in your mind.”

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