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Postdoc Podcast – Cardiff Retreat

This is a podcast episode, produced and recorded by The Sensational Museum Postdocs, Dr Charlotte Slark and Dr Sophie Vohra, discussing how they want and need to support lasting mindset changes in museum practice to support the implementation of trans-sensory thinking and practice, as well as fully equitable access the museum collections, content and spaces

Sophie speaks in a clear and considered way, with a lyrical, soft and lower vocal tone… and occasionally some loud laughs! Putting on her more ‘formal voice’, here she speaks with a ‘non-typical’ north-western accent (aka suspend your disbelief that everyone there sounds like they are from Liverpool, Manchester or Bury), with dropped ‘a’s and stronger enunciation. She often wonders if her different code-switching voices that make up critical parts of her identity (day-to-day, Macclesfield, Yorkshire, academic/telephone, British Indian, Spanish) come through.

Charlotte speaks animatedly and talks faster when she’s excited. She has a southern English accent, which a local person would identify as a somewhat polished combination of Slough and Staines upon Thames (think quite hard consonants!). It’s the accent of someone from a working-class background who has spent a lot of time having to fit-in in middle class spaces.

Notes on transcript style

  • Punctuation is used to indicate the way the content was delivered, rather than necessarily being grammatically correct. Please try and read it with these pauses (or not as the case may be) in mind.
  • Words in square brackets and in italics, [like this], indicate delivery types (e.g. softly; animated), audible occurrences (e.g. laugh; sigh), and sound differences (e.g. quieter delivery) in the recording.
  • Ellipses (like… this) indicate a short break between sentences.
  • Italicised words (like this) indicate emphasis placed more heavily on the words as they are delivered, and bold italicised words (like this), a strong emphasis
  • Quotation marks (“like this”) mean we are suggesting this is something someone might have said (e.g., she said, “oh, that was weird”, and I could see why)
  • Whereas quotation marks (‘like this’) mean we are emphasising it as a useful term (e.g. ‘the fourth wall’).


Charlotte and Sophie are sat at a white table-clothed table, on the curved seating skirting the bay window that looks out onto an impressive open, country house garden, in Chapelgarth’s sitting room. When it shines, the sunlight streams through onto their backs. The room is slightly echoey, with high Edwardian ceiling, dark wooden display furniture, paintings displayed on the walls, a stone fireplace with a basket of wood next to it, and minimal soft furnishings, including heavy yellow curtains for the three sets of windows. The room has one large, deep yellow sofa that you sink into to the left of where they are sat, another cream one to the right that looks very comfortable, but is in fact very hard to sit on, and three mismatched armchairs. The room is scattered with several lamps (which make for a beautiful, soft atmosphere in the dark), and there is a coffee table in the middle of the room, with magazines about llamas on top. Behind the yellow sofa, along the wall, is a long table with coffee makers, a tabletop fridge, stacks of tea and coffee sachets, a chopping board with lemon halves and fibrous ginger fingers, and a cylindrical metal water heater, the same height as the small fridge, for hot water. You can hear birdsong in the background throughout… when it’s not drowned out by the water heater boiling up.



[The podcast starts with The Sensational Museum audio logo: A conspiratorial female voice says ‘The Sensational Museum’. Lower in volume, almost distant, people are chattering excitedly in a large, echoey space. A warm, major chord chimes and fades out]

[Opens with soft background birdsong, that can be heard periodically throughout the recording]

Charlotte 0:05 

Welcome to the second episode of The Sensational Museum Postdoc Podcast.

Sophie 0:09

With me, Sophie Vohra.

Charlotte 0:11 

And me Charlotte Slark.

Sophie 0:13

Charlotte and I have met up this time at, an absolutely phenomenal writing retreat up in the north of England, at Chapelgarth. It might be May time, but the weather has not been quite on our side, but we’ve still been able to enjoy some of the beautiful nature and do some really hard thinking.

Charlotte 0:31 

Including writing resources that we’ll be using in the pilots for both Strands of The Sensational Museum.

Sophie 0:38 

So Charlotte, would you like to give us a little introduction of yourself as you are sat in this beautiful bay window looking out onto the garden.

Charlotte 0:48 

Yes, so I’m Charlotte. My preferred pronouns are she/her. I am a woman with curly blonde hair, which is tied up into a bun because, I went out for a walk in the lovely grounds of Chapelgarth and didn’t want my hair to grow exponentially in size with the rain, I’m wearing a, rather dashing charity shop cashmere jumper [soft chuckle from Sophie in the background] and some leggings which may or may not be covered in mud, and I’ve got matching red glasses on today. How about you, Sophie?

Sophie 1:14

I’m Sophie. My pronouns are she/her. I have my hair down today, but largely because it’s so short that you can’t do anything with it, just below the ear length, curly dark brown hair, pushed back with one of those very [slows down her speech as she thinks of the right words to use] 90s like, comb headbands, which I’ve missed and now have rediscovered [a soft noise in the background from Charlotte, as she smiles at that description]. I’m also wearing a very fetching shirt that’s got like painting-style watermelons on it, which people have enjoyed today, which I hadn’t quite realised the world political connotations of thi, but I’m really, really not mad about it [little laugh].

Charlotte 1:49

[Jumps in excitedly] I did notice that the moment you walked in, I thought, Oooh! [soft chuckle from Sophie] I like it.

Sophie 1:54

[Laughs] It’s like, we all know what it means. I don’t. Maybe we won’t have to spell it out [quickly moving on to the rest of her visual description] And yeah, most of my tattoos, apart from my train [burying her chin into her chest a little as she gazes down at the visible tattoo on her right forearm], are hidden today. And you may have noticed that actually we haven’t covered a huge amount about, ourselves in, in this description today, and actually that we are focusing, on the visual as the key point here. And I wonder, Charlotte, could you just talk us through why we’ve switched this up?

Charlotte 2:19

So we’ve been having a lot of conversations, both between the two of us and with other people, about, the reason why we do these visual descriptions, because we’ve noticed that a lot of events, people either get quite nervous about it and, give far too much information or they panic they try and fit too much in, or they give the wrong information. And basically, visual descriptions are there to help people find cues to visually identify you more easily and address you properly. So, if you were somebody [extended ‘thinking’ “who”] who, had some vision issues, how can you find them in a room? [Sophie agrees with an “mmm”] What is it that’s going to stand out for you? So for me, today, it’s probably the fact that I’m wearing a, bright red jumper and I’ve got glasses. That’s quite an easy way of identifying me, but it’s, really boiling that down to something that is easy for someone to identify you, rather than necessarily outing yourself for [slightly chuckles over the next few words] different characteristics or feeling [Sophie: “yeah”] like you need to go into much more detail than you actually need to.

Sophie 3:14

It becomes like a joke, right? [Charlotte: agreeing “mmm”] Like when you start going too far into it, how many [slows down next few words as she remembers the example] things in grandma’s shopping basket are there, and you just keep going down the list and adding another thing. And actually coming exactly to what you said, Charlotte, we had some people flag up how nervous they were about this, and that actually, identity is not, an easy one, for us to, compartmentalise and give out to the world, and so, unless it is necessary for us to, give that information or to, show our, connections to the people in the room through that way, or the reasoning for us being there, [water heater for hot drinks gradually starts boiling up in the background, eventually, and with this, Sophie starts to slow down her delivery] it’s not, it’s not necessary, and we found that that tends to make people feel more comfortable with the work that we’re asking them to do(?).

And that leads us quite nicely onto the concept of… mindset. Charlotte and I have both been wrestling with this, in terms of how we think about mindset, as we, implement our, our procedures, our softwares, our toolkits, all of our things, our resources, moving into the piloting phase of The Sensational Museum.

Charlotte 4:19

Something that’s become increasingly clear with both Strands, that it’s not enough for us just to produce these excellent resources which will hopefully create lasting change in museums, but in order for that change to happen we need to change [slows down a little in her delivery] mindsets, within the museum, [the sound of the water heater reduces, sounding more distant and smaller in the background audio] and that looks quite different for the different Strands, [Sophie: agreeing “mmm”] but at the same time, has a lot of similarities?

Sophie 4:39

[Sophie speaking quite animatedly… for her] Yeah, so I wonder, Charlotte, could you, say a little bit more then what, this means for your Strand because as you said, [background water heater sound finally dies out] it’s going to be a little bit different for you than it is for me.

Charlotte 4:48

So for my Strand, which focuses on the communication aspects of museums. And what I mean by that is that we focus on making exhibitions, galleries more multisensory. So, the way that messages are communicated to the audiences is done in a more multisensory way.

[You can hear Sophie shuffling in her seat a little, making a small ruffling sound] So I think there’s a couple of things here that really need a mindset shift. One of the really obvious ones is what ‘multisensory’ actually means(?). When I interviewed people for research for this project, it became really clear that a lot of people, with the best intentions, will put in multisensory interventions that aren’t actually multisensory. [Sophie: “mmm” as she nods gently in agreement] They’ll either still highly rely on a visual element, and they’ll just be supplementing that visual element. Or it will be a sensory intervention, that is still a single sense. So it might [extended ‘thinking’ “be”] be… a soundscape that goes along with a painting, but means nothing if you can’t see the painting [Sophie does a soft mouth closed/smiling chuckle]. I know [small chuckle, as Sophie continues her muted laugh]. Or it might [extended ‘thinking’ “be”] be a touch object, that actually has no other, information or audio description, or it might be a smell with absolutely nothing else to anchor it. All of these things are vital tools when used in connection with each other. But it can’t just be one sense, and like we’ve said before, [speeds up delivery] no one sense is necessary or sufficient it needs to be, more than one thing so that you’re giving people options with how, they, engage with something, so it’s not okay just to have one sense instead of vision, or just to have senses that supplement a visual experience.

The other key thing that we really need to change in terms of mindset for my Strand is that, we need to convince people higher up, who are in charge of the budget, why this is important, and why they need to embed this into exhibition budgets and timelines from the very beginning, because often there’s incredible people in museums, [delivery speeds up, and you can feel Charlotte’s passion for what she is saying] particularly on the ground, who are doing these things, they want to do these things, they want to include co-producers, they want to make sure they’re accessible, they want to prototype, but they’re working with really limited budgets, they’re working with really tight timelines, they’re working to guidelines that have been set up by people who don’t realise how important this stuff is. So for us, this is really about changing understanding of what multisensory actually is, and why it is important throughout the entire museum as an institution, not just for the people that are creating exhibitions. What about you, Sophie, what mindsets do we need to challenge for your Strand?

Sophie 7:05 

[Deep breath in, and then, with a wide-eyed, ‘blowfish’ type face] Pfffffff… erm… all of them [hearty laugher from Charlotte] I think [Sophie joins in with the laughter]. So for my Strand, which is [an extended “the” as she tries to remember the name of her own strand!] the Collection Strand, which is looking at how we better integrate, a variety of sensory information into our collections records. That being a combination of what we know about the collections, but also how we open up ways to engage with them, so, audio descriptions [extended ‘thinking’ “and”] and videos, or descriptive transcripts, all sorts of things, as well as how, museum professionals input that information. So moving away from it just [extended ‘thinking’ “being”] being text and an image, for example, can we start thinking about voice notes, and then transcripts from that, and other preferred ways of entering information into the system about museum collections.

And exactly what you’ve just said there, particularly [extended ‘thinking’ “around”] around… stakeholders [extended ‘thinking’ “and”] and, finding purpose, and it really resonated with me, is that concept of something being… almost like a luxury, rather than a necessity, and not only that but something that sounds quite scary(?) to start implementing(?). And I know that, in the back of house spaces there’s this curious sense, and you and I have both been there I think we get it too that, it’s not about access for us, it’s about access for visitors and in doing so, there’s this huge disconnect between, the amount that we’re willing to do, to, open up collections and knowledge, and experience for the public, but we won’t put in those similar mechanisms, for, the people doing this work.

And so, there’s a couple of things that are really important that I, I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily struggling with, but I want to make sure that I do right, because it will be important for making sure, that this sticks, that this works, and, one of those is that, I don’t think we’re actually certain on what the purpose of information in these systems is for, and I’m not talking about, the type of collections records that are about, location or identification, those are really important in terms of understanding what you have, but aside from that, what is that information doing? Why is it important? And so, the mindset change that’s got to be really big here [extended ‘thinking’ “is”] is, in terms of, how we understand, collections information, both in terms of enriching the records, but also, how we’re opening up access to those records for people who work in the museum. There is an ableist and exclusionary way, of working with these systems that’s been built in, I would say, not purposefully, [extended ‘thinking’ “it’s”] it’s through a lack of, knowing that people need different ways, to work, and so, you know, adding in, a function to have voice notes that are transcribed, means that certain people can do their work more effectively, more comfortably, enjoy their work as they do it, but at present, it’s very much, as you said, Charlotte, hard to do, the money, the time, we don’t really know, how and why that matters, but then, that’s a way for people to access that material. You open up the abilities of your system to work for everybody.

Charlotte 10:15

[There is a calmer softness to Charlotte’s voice here, as she tunes into and replicates Sophie’s tone and delivery] And it’s questioning these default assumptions, in both Strands. So the assumption that museum workers wouldn’t possibly need to do a voice note [small, soft chuckle from Sophie], or that a museum worker couldn’t possibly be blind or partially blind [Sophie: agreeing “mmm”], or have mobility issues, or a whole host of things, when actually museums are quite good at understanding that their visitors have a diverse range of needs.

Sophie 10:35


Charlotte 10:36

How good they are at serving, those, needs is a [Sophie starts to chuckle softly], whole other thing. [Charlotte resumes her wonderfully animated delivery] But(!) like you say, there’s a disconnect, between, how we [extended ‘thinking’ “view”] view, museum visitors and accessibility, and how we view museum work and accessibility.

Sophie 10:48

[Sophie’s pace of delivery is much quicker, matching Charlotte’s animation] And, before I come on to another point on this, I think what’s really, really important there is that that mindset, and I think this is where we’ve got to do some very careful and empathetic unpicking of ingrained mindsets, of, working cultures, in the back of house spaces, where, several times over, my workshops and my interviews that I’ve been doing I’ve heard people say: [slowing down, with laboured mimicking while recalling these concerns] “but there’s a backlog”; “but that’s going to take too much time”; “I don’t know where I would put that in my, workflow”; “how could we possibly, add that in”? And these are people who have been so willing and generous with their time and their thoughts, and if even they are coming to us and saying, we can’t implement this, that is something that is clearly very critical that we need to break down, and I think this is where it comes back to that point about it being, a necessity, and us being able to, as you said with the front of house interventions, being able [extended ‘thinking’ “to”] to sell it to the [banging the little-finger edge of her open hand down on the table as she says “stakeholder” and “top”] stakeholders at the top and say, here is why this matters, here’s where you start to, open up access [extended ‘thinking’ “to”] to, the people who work in the back of house, but I think what’s the most interesting part here, and you and I, Charlotte, have talked about this a lot, is that, by, enriching, the content, in, the collection systems that we have, it absolutely has a, fundamental impact on the type of stuff that we can then present to the public, and, any other stakeholders, we can communicate more, we can find more interesting ways of doing it, and it means that, the type of work that then does end up on the shop front is built on good research, interesting interventions, understanding the sensory qualities of the collections, but also how you would then access that.

Charlotte 12:26

Exactly, because my Strand cannot work effectively, without yours. You can’t create an effective, multisensory exhibition easily or well, without having that, database information on the objects, items, collections [very quiet “mmm” from Sophie] that you have in your museum. And as much as I would love for that not to be the selling point for people higher up, if that’s what it takes to get this mindset change and to get directors, board members, [extended and louder “mmm” from Sophie] the people with the purse strings, if that’s what it takes to get them to understand that museum staff need more budget, they need more time, they need more resources to be able to catalogue their collections effectively, and in a multisensory way, then maybe that’s the message we need to push. But obviously we should also be able to say, it was better for everybody involved and it’s better for your museums [small chuckle from Sophie]. But I’m very aware that, err, that’s not always [‘nervous’/ ’knowing’ laugh from charlotte], err, it’s not always as appealing a selling a point. [Louder laugh from Sophie in agreement] It’s not enough just to do the right thing(!). [another hearty laugh from Sophie] There has to be some kind of financial, imperative. And that’s fine, that’s the world we work in. But look, we can prove that it makes a difference!

Sophie 13:34 

[A final hearty laugh from Sophie, before moving onto more ‘serious things’, running off the words quickly in her first sentence before slowing down at the first full stop] You see now I’m about to ask you one of the tough questions, so we’ve now just said, here’s the problem. Here’s the problem. I mean, what do we do about this? How do we help, develop these mindset changes?

Charlotte 13:45

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I currently, don’t have an answer [extended ‘thinking’ “beyond”] beyond, really showing what is possible. So showing for our pilots that these processes work, they, have a, deliverable impact, on, visitors. They have an impact on, the, quality, of the visitor experience, which as we all know is important to museums [Sophie: agreeing “mmm”]. It has an impact on, hopefully visitor numbers, and actually it has a impact on… accessibility, it has an impact on how, accessible these visits are. And I’m hoping that that is one way that we can start [elongated “to”] to, shift those mindsets, and start [Sophie: agreeing “mmm”] to show museums and specifically directors, board members, those with the money, that this is important work that they need to take seriously and they need to embed into their processes, timelines, budgets. [Very animated, and moving around excitedly in her seat] What about you? What are your thoughts on how we fix this?

Sophie 14:35

[speaking faster than usual, as she gets excited about the potentials of the project] I think one of the, the best things that we’ve got in place at the moment is, is our testing phase, our piloting phase, right(?), because, we can spend a bit of time, actually noticing, whether this problem is as big a problem as we think it is(?) as well, I think that’s very helpful, like, in practice, how do we get people to onboard with this, and actually have we already found solutions, are they already there for doing it? But with that as well there were some really, [suddenly slowing down her delivery to her usual speed] really incredible suggestions that came out of the workshops that I certainly know, I held, and ones that I attended for Charlotte’s work, too, about, providing, tools to help people understand… Thinking, first of all, about the sensory information, giving them the confidence to know that there’s language to use, there’s ways to think, it’s perhaps not as hard as you think it is, particularly when we’re hopefully breaking down the problem, into smaller steps, to help you get into, the deep and enriching, information that collections can give you, and I think that’s going to be really core for that. And also [trips over the next two words a little] flagging resources, that perhaps we’re not the ones to offer that up, but there are resources out there that we can say, you know, people are already kind of doing this work, it’s happening elsewhere.

And I think one of the most important things, but also, one of the biggest challenges that I’m, I’m going to find in trying to, encourage people to do this kind of work, is to demonstrate what impact this has, if these changes remain absent from the records, which very much centres around ableist thinking. And that has to be done… very carefully, very equitably and ethically, to ensure that we’re not, pulling through, tokenistic representations of people who want or need this content because that takes us a step back, that takes us back to saying, oh, well, only certain people need this, but to actually show, how that will benefit, everybody, to move forward in these ways of working. So. You know. Once again. Not a small job, Charlotte, [Charlotte, giving an agreeing “No!”] we’ve not given ourselves a small job.

Charlotte 16:33

Not at all, and I think, this is where we’re, trying to use this notion of sensory gain, we’re trying to show that by doing these, seemingly small things, for what is a… that’s another mindset we need to shift, this idea that it’s only for a very small group of people [Sophie gives another agreeing “mmm”]. But actually that, the, you know, if you’re targeting a very specific group of people, then actually the interventions that you put in for them are going to benefit so many more people. It’s about showing that, and hopefully, what we’re doing in the pilot process, will give us, that evidence, that we need to help then show, when we launch the whole thing to the public, it will show that actually this stuff works, it makes a difference, it makes museums better for everyone, and hopefully those mindsets will change.

[Animated as she discusses the amazing things she hopes Strand B’s toolkit can encourage and change] As part of the toolkit, we have created some resources that do really help challenge people’s thinking about disability, or, getting them thinking about their own positionality [short, deep agreeing “mmm” from Sophie], however, often the people that will be using this toolkit are the people that are already kind of on board(?), they’re the people that [long agreeing “mmm” from Sophie] want to be doing this process, they’re the people who are doing exhibitions, they’re the people that already know all of this, they know it’s important, it’s just making sure that we’re getting them on the right page. So all those people with the best intentions who otherwise might maybe not get it quite right, but really try, we’re already reaching them. It’s how we get that then to people higher up [long agreeing “mmm” from Sophie, in the exact same pitch as the one before]. And I think that’s the real challenge, and I think, as you say, that’s something that we can only really do through being able to prove it, to be able to evidence the effect and impact that this has.

Sophie 17:59

Definitely [extended ‘thinking’ “and”] and… I think this is where it becomes particularly important to start feeding things back from your Strand, the communication side, [water heater starts to boil up again, and fill the background noise] into collections information, because, if we start pulling back all of the rich information, the wonderful, responses, to the type of work that’s being done. The beauty of having the collections management software, and what we’re hoping to build, is that there will be really robust reporting functionalities as well, which means that if we have the mechanisms to talk about sensory information, and different mechanisms for communication, in the system, we can pull those through reports that best understand how to communicate those up to the people that need that information, as you said, Charlotte, the decision makers, the budget holders, and so, working together and thinking about how… it oscillates between our two, Strands is really important, and, I think you’re right, it also has to be about arming the people that we know are on our side, and understand this work, with the tools to advocate for themselves to move further with this.

And, so, there’s the concept, in, collections, management of a super user, somebody who’s really acquainted with the system, have specialisms in there that they can really dig into and people can go to them. We can start building that into the way we think about sensory information, how we record that, the different mechanisms. Which then also gives us a really great way to hopefully train people up, and train up the ladder as well, and I know that [starts to struggle to find the right words, with lots of pauses and extended ‘thinking’ words] the, absolutely phenomenal aspects of your work, and what you’re going to pilot [the sound of the water heater starts to reduce, as it begins the decent from its boil], Charlotte, on, thinking, about, positionality, and, how we understand our collections, are also going to be important for the type of work that I do, and are likely to be things that I might, errr, [speaking out the side of her mouth, implying it’s a little sneaky and cheeky to ask for the following] implement on my side too well. [Very loud laugh from Sophie, covering the end of the final hiss of the water heater, meaning it’s silent as Charlotte begins to speak].

Charlotte 19:59

That’s the beauty of working together, it’s very much a collaborative thing, your thinking, Sophie, has, like, absolutely fed into everything that I’ve done [agreeing “mmm” from Sophie]. And the way that the two Strands work so closely together, because, like you say, recording all of this information that comes from the Communication Strand so, you do an exhibition, you’d record all of that incredible multisensory information [agreeing “mmm” from Sophie], of the objects, but of the displays, of the interventions, will benefit, not only museum workers, but the museum in general. When that information is there, it is easy to find, you’re not having to start from the beginning every(.) single(.) time. You’re able to then have that information, but you’re also allowing people to see what’s possible [An animated, higher pitched “mmm” in agreement from Sophie]. You’re being able to develop different museum workers’ personal practice. You’re allowing them to be able to get excited about things, to see the sensory potential of objects, and, to then put that into the record, [even more animated, as she imbues the excitement that she hopes this type of work with instil in others] so that they can then be, hopefully used in another exhibition for the public. It’s circular. It’s wonderful. It’s exciting.

Sophie 20:54

[Delivered almost like she’s letting out a deep breath she’s held in] Oh, I get so excited about this work. When sometimes I think people maybe think we’re two excitable little puppies, but it’s because there’s so much potential. And, we just want everyone to feel what we feel, to experience what we’re experiencing with this, and the potential that’s really there. And, we both hope that this is something that we can absolutely embed in the final outputs, from both sides, and collectively, for The Sensational Museum.

Charlotte 21:20

Exactly. Hopefully, this podcast has got you excited about the sensory potentials of your museum, [Sophie softly chuckles in the background] or your own work.

Sophie 21:28

I’ve been Sophie Vohra.

Charlotte 21:29

And I’ve been Charlotte Slark.

Sophie 21:31

And this has been The Sensational Museum Postdoc Podcast.


[The podcast ends with The Sensational Museum audio logo. A conspiratorial female voice says ‘The Sensational Museum’. Lower in volume, almost distant, people are chattering excitedly in a large, echoey space. A warm, major chord chimes and fades out]