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Sensing the past

Anjana Khatwa, Alexandra Briggs, and Anna Holbrook demonstrate the value of using co-production techniques to communicate geology to the visually impaired or blind

Words by Anjana Khatwa
30 November 2023
Alexandra Briggs
Anna Holbrook

The Jurassic Coast is a place that thrills all the senses, where over 95 miles of rock records an extraordinary 185 million years of Earth’s history. From a clifftop, you can marvel at how the sea interacts with the land, hungrily taking bites out of the cliffs to leave a beautifully sculpted coastline. You can clamber along the beaches to look for fossils, your eyes helping you to navigate the uneven rocks in pursuit of spiral-shaped creatures from the distant past.

Our sight brings us immense privilege to experience nature in all its beauty, but what if this part of the natural world is closed off to you? How can we bring the wonders of the Jurassic Coast to life for people who are visually impaired or blind? Through Sensing the Past, an innovative partnership project between Dorset Museum (a Wessex Museums Trust partner) Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre (CHCC), and Dorset Blind Association (DBA), a group of disabled people are leading their own learning journey about the Jurassic Coast.


Co-production and co-design are the new buzzwords for how organisations deliver community engagement programmes. But what do these words mean in practice? True co-production approaches recognise that expertise and knowledge rests in the community that you wish to engage with. Relationships are built on equity and respect, where organisations shift their approaches to delivering engagement programmes with communities rather than to them.

Collaborations with community groups, especially those who have been marginalised in society, are founded on trust, which takes time to build. Many funding bodies, such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund, now seek evidence from applicants that such foundations for these collaborations are in place to secure not only short-term outcomes, but also a legacy for future participants.

Our project

Based on these co-production principles, Dorset Museum was awarded a small grant from the Wessex Museums Trust to deliver Sensing the Past, alongside CHCC and DBA, between August and November 2022. Prior to the start of the project, staff and volunteers from Dorset Museum and CHCC set out to first listen to and understand the barriers that DBA members face in engaging with museums and outdoor spaces.

Through a series of impactful training sessions led by DBA, members communicated their lived experiences of surviving in a world that presented them with multiple challenges. This prepared Dorset Museum and CHCC staff to work with participants to co-design inclusive ways in which visually impaired people could experience the Jurassic Coast through objects in the museum and on site at Charmouth.

During these conversations, DBA members said they wanted creative activities and workshops, where they could gain the skills and knowledge needed to co-create a Jurassic Coast exhibition for people who are blind or have visual impairments. This training and consultation process was critical in defining how the project progressed.

Dorset Museum and CHCC staff learnt that museums and visitor centres can be quite intimidating and frightening for visually impaired and blind people. To set the 16 participants at ease, they first ran fossil handling sessions in settings that DBA members were already familiar with. The staff then ran talks via Zoom to explain what visits to Charmouth and the museum would entail. Although CHCC had ambitions to lead a fossil walk for participants with trained sighted guides, the uneven shingle beach posed too great a risk. Instead, its staff worked with DBA to co-design activities that recreated the ‘fossil hunting’ experience in the safety of the visitor centre, which led to fossil casting and sensory workshops being held in the museum’s Natural Dorset Gallery and a visit to CHCC.


The project was evaluated at each stage, with a focus on recording stories of change to understand the impact of the project on participants’ sense of wellbeing and belonging. Experiences were collected through audio recordings of the participants and the physical objects they created in workshops. The evaluations revealed how participants had developed a greater sense of belonging and connection to a part of Dorset that they had previously felt excluded from. One participant remarked that “I have never found fossils. It is great to touch them and actually find them… you are learning it in a way you never have before. It’s fascinating to learn at this age… you can still keep learning even if you can’t see and even if you are quite advanced in your age.”

The importance of handling authentic objects was also vital, as one participant explained, “touch is a big thing – I have found an ichthyosaur vertebrae, some ammonites and belemnites, you can feel the ridges of the ammonite. It is important to touch as if you are completely blind – [for] other people with worse vision, touch would be a major factor for finding fossils”.

Sensing the Past not only helped participants to reconnect with nature, but it also helped people feel part of a community, which was especially beneficial for DBA members who struggled with isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Handling fossils allowed participants to build a mental picture of them (Photo: Anjana Khatwa)

Alongside learning about the natural history of Dorset, taking part in creative activities such as fossil casting also had a significant impact on participants. “The sensory experience is really good, as you can feel everything in the plaster… You can feel every little line, nook and cranny and everything that has come out has been preserved in the plaster cast. It is a very moving impression as when I had my sight before, I can build a picture in my mind of what I am holding in my hand as I move my fingers over each bump.”


The success of the project can be felt across all the partners who were involved, but especially among the participants, whose lives have been enhanced and experiences changed. Lasting collaborations have been made; one participant from DBA now volunteers at Dorset Museum as a photographer. The legacy of the project continues through a second term of funding awarded by the Wessex Museums Trust. In this ongoing second phase, which began in April 2023, the partners will work collaboratively to create a travelling exhibition about the Jurassic Coast for the visually impaired and blind.

Sensing the Past is a fantastic model for co-production practice with an under-served community, but it’s important to recognise that all these wonderful outcomes have not happened by chance.

There are many takeaways from this project for organisations who wish to work with under-served audiences:

  • Embrace a co-production approach. Involve the community and empower them to shape how they want to work with your organisation.
  • Ensure that you fully understand the needs of the community, making adjustments as necessary.
  • Bring in experts that can enhance your communication, such as scientists and artists.
  • Be patient. Genuine co-created projects with under-served communities take time. Sensing the Past took almost 18 months of planning from the first Zoom call during the pandemic, to DBA members visiting the museum and CHCC.
  • Expect the unexpected. The team thought fossil hunting in trays would be disappointing compared to a fossil walk, but participants enjoyed the experience.
  • Create a legacy that sustains your relationship with the community. DBA members are now involved in an Access and Inclusion group advising Dorset Museum on inclusive practice.


Dr Anjana Khatwa

Engagement Lead, Wessex Museums

Alexandra Briggs

Learning and Community Coodinator, Dorset Museum

Anna Holbrook

Education Warden, Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre

Sensing the Past is a partnership project between Dorset Museum (part of Wessex Museums Trust, an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation), Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre (CHCC), and Dorset Blind Association (DBA).

For more information, please contact Alexandra Briggs at Dorset Museum (Alexandra.Briggs@dorsetmuseum.org)

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