Exhibition: Allegories of The Senses

Gaby Lees – Sector Specialist: Community Arts Officer explores The Cooper Gallery’s first co-curated exhibition ‘Allegories of The Senses

I recently had the pleasure of welcoming members of AfAAB (Action for Autism and Asperger’s Barnsley) to the Cooper Gallery to see the latest exhibition, Allegories of the Senses. I am used to taking groups round art exhibitions, but this was special and felt very different. You see, the members of AfAAB curated this exhibition themselves and they greeted the artworks like old friends.

In October 2019 our team of nine guest curators (all members of AfAAB,) had a tour of the Cooper Gallery store.

In a freezing cold room looking at paintings


The first thing we did was look and discuss.

The team selected from a longlist of artworks from the Fine and Decorative Arts collections of the Cooper Gallery and from the Arts Council Collection. Each artwork was chosen to represent one of the senses: sight, smell, touch, taste or hearing, so that the exhibition itself would be an Allegory of the Senses. It took several weeks and sessions to look at them all.

After full consideration the team voted for their favourites.

I Sabatini, A Lady Holding Book

For ‘Sight’ we should include paintings that are visually rich and not just paintings of people looking at something…”

“and for ‘Touch’ we need artworks that have a texture to them.”

“Does art smell?”

The team also thought about how the exhibition could be presented and interpreted.

How might they explain a visual artwork to a blind visitor?

How might visitors be able to experience the texture of an artwork?


The team explored the senses through practical art activities, to try out ideas that could be offered to visitors to the exhibition.

Artist Jake Attree led a workshop using thick and textured paints to create tactile paintings.

Textile artist Jacqueline James showed the team how to make felt.

“I enjoyed working on the art exhibition, but I need to wash afterwards because it got messy”

Jaqueline James, a textile artist who is registered blind was commissioned to produce a tactile weaving for the exhibition. The colours and embellishments reference Vanessa Bell’s painting ‘Flowerpiece’ and as the commission now belongs to the Cooper Gallery it will be accessible to visitors as a tactile artwork even after the exhibition closes, once restrictions are eased.


Louise Edwards led a workshop sculpting with cakes and icing to make edible sculptures

One of the team, Carl, is a trained chef. He wrote four new recipes inspired by works of art chosen for the exhibition:

“My love of cooking drew me in, particularly towards the art inspired by taste.”


The team were planning to bring smells into the gallery but unfortunately the workshop with Ellen Williams, to make lavender bags and to plan how other scents and smells could be presented had to be cancelled due to lockdown.

Sadly, ongoing restrictions have meant that this idea has not been brought to fruition, although Jacqueline James has sprinkled eucalyptus oil on the tactile weaving she made for the exhibition – so take a sniff as you walk by…


The wonderful Sarah Evans, a student on placement from Leeds University of the Arts’ MA in Curatorial Practices wrote descriptive labels for the artworks, designed especially for visually impaired visitors to the exhibition and recorded these as audio with the team. The audio descriptions are available to all online and using Pen Friends in the exhibition.

Audio Guide: https://izi.travel/en/browse/6075801f-5fd2-4ce1-841a-2accec663c68

The guide can also be accessed on Apple, Spotify and most podcast providers simply search for The Cooper Gallery

Sarah also created a card game based on her descriptions of artworks in the exhibition:

Exhibition Guide

The exhibition guide is available to visitors in a sealed packet with a pencil and some lengths of yarn, to facilitate a little safe, tactile experience. The guide is full of ideas inspired by the team and the workshops they took part in.


The project enhanced the health & wellbeing of our team of guest curators (quotes throughout the blog are from the team.)

CONNECT –  Listening to everyone’s point of view.” 

                        “ I enjoyed helping put it together with the rest of the group.”

KEEP LEARNING – “Realising you could be a curator without being an artist”

“Learning about the role of the curator today with @GabyLees  from @BarnsleyMuseums  Lovely first session together” – AfAAB tweet

TAKE NOTICE –  “By looking more closely at works of art, I was able to discover more depth to them.” 

GIVE – the team volunteered over 100 hours of their time to curating the exhibition which will be enjoyed by many hundreds of visitors over the coming months.

Allegories of the Senses has achieved these ‘firsts’ for Barnsley Museums:

First fully community curated fine art exhibition.

First exhibition to open after lockdown closures.

First exhibition with a full audio tour describing each exhibit.

First exhibition with Makaton signage.

First exhibition to have a virtual private view.

First exhibition in the UK to use LEGO® Braille Bricks as signage

First practical Makaton signing training delivered to staff, including casual learning staff and the Visitor Service Team.

Allegories of the Senses is an exhibition on display at the Cooper Gallery Barnsley from 15 August to 13 November. The artworks in the exhibition were chosen by a team of nine guest curators who are all members of AfAAB (Action for Autism and Asperger’s Barnsley.) They worked with Barnsley Museums’ Curator, Alison Cooper, and Community Arts Officer, Gaby Lees, to choose works from the Arts Council Collection and from the Fine and Decorative Arts collections of the Cooper Gallery. The project was supported by AfAAB Monday Meet-up session leader, Louise Edwards and Sarah Evans, a student placement from Leeds Art University’s MA in Curatorial Practices.

Rhiannon Rees, one of the team of guest curators documented the project She took the majority of photographs in this blog.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 restrictions have prevented the exhibition interpretation from being as interactive as had been hoped, but with LEGO Braille Bricks and Makaton signage, descriptive audio labels and an activity booklet with practical ideas to try at home (devised by the guest curators) the exhibition is still an accessible and sensory experience.

AfAAB (Action for Autism & Asperger’s Barnsley)

AfAAB (Action for Autism and Asperger’s Barnsley), is a constituted group that aims to provide social experiences and activities for adults with autism or Asperger’s.  Through being part of the group, the members get to form friendships, enjoy one another’s company, participate in shared activities, go on group outings and above all have fun. There is no charge to join. 

If you would like to find out more about AfAAB or would like to attend a session please email afaabarnsley@gmail.com


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