RNIB PenFriend at MShed by Bristol Museums Galleries & Archives

RNIB PenFriend at MShed by Bristol Museums Galleries & Archives

2011 Digital Access Onsite Winner

Exemplary qualities

Using RNIB PenFriend, a device better known for audio labelling products in the home, Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives have embarked on a truly innovative adventure.

MShed has significantly improved the visitor experience for blind and partially sighted people with a humble piece of technology.

PenFriend has demonstrated that audio access for visually impaired and other visitors can be provided at a very low price.

The project

Audio tours are one of the most universally accessible forms of museum interpretation; however, they are extremely expensive.
This project uses the PenFriend audio labeller from RNIB to give visually impaired visitors audio access to hundreds of stories at M Shed, Bristol’s new City History Museum

Shaped like a fat pen, the PenFriend records and stores sound files, which are linked to individually coded labels. When the labels are touched with the tip of the PenFriend the information that has been recorded is played back. It can be listened to on the handset or on headphones. Labels can be attached to exhibits and text panels and visually impaired visitors can access the information they want, in the order they chose, just like anyone else.

There is no limit to the amount of information that can be stored for each label and the sound files can be re-recorded, over and over again, if information needs to be changed or updated.

The PenFriend can store and deliver different kinds of audio content, including readings of gallery text, descriptions of objects and the sounds of objects being used. This content can be layered, allowing visually impaired visitors to access as much or as little of it as they wish, in whatever order they wish, like any other visitors.

Moreover, because the recordings are made directly on to the PenFriend, they can be made in house. View a video demonstration of PenFriend.

PenFriend is an effective yet low cost tool for delivering audio interpretation for visually impaired visitors, other print disabled visitors and for non-disabled people.

The project cost £2000 and about 31 days of staff time. The project was completed in September 2011

Other activities

M Shed is a £27 million iconic new museum, partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It encompasses a pioneering approach to co-development working with communities in innovative and exciting ways.

The City Museum and Art Gallery has been providing access events for many years including described tours of temporary exhibitions for visually impaired visitors, with handling objects, and BSL interpreted tours for Deaf Visitors. These events are supported by a Learning Officer with particular responsibility for access who provides tour leaders with training in Audio Description, sighted guiding, etc. Recently, all Visitor Services staff at this site received a programme of Diversity Training, which included Disability Equality.


The project came about as a direct result of consultation with local disabled people about access at M Shed and was led by a Museum Learning Officer who is totally blind.

The direct involvement of visually impaired people led to several changes. In a pilot project visitors had to carry a booklet with labels in. This proved to be difficult for some people to manage, so it was decided to abandon this approach and attach more labels to the displays themselves at M Shed.

In the M Shed galleries the PenFriend labels are mounted on a fluorescent dark orange background, to make them easy to find for people using residual vision.

All of the visually impaired people who took part in the trials enjoyed using the PenFriend. It gave them considerable access to areas of the Museum that they would have previously found inaccessible. They also appreciated the independence it gave them.

Local visually impaired people and people with other disabilities, will continue to be involved in trials of the PenFriend, to ensure that their needs are met.

Mike Cowley, a visually impaired participant in the project writes:
“The material provided on the ‘Pen’ is itself an audio guide, but the difference here is that one can go round an exhibition in a way an able-bodied person would, looking at the objects that truly interest them.”


This is really Phase One of an on-going project, which will also see the PenFriends used to capture and deliver visitor responses, and other user generated content as part of M Shed’s community engagement work.

There has been a lot of enthusiasm for the project from staff across the service, and PenFriends will be used at other sites, once they are fully operational at M Shed. Users appreciate hearing from real curators and other staff, rather than having information voiced by professional actors. This will enhance the future sustainability of the project, as it is much easier and cheaper to do it in house.
Using the PenFriend does not require any major infrastructure changes in the museum, nor does it need any specialist technical skills to be able to create and manage the recordings. At a time when funding is scarce for everyone, work with the PenFriend has demonstrated that audio access for visually impaired and other visitors can still be provided, and at a very low price.