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Article published 09/03/2022

Find out about the steps being taken by Mackintosh at the Willow to offer a more inclusive experience for its visitors.

About Mackintosh at the Willow

Mackintosh at the Willow, on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street, re-opened to the public in 2018 after an extensive restoration. The original Willow Tea Rooms Building was initially opened by Miss Cranston and designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1903. Visitors to Mackintosh at the Willow can now dine in the historic tearooms and visit the interactive visitor centre. Find out more on the Mackintosh at the Willow website.

We spoke to Jodie Marshall, Creative Learning and Education Manager at Mackintosh at the Willow, to hear about the journey the business has been on over the last few years – particularly focusing on its commitment to offering an inclusive tourism experience.

One of the obvious challenges of being a custodian of a historic building is ensuring that every single person can visit. This also encompasses them feeling entitled to visit, comfortable when they do, and enriched when they leave. It was extremely important to the Willow Tea Rooms Trust, who saved and restored Mackintosh’s A-Listed Art Nouveau tearooms in Glasgow, that accessibility was enshrined from the beginning. This was one of the reasons the Trust purchased the building next door (215 Sauchiehall Street) in order to include lifts, a creative learning space and an interactive museum over two floors.

I’m the Creative Learning and Education Manager, so once the bricks and mortar elements were complete, I focused on how we could enhance the experience of visiting for those people for whom engaging in heritage is a real challenge, such as dual sensory impaired (deafblind) people. I hope that by sharing a snapshot of the process I went through, it might help others considering expanding their tour offering.

Jodie Marshall, Creative Learning and Education Manager at Mackintosh at the Willow

Jodie worked in partnership with Deafblind Scotland for advice to help create a tactile tour for dual sensory impaired people.

As someone who is not a member of this community, I knew I needed some help; hence I arranged to speak with some of the lovely folk from Deafblind Scotland, and asked all the questions I needed to ask.

Acknowledging your own privilege and getting advice from experts is absolutely the way forward – they were brilliant! After I’d put together the planned tour I sent it over to the guides so they knew the route and stopping points beforehand.

Jodie Marshall, Creative Learning and Education Manager at Mackintosh at the Willow

When designing the new tour, Jodie was innovative in focusing on the experience that could be offered at Mackintosh at the Willow.

It’s easy to get hung up on all the stumbling blocks (some quite literally!) of your building when it comes to thinking about accessibility, but I think a better approach is to start with all the assets – all the elements that make the place perfect for a new kind of tour. When designing a tour for people with both visual and hearing impairments I was all about the tactile features. Fortunately, Charles Rennie Mackintosh provided lots all the way back in 1903!

Yes, it’s important, valuable heritage – but it’s everyone’s important valuable heritage. This building is full of stained glass, handmade furniture, curved wrought ironwork and tiled fireplaces; all wonderful and robust enough to touch. And also don’t forget about things like fabric (we have velvet on the chairs and linen on the walls) and things that smell (we are a tea house so I set up a tea-sniffing station).

It’s also important and useful to walk the route you’ve planned, putting yourself as best you can in the visitor’s footsteps. In this instance, this meant imagining I had a guide with me holding my arm (as many of our deafblind visitors do) or a dog with a waggy tail and ensuring passageways were therefore wide enough for two. It meant touching items and making note of their textures and their temperatures. It meant going slowly. It meant changing the routes if there were potential obstacles, but also if there were areas that didn’t lend themselves to a tactile tour. Mackintosh’s wonderful wall sconces got a lot of attention on the tactile tour – they’re often overlooked but here they were perfect design features to explore by touch!

Jodie Marshall, Creative Learning and Education Manager at Mackintosh at the Willow

A final piece of advice from Jodie...

The tactile tour is now absolutely my favourite way to explore the building – even though I have no accessibility requirements. The incredible Salon de Luxe doors (Mackintosh’s largest piece of leaded glasswork) come to life when they are touched. The metal is cooler than the glass, which in turn is slightly rougher than the ceramic. The lead lining has bubbled in parts as the 1903 glazier has carefully piped it. I would probably not know that had it not been for the tactile tour. Now I encourage all tour visitors on all tours to “feel them up”! And that’s the key takeaway really – thinking about accessibility allows you to engage with the building in new and rich ways that everybody ultimately benefits from.

Jodie Marshall, Creative Learning and Education Manager at Mackintosh at the Willow

Mackintosh at the Willow received some wonderful feedback from Deafblind Scotland when some of its members visited to experience a tactile tour.

The members of Deafblind Scotland participated in a customised touch tour with tea and scones. The tour was fabulous. Jodie and her team were so accommodating and clearly gave careful consideration to engage our dual sensory impaired members. We were all made to feel extremely welcome and they went above and beyond (even looked after a guide dog in the shop to allow the members to freely participate in the tour).

All senses were taken into account on the tour: the members were encouraged to touch parts of the exhibition, try on costumes and smell a selection of teas. The pitch and pace of the tour was exactly right. They also carefully considered the route the members took through the building to accommodate those in the group with challenges to mobility. Every challenge was accounted for and we couldn’t recommend this touch tour enough.

Feedback from Deafblind Scotland members

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