Do Touch! How Museums are Changing the Way the Vision Impaired Interact with Information

Blind visitors touch a sculpture of the Louvre’s Tactile Gallery collection at the National Museum in Bogota, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008.A Listening to Student Voices post by SJSU School of Information student Ashley Marshall.

In thinking about this week’s lecture on new horizons for information organizations and how emerging technologies impact information spaces, I was drawn to the idea of absorbing information through other senses besides sight which is, for sighted people, the first sense we rely on when gathering information. Vision impaired people have unique needs when it comes to accessing information in the library and in other contexts. I have a personal interest in working with disabled people and wrote my INFO 200 research paper last semester on blind technology in the library space. E-readers for books, screen readers (software that uses a keyboard and audio for computer and internet use), braille collections, and adapted physical space in the library are sometimes necessities for the vision impaired community.

This week, I was drawn to an article by Open Culture on tactile museum spaces, which like libraries, are often public spaces for the community to learn and interact with information like historical artifacts, artwork, or educational events. We often think of museums as sterile, quiet spaces filled with “Do not touch” signs and security guards warning you when you’re too close to a painting. Is this really providing the richest, most inclusive experience for museumgoers? The article made me start thinking of alternative ways to service patrons in information centers as we have explored throughout this class. In 2015, Madrid’s Museo del Prado’s temporary exhibit Hoy toca el Prado used 3D printing to reproduce paintings with special textures to help blind individuals experience art in a new way (Open Culture, 2015). The exhibit also included free audio guides and braille text for each piece.

Museo del Prado exhibit

Museo del Prado’s exhibit pushed me to further research other ways museums are incorporating tactile pieces in their regular collections to enhance the vision impaired community’s experience with art. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) hosts regular events to educate visitors who are blind or partially sighted called “Seeing Through Drawing” and “Picture This!” which teaches drawing techniques through workshops and allows attendees to experiment with materials, audio description, respond to artworks and incorporate tactile activities for further learning (Metmuseum.org, n.d.).

In 2014, Multimedia designer Ezgi Ucar worked with the Met to create “Multisensory Met” which provided sensory features to museum pieces such as the wooden sculpture Power Figure where she added essential oil and a buzzing sound on contact (Urist, 2016). Tactile galleries pose a unique dilemma for museum educators. When reproducing 2D pieces to 3D sensory experiences, the aim is to create richer experiences for visitors without losing touch with the artist’s intent. For Power Figure it was to keep the large sculpture spiritually intimidating without the benefit of being able to experience its size (Urist, 2016). At the Guggenheim in New York, art historian and museum educator Georgia Krantz says of her similar series “Mind’s Eye”, “[w]e see through our brains, not our eyes…The eye is just one of the channels through which sensory information is passed to the brain for processing” (Urist, 2016).

Clay replica of Ezgi Ucar’s Power Figure

In Paris, the famous Musée du Louvre has an ongoing Touch Gallery of sculpture cast reproductions of art from their permanent collection where patrons can interact with pieces to learn the techniques, materials, and volume of the works (Louvre, n.d.). The permanent collection is a reflection on the forms, material, and dimension of the artworks as well as how the piece relates to the original as far as design. The museum also offers free access to all vision impaired patrons and their companions. The Louvre’s Touch Gallery is a great example of how museums and other information organizations can create inclusivity in public spaces and also enhance experiences for all.

The Louvre’s Touch Gallery

Incorporating pieces with sound, smell, and texture for the vision impaired has implications for how experiences with art can be enriched for sighted museumgoers too and museums are catching on. One example is artist Andrea Fraser’s Down the River at the Whitney Museum of American Art where the museum’s fifth floor is filled with pre-recorded noise from a maximum-security prison (Urist, 2016). In Santiago, Chile, the Hands on the Wall project makes public street art accessible to low vision and blind individuals (Andersen, 2019). Six murals in the Barrio Lastarria neighborhood have touch panels, braille, and audio guides to provide full engagement with the works.

Javier Barriga Ganza mural as part of Santiago’s Hands on the Wall project

The world of enhanced museum exhibits, sensory experiences, and tactile galleries is something I had no knowledge of until now and it could be a catalyst for thinking how other museums and information organizations can reflect on how to provide richer experiences for all visitors, even those without disabilities. We often use our eyes to absorb the world, but in understanding how people with vision, hearing, and physical disabilities interact with information, perhaps we can start thinking about how our community libraries should be creating similar experiences with information.

This post barely scratches the surface of enhanced museum experiences so for more information, the article linked here has a large list of galleries around the world creating experiences for vision impaired individuals with adapted spaces that incorporate sound, smell, and touch.

Andersen, C.S. (2019, November 26). 10 Accessible art and museum experiences for people who are blind or have low vision. Be My Eyes. https://www.bemyeyes.com/blog/10-accessible-art-and-museum-experiences

Ezdi Ucar Design (n.d.) Multisensory Met Museum. Retrieved on March 18, 2020, from http://cargocollective.com/ezgiucar/Multisensory-Met-Museum

Louvre. (n.d.) The Touch Gallery. Retrieved on March 18, 2020, from https://www.louvre.fr/en/touch-gallery

Metmuseum.org (n.d.) For visitors who are blind or partially sighted. Retrieved on March 18, 2020, from https://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/access/visitors-who-are-blind-or-partially-sighted

Open Culture. (2015, March 9) The Prado Museum creates the first art exhibition for the visually impaired, using 3D Printing. Art, Life, Museums, Technology. http://www.openculture.com/2015/03/prado-creates-first-art-exhibition-for-visually-impaired.html

Rogers, SA (n.d.) Hands to the wall: Chile unveils tactile street art for the visually impaired. Retrieved on March 18, 2020, from https://weburbanist.com/2018/07/13/hands-to-the-wall-chile-unveils-tactile-street-art-for-the-visually-impaired/

Urist, J. (2016, June 8). A new way to see art: Museum programs for the blind challenge notions of how people connect with great works. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/06/multisensory-art/486200/

Photo of the author of this guest postAshley Marshall is a current graduate student at San Jose State University working towards her Masters in Library and Information Science. In addition to her studies, Ashley is a published fiction writer, macrame artist, advocate for seniors, and avid true crime reader. She hopes to someday focus her work on programs for seniors and people with disabilities in the library.

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