Sight Unseen: Teaching Art to Visually Impaired Audiences

Understanding challenges visually impaired audiences face:

Reading the study conducted in 2003 by Fiona Candlin titled, “Blindness, Art and Exclusion in Museums and Galleries,” focuses on the experiences of visually impaired visitors to several London art museums.

Her interviewees were visually impaired and blind visitors who actively visit local art museums. She argues that those surveyed had more in common with average guests who enjoy visiting museums than with visually impaired visitors. They came from all social classes, cultural, racial, religious backgrounds. Their desires for visiting art museums are the same as sighted people. Examples include; the love art, enjoying the quiet spaces, the opportunity to take family members, meet friends to enjoy the café and shop at the gift store.

The survey revealed a very polarized outcome between those who criticized programming at the museum and those who praised it.

Criticisms:

  • Felt marginalized as a disability group rather than being treated like an average visitor
  • Programming lacked an educational progression. Interviewees contended that in general museums tend to teach to the lowest denominator, as not to exclude anyone. Additionally, they were spoken to like a child thus, making an assumption that if a person is visually impaired they do not know anything about art.
  • A misconception of how touch facilitates learning and aesthetic responses. Visitors learning through touch need guidance to know what is being touched.   Resources used for tactile learning should be relevant and equivalent to the objects to understand scale, weight, temperature, form, texture or rhythm.

Praises:

Interviewees that appreciated programming at museums attended ongoing organized events, thus allowing them to feel a sense of inclusion and normalizing effect. Generally, the survey emphasizes that visually impaired visitors would like to participate in mainstream programming, rather than a marginalized group that has special needs that determine an aspect of their experience.

Candlin outlined what would be ideal practices for museums, but also points out the main challenges museums have about accommodation visually impaired audiences is funding.

  • Large print labeling
  • Everything available in audio format and Braille
  • Guides upon request
  • Greater access through touch
  • Introductory sessions and increasingly sophisticated seminars
  • Description incorporated in lectures
  • Back up resources available
  • Exhibitions would include sound, touch, smell and taste

Candlin, Fiona (02/01/2003). Blindness, art and exclusion in museums and galleries. Journal of art & design education. , 22, (1), p 100-110 (ISSN: 0260-9991)

Two examples of creating inclusive programming accessible to many audiences:

BBC highlights Lisa Squirrell, a gallery guide at the Tate Britain in London in a video clip about art experiences for visually impaired audiences.  As a visually impaired educator, she argues, she and her visitors get a deeper understanding of art because they take the time to learn through discussing a painting’s overarching and finer details.

Squirrell quotes Picasso, who said, “Art is a blind’s man profession, because he doesn’t paint what he sees, but what he feels.”  Squirrell expresses her ability to develop an emotional response by creating an image in her own mind. Her process includes reading extensively about the artwork, listening to a close description by a sighted person and then is guided with hand movements in front of the pieces to understand their shapes and forms.

On the Art Museum Teaching blog it describes how the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) and Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) worked together to give students an inclusive multi-modal art museum experience.

DISD’s main goal was to expose their students to art and illustrate to the students that they have the ability to create and appreciate art just as any other student. DMA appreciated the opportunity to create their first ever touch tour. Both groups wanted an experience that engaged all the senses permitting open dialogue and conversations about the art.

The process included the collaborative teams of teachers, educators, conservation and exhibition departments. They spent time considering issues about navigating the space and which artworks would be most beneficial. The conservationist department wanted to give the students an opportunity to touch artwork without gloves.

The objects chosen allowed for a highly effective experience.   Both the sculpture garden and museum galleries were utilized.   Large sculptures were chosen allowing more than one student to explore at time, while at the same time allowing students to converse about the objects. At each object, educators gave a visual description of the gallery space to situate students, teachers and the art in the space.

Research and effective inclusive programming reveals both museum audiences and educators can benefit from incorporating sensory activities–sight, touch, sound, smell and taste–into art programs.  Visually impaired or blind audiences can enjoy art as a mainstream visitor and museum educators can better engage wider audiences.

Resources:

NPR Podcast titled, “Blind Art Lovers Make the Most of Museum Visits with ‘InSight’ Tours” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Elizabeth Salzhauer Axel and Nina Sobol Levent, Art Beyond Sight: A Resource Guide to Art, Creativity, and Visual Impairment, New York: Art Education for the Blind, 2003.

Daryl Lussen Wilkinson, Art Beyond the Eyes: A Handbook for Visual Art Teachers Working with Students with Visual Impairments, San Bernardino, CA: Create Space, 2014.

3 thoughts on “Sight Unseen: Teaching Art to Visually Impaired Audiences

  1. destineejohnson

    The Lisa Squirrel video was a very interesting link within this blog post. For her to be a docent who happens to be sight impaired is such a powerful narrative. I may not ever understand how she has been able to fully empower herself through her sight impairment,however I think it is phenomenal. It is empowering for the sighted community as well as the sight impaired. It is a statement that “impairment” is a mentality and the sky is the limit. Those who are privileged (physically, etc) usually limit themselves based on a range of comfort. “I can’t become a doctor, I can’t have a life on my hands” “I can’t become a docent, I don’t know how to read art” The ability lies within the passion, leaving little room for doubt. After seeing this video I will be more conscious of my own abilities/pushing myself to my full potential.

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  2. joyiap

    I have never actually thought about what it might be light for visually impaired individuals to visit museums. I think there is a tendency to think that individuals with visual impairments do not visit museums, but that is untrue. They want to experience art just like the rest of us. Lisa Squirrel’s story is inspiring and has given me a lot to think about when designing programs or making already existing ones more accessible for everyone. Thank you for this post!

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  3. kderlosh

    Thank you for your post! Much like a previous comment noted, thinking about what it would be like to visit a museum when you have low vision or no vision is hard to imagine. The program additions and experiences designed for visitors who are visually impaired can benefit all visitors, and the story that you shared showed that. Thank you for sharing!

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