Part 3 | Making Collections Come Alive for Patrons who are Blind

by John Rae | December 2010

Editor’s Note: In his article series for the OHS Bulletin, John Rae examines a variety of access issues for heritage organizations and institutions. In the following article, he discusses the value of expanding your horizons by taking multi-sensory tours, not just for persons who are blind, but for all patrons. John, an OHS member and volunteer, has recently been appointed to the newly created Inclusive Design Advisory Council to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.

This article first appeared in the December 2010 OHS Bulletin (Issue 177).

I would like to invite you to join me on a little journey. It won’t take very long, and I hope you will find it interesting and maybe even a bit challenging.

Please begin by closing your eyes, and try to put aside all the thoughts that are currently rolling around in your mind. Now think and focus! … Think about your very favourite sculpture or painting in your favourite museum or art gallery anywhere in this wide world of ours.

Have you gone back to admire it again and again, or do you remember it from only one encounter? What was it about that favourite piece that particularly captivated you? Was it the subject matter, the narrative, the texture, the materials used, its colours, linear perspective, depth, emotional atmosphere, time when it was created, its historical significance, personal connection, or what?

Chances are you developed your love or fascination for your favourite piece through sight, as the “visual arts” are usually presented to us as a form of expression that requires sight for creation or appreciation. When this sense is lost or impaired there is frequently an assumption that understanding the visual arts is much more difficult or even impossible. However, various approaches used at a growing number of museums and art galleries are overcoming these outdated assumptions.

Now, how are you or your staff going to make that favourite piece in your own museum or art gallery come alive for someone like me – a person who has no remaining sight and who cannot appreciate that piece in the same way as you probably did, namely through sight? Will you approach this task as a problem, a challenge or an opportunity?

When it comes to sculpture, for a patron who is blind, it can be easy. There is simply no substitute to gaining tactile access to the “real thing” in your collection, no substitute whatsoever, though the use of audio guides, models, raised line drawings audio described tours or even replicas in your gift shop can convey some idea of the piece.

For a painting, we can benefit from a raised line drawing or replica, but we will usually need to rely on your powers of observation and creativity to describe what the painting conveys. This is often called audio description, where you describe what you see.

How will you approach your role? It will probably not be as difficult as you might think.

Will you take a systematic approach, beginning in one quadrant of the painting and moving through the rest of it, or would you jump right in and begin describing the portion where the greatest amount of detail is presented? You will have to decide which approach offers the best chance of helping your visitor to appreciate that piece of art.

As with most activities, the more you do it, the easier it will likely become. Your powers of observation and your interest will go a long way to enhancing our experience, and you may also gain a deeper appreciation of pieces you have been admiring for a long time.