Part 4 | Expand your Horizons: Multi-Sensory Tours at the AGO

by John Rae | October 2011

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 originally appeared in OHS Bulletin October 2011 (No. 180).

The visual arts are often assumed to require sight for both creation and appreciation. So how might facilities—especially art galleries—make your collections come alive for persons who are blind or have significant vision loss?

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is an organization that is offering a range of tactile and multi-sensory tours.

“But multi-sensory tours aren’t just for gallery visitors who cannot see,” said Doris Van Den Brekel, the AGO’s Program Coordinator, Gallery Guides, Education and Public Programming, “they are intended for everyone.”

“These tours challenge the visitor to look beyond vision and use all their senses to gain a deeper appreciation of what the AGO offers,” adds Van Den Breckel.

A typical multi-sensory tour at the Art Gallery of Ontario lasts 60 to 90 minutes with two Gallery guides and involves up to 10 visitors. The first such tour that I took included the smells of dried lavender or cloves contained in snuff bottles from the Thomson collection; verbal discussion of several pieces of art augmented by a musical component, and the opportunity to touch a number of items like Henry Moore’s “Reclining Woman.”

An additional component of these tours is often a discussion of how the artist created the work being described, e.g. “perspective,” which shows how an artist constructs a painting on a canvas. Through the use of cut-out sections of board, a landscape was divided into sections to show the different layers of a painting.

Valentina Gal of AEBC’s Toronto chapter commented, “I didn’t realize how complicated the idea of depth and perspective is as it is experienced by seeing people. The overlays they made that show how the artist starts by painting the horizon and then adding background and then moving forward…and so on were fabulous. It is the best example of a teaching tool that I’ve seen in a long while.”

Multi-sensory tours also expand the horizons of Gallery guides. Jessica Duarte, who leads many of these tours at the AGO, is passionate about them as both challenging and very fulfilling. She says, “It’s the simple exercise of looking at art by means of all my senses, and engaging in thorough discussions with visitors about this experience, that opens my mind to its various levels of meaning. This approach enriches our overall guiding skills, and challenges us to be more creative and to constantly think outside the box.

Duarte adds, “The fulfilling part of multi-sensory tours comes from the emotional and intellectual reward of making a small difference in people’s lives through art, and discovering deeper ways of appreciating art and human understanding. Emotionally, nothing fills me with more satisfaction than experiencing the discovery of a work of art, like a sculpture, alongside a visitor that reaches out to touch the work and upon first contact has a smile on his/her face and a sparkle in his/her eyes.”

Multi-sensory tours at the AGO normally take place on the first Thursday and Sunday of the month. For further information, or to book one of these inspiring opportunities, contact Doris Van Den Brekel at 416-979-6660 ext. 268.