by John Rae | August 2018
Editor’s Note: In his first eight articles for the OHS Bulletin, entitled “Access Beyond the Ramp,” John Rae explored a variety of access issues for museums and heritage organizations. In his ninth installment of this series, John discusses the development of audio tours at art galleries and museums, and how they can bring art alive for blind patrons.
John Rae is an OHS member, volunteer, Cruikshank Gold Medal winner, and also a member of the Inclusive Design and Accessibility Committee at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg.
This article first appeared in the August 2018 OHS Bulletin (Issue 207).
While tactile access remains the most important way for a blind person to appreciate sculpture, a growing number of art galleries are offering audio-described tours where a guide describes the content of paintings, and provides the opportunity for some discussion of the painter, the time when it was created, and what motivated the painter to create the work.
There are no mandatory rules for describing a painting. I instruct describers to focus their description on what most interests you, or what is most prominent in the painting, as it will likely also be of greatest interest to their blind visitors.
Some describers start in the top left quadrant of a painting and move sequentially around the painting in a systematic manner, while others jump right in and begin describing what they consider to be the most important content of the painting. Both approaches can work, and the best approach may sometimes be dictated by the content of the painting.
As part of my annual lecture (on behalf of the OHS) for students in Algonquin College’s Museum Studies Program, I asked the students to describe a piece of art. Here are some of their reflections on the activity:
“I never fully appreciated what a person sees in art past the visual aspects. I loved it because I had to think about what the artist was trying to say, convey, what they were feeling along with the basic physical aspects of the artwork itself.”
“Trying to find the words which accurately represent the image before us showed the class how complex and often underappreciated the ability of sight is. It challenged us to use a sense in a way we typically do not to describe the pieces of artwork. It was fascinating to stop and think of the complexities required to describe art. It surprised me how difficult it was to challenge myself to ‘view’ art in a new light.”
“Not having experienced an auditory description of a painting before, it was interesting to get a sense of the different approaches you can take when describing a painting. So much depends on how you describe what you see because you are the primary means for someone with a visual impairment to experience the work of art.”
“The exercise really emphasized the importance of personal experience. Even with a perfect audio description of the artwork, it is hard to capture the potential personal and emotional content. We need to keep doing more to make galleries and museums accessible to all people to have their own full personal experience.”
“It gave me insight into how museums should use those with disabilities to help to make sure their accessibility programs are working well.”
Most describers I have met tell me that, after doing some audio tours, they develop a more in-depth appreciation of art. I am always happy that this is a win-win experience for both parties. Persons with disabilities live in every community, and many of us are more than willing to collaborate with museums or art galleries to help make their facilities and programs more accessible and inclusive.