BLIND VISI­TORS TOLD TO TOUCH

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - style@wash­post.com Wecker is a free­lance writer. BY ME­NACHEM WECKER

Be­fore this April, Kathy Nim­mer had vis­ited an art mu­seum only “some­what hes­i­tantly” as part of a group. The English teacher, who has been blind since the third grade, says she felt at the mercy of sighted guides’ de­scrip­tions. “It’s not a very in­de­pen­dent ex­pe­ri­ence,” Nim­mer says.

So when Nim­mer learned that she would be vis­it­ing the Smith­so­nian Mu­se­ums in late April as a fi­nal­ist for na­tional teacher of the year from In­di­ana, she asked the Coun­cil of Chief State School Of­fi­cers, which runs the teacher awards, to ar­range a tour at the Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum, where she had heard about pro­gram­ming for blind visi­tors.

In the hour she spent at the mu­seum, Nim­mer donned gloves and touched three sculp­tures: Dou­glas Tilden’s “The Young Ac­ro­bat” (1891), Hugo Robus’s “Wa­ter Car­rier” (1956) and Chaim Gross’s “Happy Chil­dren” (1973).

“It was the first time that I felt con­nected with art in a sim­i­lar way as my sighted col­leagues,” Nim­mer says. “It was deeply mov­ing.”

This year, with the 25th an­niver­sary of the Amer­i­cans With Dis­abil­i­ties Act in July, mu­seum pro­gram­ming for the blind has gained greater em­pha­sis. Such over­seas mu­se­ums as Florence’s Uf­fizi Gallery and Madrid’s Museo del Prado pro­vide 3-D mod­els of cer­tain paint­ings for visi­tors to touch, but at sev­eral U.S. mu­se­ums, visi­tors can han­dle orig­i­nal works, as Nim­mer did.

The Min­neapo­lis In­sti­tute of Arts’s “Touch Tours” al­low blind and low-vi­sion visi­tors to touch se­lected works. Sim­i­lar pro­gram­ming is of­fered at New York’s Whit­ney Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art, the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, as well as the Philadelphia Mu­seum of Art and the Cincinnati Art Mu­seum.

In Washington, the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum’s touch tours have in­creased about 30 per­cent in the past year, ac­cord­ing to a spokesman, and the Freer and Sackler gal­leries are con­sid­er­ing such pro­gram­ming as part of ren­o­va­tions. But such other ma­jor D.C. mu­se­ums as the Phillips Col­lec­tion and the Na­tional Mu­seum of Women in the Arts don’t of­fer spe­cial­ized tours.

At the Na­tional Gallery of Art, blind visi­tors can’t touch the art, but some­times there are mod­els, such as a heav­ily painted sur­face to ap­prox­i­mate touch­ing a van Gogh. And the mu­seum re­cently in­creased its “Pic­ture This” tours, which of­fer ver­bal de­scrip­tions, from once to twice a month, says Lorena Baines, the mu­seum’s man­ager of ac­ces­si­bil­ity pro­grams.

“There are a lot of is­sues around touch­ing ob­jects,” says Baines, who added that the Na­tional Gallery has to con­sider its par­tic­u­lar col­lec­tion and con­ser­va­tion con­cerns rather than what other in­sti­tu­tions are do­ing.

Francesca Rosen­berg, MoMA’s di­rec­tor of com­mu­nity, ac­cess and school pro­grams, says that when she be­gan work­ing in the field 20 years ago, it was rare for mu­se­ums to have ac­ces­si­bil­ity co­or­di­na­tors. MoMA, which has had pro­grams for blind visi­tors since 1972, was “prob­a­bly one of the first, if not the first,” she says.

“I don’t think it’s red tape-wise such a dif­fi­cult thing to do,” Rosen­berg says. “And you can cer­tainly use the ar­gu­ment, ‘Look at all these other mu­se­ums.’ ” Works of art, she says, are ex­posed to more wear and tear from reg­u­lar mu­seum crowds than from tours for blind visi­tors, even if they touch the works.

“I think that the in­sti­tu­tions that don’t have some­thing in place are scram­bling be­cause they’re think­ing, ‘ Here we are 25 years [af­ter the ADA], we’d bet­ter get go­ing on this.’ ”

John Al­ford, 89, a vet­eran with mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion, has been at­tend­ing the Na­tional Gallery’s tour with his “see­ing-eye daugh­ter,” Pat Werner, for about a year. He says he ap­pre­ci­ates hear­ing de­tails about the lives of artists that the “Pic­ture This” do­cents share.

“I guess they imag­ine them­selves blind,” Al­ford says. “They try to give us as much in­for­ma­tion as they can, right down to the eye­lashes, the color of the eyes and the fin­ger­nails.”

Such pro­gram­ming, says Beth Ziebarth, di­rec­tor of the Smith­so­nian’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity pro­gram, is cycli­cal and of­ten sub­ject to the hir­ing or de­par­ture of staff mem­bers who “own” the tours. At the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum, for ex­am­ple, Harold Snider, re­port­edly the in­sti­tu­tion’s first blind em­ployee, pushed for more ac­ces­si­bil­ity in the 1970s, Ziebarth says.

Ziebarth adds she also has no­ticed that col­leagues, as they age, “be­come more and more aware of the changes that their own bod­ies are go­ing through, and they’re more amenable to the idea of ac­ces­si­bil­ity.”

Tech­nol­ogy, too, could play a big­ger part. NGA’s Baines notes that a smart­phone app could trig­ger de­scrip­tions as blind and low-vi­sion visi­tors walk by cer­tain art­works. “We will see a lot of changes in the next 20 years as tech­nol­ogy ad­vances,” she says.

Whether the tours in­volve touch varies mu­seum by mu­seum, as does the use of gloves. In her 20 years at MoMA, Rosen­berg says, only one visi­tor ob­jected to wear­ing them. “To be hon­est, I didn’t re­ally blame her,” she says. “Di­rect con­tact with the orig­i­nal work of art is the ul­ti­mate.”

PHOTOS BY JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASHINGTON POST

Kilof Legge of the Dis­trict uses a monoc­u­lar to ex­am­ine the paint­ing “The Danc­ing Cou­ple,” by Dutch artist Jan Steen, dur­ing the “Pic­ture This” tour for blind and low-vi­sion visi­tors at the Na­tional Gallery of Art in­Wash­ing­ton in­May. The mu­seum’s tours pro­vide ver­bal de­scrip­tions for visi­tors once or twice a month.

Lorena Baines, the man­ager of ac­ces­si­bil­ity pro­grams for the Na­tional Gallery of Art, and Legge act out “The Danc­ing Cou­ple” dur­ing the “Pic­ture This” tour.

Baines gets tour par­tic­i­pants to shut their eyes and try to imag­ine where they are. She says the gallery con­sid­ers its col­lec­tion and con­ser­va­tion con­cerns rather than what other mu­se­ums are do­ing.

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