Tuesday, October 13

Looking vs. Seeing

Every so often in my time as a museum educator I have had the opportunity to teach blind and low vision groups. The most recent opportunity came this summer, when a group from the Braille Institute in Santa Barbara came to the Villa. Sadly, in the past blind or low vision groups have not found the museum a very accommodating place. People can be impatient with blind visitors, perhaps not realizing at first that they cannot see. Other problems can occur with seeing-eye dogs, if security officers are not properly instructed in how to deal with them. Sometimes there is also an attitude that those without sight cannot really enjoy a museum which, after all, is a place designed to offer a visual experience. How could someone without sight truly "experience" such a place?

In preparation for this group's visit, one of our education coordinators worked closely with a representative from the Braille Institute in order to prepare for their visit. I have to say, Eidelriz did a wonderful job. This group was composed of artists, so for our lesson we planned to discuss ancient painters. Eidelriz began the lesson with frescoes in the theater gallery. As she talked about ancient frescoes, she passed around "touchables" such as lime putty (in a plastic baggie), small examples of modern frescoes, paint brushes, and minerals for the group to handle. Touchables are what you might call Eidelriz's specialty, so she was eager to see how our touchable collection could help improve the museum experience for blind and low vision visitors.

Eidelriz in the museum with the group

The fresco portion of the lesson went off like gangbusters, and we moved on to my part of the lesson--discussing painted sculpture. I chose to talk about our little three-foot marble sculpture of Venus in the Basilica, because there are still traces of pigment within the folds of her drapery, and we know she was painted using the encaustic technique (mixing hot wax with powdered pigment). Not only was it a different medium, but it was a chance to discuss a different painting technique. The only significant difference in my conversations with blind and low vision visitors compared with sighted visitors is my effort to over-describe the object we are discussing. Once I described the statue, we passed around beeswax and discussed how it was used to make paint, and I told them more about the history of the sculpture. Also, when preparing for the lesson the day before, I had the idea of encouraging the group to touch the marble columns on either side of the statue. Those columns are just part of the architecture, so they are fair game for touching. By touching the columns, the group got a good idea of the cool, slippery smooth surface of marble and why encaustic painting might have been a good technique for the artist to use with that medium.

Thanks to the touchables, the time in the galleries went very well. Afterward the group gathered in the education studio to do some painting of their own. Eidelriz created a small workspace for each person, taping paper to the table and using masking tape to create a border they could feel framing the area they were to paint. Each person also received paint brushes and a palette (i.e. a paper plate). Each pile of paint was labeled with a different number of dots along the edge of the plate, enabling the blind painters to distinguish between the different colors.

Inside the Education Studio

At the end of their time in the studios, we asked some of the participants the question I posed earlier: How could someone without sight really experience a museum, a place primarily designed to be a visual experience? One woman in particular had some great things to say. She said everyone has a different way of learning and experiencing the world. "I can't see, but I'm still learning something. And maybe one day things will be better and we can feel everything."

A painting made by one of the participants

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