Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Art at Hand

October is the ninth annual Art Beyond Sight awareness month, which strives to increase access to the so-called "visual" arts for people who are blind. Through programs like Art at Hand, a pilot program at the museum for visitors who are blind and visually impaired, the museum world is exploring how art encompasses far more than the eye can see.

As Betsy Zaborowski, a representative for the National Federation of the Blind, has described, a blind person's white cane has the power to inspire "a lot of assumptions...and a lot of discomfort" in others. One of these longstanding assumptions is that people who are blind or visually impaired cannot appreciate or enjoy museums.

That stigma, however, is gradually disappearing. Due in large part to the commitment and encouragement of nonprofits like Art Beyond Sight and VSA-Arts as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, institutions across the country, including Shelburne Museum, are finding creative ways to make their collections accessible to this community. Educators are bringing art vividly to life using detailed verbal descriptions, tactile materials, sounds, and smells.

During Art at Hand's pilot season, we have offered five tours and tested a combination of strategies to capture the essence of works of art for people who may not be able to see them. In one instance, museum guide Lee Dowling presented Manet's Blue Venice. She first spoke about the colors and texture of oil paint, the dimensions of the work, and the subject matter, and then continued with a sensory description--based on her own travels--of Venetian canals filled with murky waters and spirited gondaliers. On another tour, guide Elizabeth Sabens clipped fresh herbs, including chives and lemon thyme, from the Hat and Fragrance garden as an introduction to quilting and methods of quilt preservation.

Perhaps our most memorable moment yet was a tour of the Circus Building. Guide Georgia Pendleton brought in fresh hay to capture the atmosphere of life under the Big Top, and we received special permission for the group to feel the museum's wood-carved Dentzel carousel horses. Finally, we brought them outside for a ride on our operating carousel. One visitor wrote to us: "The best part was the Merry-Go-Round ride. It brought me back to when I was a child and could see."

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