Touch and See

Accessibility Programs for People with Vision Impairments at the Art Institute of Chicago

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Sculptures in a museum.

Artwork in the Elizabeth Morse Touch Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago.

By its very terminology, one might think that an appreciation of visual art depends on the sense of sight. Likewise, one might think visiting an art museum is of little interest to people who are blind or have low vision. Wrong on both counts, according to Lucas Livingston, assistant director for senior programs in museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago. Instead, said Livingston, "One comes to the museum for a social experience—or maybe it's a spiritual experience for some people—and the contemplation and discussion and going in-depth into the principles and theories and motivations of the artists and the cultures that produce these works. A lot of this is entirely independent of the visual perception."

The Art Institute receives 1.4 million annual visitors, and Livingston and his team focus on making the museum experience fruitful for patrons of every type of vision ability. As he explained, "It's not that we're necessarily authentically reproducing the sighted experience. That's not our chief goal. [Our goal is] to reach each visitor through whatever means is most appropriate, or through whatever means is most effective."

The Art Institute employs a number of strategies to assist patrons with vision disabilities in experiencing its collection, including making its audio guides available free of charge and training volunteers to give descriptive tours of various exhibits. Several of its accessibility efforts, however, focus on exploring art through touch.

One of its flagship efforts is the Touch Gallery, a version of which has existed since the 1920s. The Touch Gallery comprises four European, American, and Asian works from the permanent collection that visitors can explore with their hands, such as the head of an ancient Chinese Buddhist guardian warrior.

"Everybody loves to touch. It's a way that we learn about our environment and the world around us from cradle to grave. Touch is an intrinsic form of understanding," said Livingston.

Located outside the museum's ticketed perimeter, the Touch Gallery is a favorite of visitors with every type of vision ability. In developing the current iteration, the museum paid close attention to principles of universal design, which propose ways in which spaces can be constructed to be accessible for people with a range of abilities. "[We tried] to make it appeal to a broad range of visitors, not just persons with blindness or low vision, but also the general sighted public, in part to increase awareness that part of the museum-going audience is people with blindness or low vision and disabilities at large," said Livingston.

Patrons with vision disabilities can explore the Touch Gallery with sighted volunteers who deepen the experience with investigative questions aimed, according to Livingston, at "soliciting the visitor's voice to explore the emotion and the sensitivity of the touch, the different materiality of the objects."

The sense of touch also comes into play through the museum's use of TacTiles. These 8x10-inch handheld plastic tablets are machine-etched relief carvings of works in the museum's collection, such as Joan Miró's Personages with Star. TacTile Kits, available free of charge, comprise a TacTile, a color photograph of the work, and both large-type print and Braille descriptions of the work.

A tile kit that allows visually impaired people to see paintings.

A TacTile kit from the Art Institute of Chicago offering visitors a reproduction of the composition and texture of Ardriaen van der Spelt and Frans van Mieri's Trompe-L'Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (1658), making it legible through the fingertips.

The five TacTiles in circulation—drawn from European painting, Japanese art, and the art of the ancient Americas—were designed by Helen Maria Nugent, chair of the designed objects program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Livingston described how Nugent "spends many an hour on the computer manipulating the two-dimensional information to raise certain layers—and to sink other layers—to create foregrounds and backgrounds and gradation of depth." As she works, Nugent also thins out some of the details so that users aren't overwhelmed by tactile information.

While the TacTiles are an interpretation rather than an exact replica of the original artwork, Livingston posits that in some cases the visual and tactile sensations are similar, such as in the case of Pierre Auguste Renoir's Two Sisters (On the Terrace). "[This TacTile] somewhat accurately, authentically reproduces the visual sensation of an Impressionist work of art where's it's visually challenging to discern certain shapes and forms in the background of the painting. It's all somewhat blurred together. So likewise on the TacTile, we might find it a little bit of a challenge to discern the ships from the vegetation from the water," he explained.

Through use of the TacTiles, museum-goers can use their fingers to learn fundamentals of painting, such as perspective and composition. There are limitations—TacTiles can't express variations in color—but Livingston points to new variations on the TacTile theme, such as the work of Sally Barker, an artist who produces fabric-based TacTiles in which different textures represent different colors.

Thanks to a Spark Ignition grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the museum has also started experimenting with three-dimensional printing as a way to make artwork accessible to people with blindness or low vision, as well as for outreach to those with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. The objects in the 3D collection are printed on a 1:1 scale and tend toward more functional works of art. There are about eight currently in circulation, including an Ancient Greek drinking cup and pre-Columbian whistles.

While Livingston confessed to being just short of skeptical about the usefulness of the technology, he is now a proponent thanks to the enthusiastic responses from museum consumers who have tried the objects. "I think that's most significant to me, hearing what the participants had to say about the experience, about how valuable it was to them to get their hands on these replicas. That very much propelled the 3D printing technology forward in my mind as an extremely resourceful and legitimate way of making these works of art accessible to people with blindness and low vision."

Older woman sitting in a museum handling a sculptural object

Visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago interact with 3D objects that bring the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine art galleries to life.

As the Art Institute has deepened its accessibility programs for museum-goers with vision disabilities, they have made sure to involve members of that community in the process. It has also turned for guidance to NEA grantee Art Beyond Sight, a leader in the accessibility field.

The New York-based organization, originally called Art Education for the Blind, was founded in 1987 by Elizabeth Axel and offers numerous resources to promote accessibility efforts in the form of workshops, publications, social media, and toolkits. Echoing Livingston's words about raising awareness of people with different vision abilities as museum consumers, Axel said, "Our fundamental belief is that people who are blind or visually impaired must have access to the world's visual culture if they are to participate fully in their communities and in the world at large. It improves the quality of their lives and helps them gain skills crucial to their education and employment opportunities."

She cites as best practices many of the tools employed by the Art Institute of Chicago, including touchable exhibits and tactile renderings of two-dimensional works. She also remains optimistic regarding future developments. "We have yet to define the limits! Museum curators and educators are coming up with new ideas all the time, and it's difficult to keep up with the advances in technology. For example, blind people routinely use the VoiceOver feature of iPhones to find access through apps that provide verbal description and wayfinding tools."

While there have been great strides in making museums accessible to visitors with varying vision abilities, both Axel and Livingston noted that there are also challenges. There are the usual suspects—a lack of funding and time to develop and implement programs—but sometimes even the physical space of a museum can be a barrier if it was built before the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Axel noted that sometimes there's also reluctance by museum staff to involve people who are blind or have low vision in the planning process for accessibility programs because of a lack of education about that community.

"They may be uncomfortable interacting with people with disabilities because of a lack of experience. Second, staff may be unfamiliar with the tools available for providing access to museum facilities and exhibitions." In both cases, Axel believes that accessibility training is the answer.

She added that ideally, it shouldn't just be outreach or educational staff who are engaged in these efforts. "I'd love to see more museums transition from an isolated approach of providing accommodations to a more integrated and collaborative approach to creating inclusive programs. Creating an inclusive environment really requires involvement from museum professionals across all departments."

Despite the challenges, Livingston and Axel remain passionately committed to making museums more accessible to people with disabilities of any kind. "I like the phrase I once read that we are all 'temporarily abled,'" Axel said. "Meaning that becoming disabled is an aspect of being human, and will happen to all of us in some way. As soon as you need reading glasses you are visually impaired, no matter how little the magnification. The population of Boomers entering old age will bring many more people with vision loss to museums. They are not 'other,' they are us."

All photos courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.