How museums show art to the blind

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Slide 1 of 16: There are an estimated 253 million blind or visually impaired people in the world, according to the World Health Organization. These millions of people are often left out when it comes to certain highly visual experiences. But recent innovations are allowing museums to be more inclusive to those with vision impairment or loss. These new ways of experiencing art can provide new perspectives to sighted patrons as well.
Slide 2 of 16: Many museums now offer tours led by guides or docents trained in presenting art to blind and visually impaired guests. For example, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, volunteers use non-visual descriptors to explain the subject, setting, ambiance, feeling and more of paintings to help visitors imagine the piece.
Slide 3 of 16: When Jeff Koons’ 10-foot-tall metal sculpture “Play-Doh” was at the Whitney Museum in 2014, museum educator Georgia Krantz handed out actual Play-Doh so that blind patrons could experience childhood nostalgia from the iconic smell, a feeling the mere sight of Koons’ sculpture could evoke in sighted guests. The Metropolitan Museum of Art takes this approach a step further. Staff interpret works of art into scents, such as a floral perfume that reminds them of Monet’s “Garden at Sainte-Adresse” or an essential oil that evokes the earthy scent of the wood-and-metal sculpture “Power Figure.”
Slide 4 of 16: Artists use visual signifiers that communicate things such as time period, setting and mood as well as things about their subjects, such as class and status. Some museums are now using sound to communicate this kind of information. Music can communicate both facts as well as feelings. The Birmingham Museum of Art’s tour guides play Renaissance music while visitors experience a Renaissance painting. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam plays a classical soundscape that coordinates with the famous painting “Sunflowers” that’s meant to evoke the emotions of the work.
Slide 5 of 16: Touch is the most common sense museums use to communicate the visuals of a work of art to blind or visually impaired visitors. Some museums such as the Louvre have commissioned either full-scale or miniature replicas of famous statues that people are allowed to touch. The Art Institute of Chicago has a “touch gallery” in which sculptures have been treated with a protective wax so that blind as well as sighted guests can experience an artwork's form, scale, temperature and texture in a non-visual way.
Slide 6 of 16: In the museum world, small replica sculptures are called “tactiles.” Some tactiles at major museums have gotten upgrades beyond being models. Ohio’s Massillon Museum interpreted some of their collections’ abstract paintings as three-dimensional aluminum models, using depressions, curves, protrusions and sharp angels to represent 2D brush strokes, shapes and colors. These tactiles were combined with sound effects such as the explosion of fireworks or a discordant piano note that symbolized various parts of the artworks. The tactile of the Met’s “Power Figure” sculpture makes a buzzing sound when touched to express the idea that the artist intended the work to be intimidating.
Slide 7 of 16: Tactiles for traditional styles of paintings are a little simpler. Museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago have designed handheld cards or tiles that are miniature representations of the compositions and textures of the artworks. These cards use a similar technique as 3D carvings or printings of paintings to allow guests with limited vision to feel the composition and depth in works such as Pierre Auguste Renoir's “Two Sisters (On the Terrace).”
Slide 8 of 16: For many blind and visually impaired people, 2D works can best be understood in 3D. To convey extreme depth or perspective, full dioramas that recreate the interior of a room or the elements of the scene can be explored by touch. By far the most popular emerging technique is using 3D printing to make replicas of paintings that communicate how the materials sit on the surface on the canvas.
Slide 9 of 16: Gustav Klimt’s famous painting “The Kiss” was recreated for the Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria, via a 3D-printed relief. Although it wasn’t to scale or in color, this beefed-up tactile had built-in sensors that triggered audio clips about the work when specific parts were touched.
Slide 10 of 16: In 2015, the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, debuted a collection of 3D replica paintings that were also to scale, in full-color and fully touchable, the first of their kind. Many who have impaired vision and even some who are considered blind still have limited sight, which is why paintings by El Greco, Da Vinci and Goya were painstakingly reproduced in full tone and texture. Since 3D printing is unable to replicate the colors of a painting, these works used a technique called “Didu.” The image is printed with special ink that, when treated with chemicals in certain areas, while rise and expand like yeast in bread, creating volume and texture.
Slide 11 of 16: The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam has utilized its own patented type of 3D printing technology, which it refers to as the Reliefographic technique. It was used to create reproductions, or relievos, of Vincent Van Gogh’s most famous paintings, such as “Sunflowers” and “The bedroom,” which can be touched without being damaged. A relief is created of the original work using a multi-dimensional scanner that captures the dimensions of the paint and brush strokes along the canvas.
Slide 12 of 16: Many people with visual impairment can make out some colors and textures up close, while others can only “see” through touch. This might seem like a disadvantage, but the tactile nature of the materials used in a piece can inform its subject, composition and overall impression. Many museums such as the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco offer up samples of stone, canvas with paint textures, and even modern materials like silicone or ribbons used in installations that can be felt and looked at up close.
Slide 13 of 16: Museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City offer workshops that include experimentation with materials and instruction in techniques. Drawing or painting allow those who are blind or partially sighted to better understand the visual aspects of art as well as experience how artists use imagination and touch just as much as sight in creating their work.
Slide 14 of 16: Besides merely having Braille translations of what a sighted guest might read on a sign or plaque or even Braille descriptions of the work, some museums and artists are presenting work that incorporates Braille into the art itself. Artist Roy Nachum, who designed Rihanna’s “Anti” cover art, has included Braille text in relief in his pieces, adding dimension and a layer of meaning that is only comprehensible to those who can read Braille. On one particular piece, he put ash on the raised dots so that people who interacted with it left a trail as they read.
Slide 15 of 16: Even if they haven’t developed more creative experiences for visitors who are visually impaired, many places have set aside pieces from their collections that may be touched by someone wearing gloves. From the MoMa to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, sculptures in particular can be experienced on special tactile tours with a layer of protection between the art and the oil and dirt on your hands.
Slide 16 of 16: Museums around the world have long been aware that seeing and hearing impaired visitors were unable to fully experience and enjoy their collections. In 1909, the American Museum began developing a program for blind children to feel animal specimens such as hippos and ostriches. In 1913, England’s Sunderland Museum began holding handling sessions for the blind in which they could feel items in the museum’s collection. While it might seem like some museums haven’t evolved this concept in a century, new technology is allowing growth in leaps and bounds in terms of accommodating guests with disabilities of all kinds.

How museums show art to the blind

Descriptive tours






3D models




Raw materials

Seeing through drawing



Not a new idea

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