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Features / Art

Democratising art: how the art world is opening up to blind and partially sighted visitors

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In line with aims to increase inclusion within the creative industry, click here to listen or download an audio transcript of the article below

“Blind people experience art exactly the same way as everyone else, they just have, and need, different methods of gaining that experience,” says David Johnson, a Hitchin-based artist who is registered blind. “Blind people experience the same emotions as everyone else, they are subject to the same feelings of attraction or repulsion as others; however, they need alternative sensory pathways to gain that experience whether through touch, audio description or other inroads.”

A lot of curiosity lies around what blind and partially sighted people “see”. But that’s not quite the point: art demands emotional reactions from people, and the way we instinctively react is the same, regardless of sight or not. Perhaps the more interesting conversation to have is in the different ways to continuously open up art to as many people as possible.

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The idea that museums are spaces exclusive to those with sight is absurd. But when we’re stood next to rope barriers and ‘Do not touch’ signs, our vision seems to be the only option. How else are we supposed to experience famous works by David Hockney or Salvador Dalí? For many of us we’re impervious to the fact that there are many ways to connect with art beyond our sense of sight. It’s a challenge that anyone reading this right now will not have to face, and, as such, we remain unaware that museums regularly host a range of creative and inspiring programmes to engage blind and partially sighted visitors.

Wander through Tate Modern’s collection display and you’ll come across an immersive installation by Sheela Gowda, titled Behold. The work consists of two materials: human hair and car bumpers. Four thousand metres of real human hair were processed and weaved into ropes that hang off the ceiling. They form giant knots and webs, and part of it is tied to the steel car bumpers, suspended against the wall. Sheela drew inspiration from a talisman found in her hometown, where human hair is tied to bumpers to stave off bad luck. The scale of the installation is immense and the dark hair is striking against the white walls.

Unsurprisingly, the work is surrounded by low rope barriers. But once a month, a guided tour designed for blind and partially sighted visitors invites attendees to step over the barriers and touch the installation. Without disturbing the arrangement of the installation or lifting things up, they feel with cotton archival gloves to experience the work. Not only is it thrilling to be in such closeness to the installation, feeling its material and texture makes for a rich learning experience.

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“What you find is that they’re not soft like human hair; they’re spiky,” explained Marcus Dickey Horley, curator of public programmes at Tate. “It’s very surprising for our visually impaired audience and us as guides. It doesn’t feel like what you expect human hair to feel like.”
Marcus works closely with the conservation team to select works that are suitable to be included in multi-sensory tours. The works are selected on strict terms: they have to be owned by Tate, they are made of materials that would not be damaged through touch, and they must be displayed in a way that is easy to reach; not having to intentionally lean forward or climb a ladder. In special exhibitions where feeling original work is simply not possible, Marcus and his team would find other ways to maintain a touch element. For example, they replicated Alberto Giacometti’s line drawings and created a version with raised lines. And as simple as that, blind and partially sighted visitors now have an opportunity to explore the work through touch.

Touch is not the only way museums are engaging visitors who are blind or have low vision. One of the most common methods is audio description. This programming feature can be found across many London museums including the Design Museum, Wellcome Collection, National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum. Audio description brings art to life through describing what is on the wall, as well as giving an interpretation of the work. Led by a trained guide, audio-described tours typically last between 45 to 60 minutes. Most start with a description of the immediate environment before moving into the details of the work itself. If it were about the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer, it would mention that it’s an oil painting and is about 1.4 by 1.2 foot in size. They might talk about the blue turban against her soft, pale skin, her dark, seductive eyes gazing directly into the viewer, the way she seems to be caught right before she’s about to say something. Each descriptor builds up a vivid picture.

“It’s about using the visual memory that visually impaired people might have, and not being afraid to use everyday terms or the use of colours,” explained Barry Ginley, equality and access officer at the V&A museum. “Even for people who have never been able to see, they associate colours with parts of life. They understand that green is grass and blue is the sky, maybe except for UK skies.”

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According to the Royal National Institute of Blind People, 93 percent of people registered blind have some level of sight. Around 2 million people in the UK have a visual impairment, that is 3% of the population, around 1 in 32 people. Many people experience sight loss in the ageing process or because of an illness, which means that they remember shapes and colours, famous artists and gallery spaces.
Audio description tours have been an effective way in creating greater accessibility. But, in theory, audio description is just information. Blind and partially sighted people could sit comfortably at home and get the same information from a quick Google search. So why bother going through the hassle of traveling across London to listen to someone describe an art piece?

“That’s something I used to think; that you go to an exhibition, look at stuff, don’t talk to anyone and the reaction you had was on your own. But I wouldn’t think that now,” said Robin Tew, a blind visitor who has attended several audio-described tours. “The best thing is the subtleties you can investigate and explore with other people, which is not something I can experience entirely inside my own head.”
David echoes the same sentiment, emphasising that it’s the experience, not information that counts. He likens the scenario with someone deciding to attend live sports or music events. It doesn’t matter if you join a group without communicating, at the end of the day, it’s the entitlement and right to a shared cultural experience.

Drawing on the success of audio description and multi-sensory tours, museums continue to find new ways to democratise art. On a Saturday afternoon in February, the Royal Academy of Art (RA) hosted its first ever life-drawing workshop designed for blind and partially sighted visitors. Led by David and experienced audio describer Harry Baxtor, the event was born out of David’s own frustration at the lack of connectedness he felt in previous workshops he had attended. This time round, he was determined to experiment with different ways to stimulate the participants’ imagination and relationship to the model.

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Tucked away in the quiet hallways of RA, the session was held in a room reminiscent of a 19th century operating theatre. There’s an overwhelmingly historical feel to the room, with its wooden floorboards and oak benches that curve around the room in a flat semicircle. On the right side of the room is a floor-to-ceiling shelf of large-scale plaster sculptures, and on the other wall hangs a sculpture of a man, muscles exposed, nailed to a t-shaped structure. It’s surreal, eerie and stunning all at the same time. Harry darts back and forth around the room, distributing art materials and paper to the seated participants. Each person gets a range of materials: charcoal, chalk, Wikki Stix, clay modelling tools, clay, plasticine and paper. Thanks to David’s innovative and experimental approach, neon-coloured 3D printed models of the the workshop’s actual model was also being distributed around. There’s a palpable sense of excitement in the room.

When the room finally settles, David and Harry introduce themselves and remind attendees that they need not worry about doing the right thing and, instead, focus on having fun and challenging themselves. Not unlike an audio-described tour, Harry first describes the physical environment before describing the model’s pose and appearance. He talks about the warm auburn hair, the scarf around her head as blue as the deepest part of the ocean. He goes into such great detail, it forces sighted volunteers, staff and observers to notice things they never would have.

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When Harry finishes his description, the model was asked to describe her own appearance and personality. Sighted volunteers were also doing rounds in the room, providing additional description if needed. In one instance, a volunteer positioned a partially sighted attendee’s hand in a way that mirrored the model’s pose. By the end of the workshop, there were three long tables worth of work. The output was incredibly diverse – everything from a portrait done using chalk on black paper, showing distinct shading that reflected the light on the model, to outlines of the model etched into a slab of clay.

Robin produced a clay model with beautifully defined curves. He found the 3D printed model most useful. While he has enjoyed participating, he values the experience of being in the space above all. Another participant, Sandra Janman, was excited to feel like she was in art school. “I feel so privileged to be treated so brilliantly.” And with that, RA’s first ever audio-described life drawing workshop ends on a high.

Perhaps it’s being more aware of the senses we tend to neglect. Or perhaps it’s being mindful about people with different needs to ours. As our society pushes for a more inclusive world, surely we should be reflecting on our own experiences, and starting a conversation about our blindspots.

And perhaps, if we continued exploring a diverse range of needs, it would radically change the way we create and design.