The painting was “Empress of the Blues” by Romare Bearden, depicting famous Jazz Age blues singer Bessie Smith. Before the pandemic, Hooker would see it in person at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but Wednesday, she shared her thoughts with a museum docent through the microphone on her computer.
“The picture of the woman is kind of on the forefront. Her picture is emphasized more, I think,” Hooker said. “I am noticing too that it looks like an all male band.”
“It’s interesting that you brought up the colors, Vanessa,” said Sara Shoob, the docent. “The red, the green and the blue recede there in the background behind the musicians, but the woman comes forward of the bright yellow. Anyone else want to talk about what draws them in?”
Shoob went on to discuss some instruments in the painting before turning things over to Miles Spicer, a musician from Arts for the Aging, so he could explain the significance of Bessie Smith and part of her history to the dozen faces looking back at him over Zoom.
The event was part of See Me at the Smithsonian, an interactive program created by Access Smithsonian — an office at Smithsonian Institution museums that’s a resource for those with disabilities.
The four-year-old program used to take place in person on the first and third Wednesday of the month in English and every other week in Spanish, but it moved online last year after the pandemic forced museums in the region to close. The Smithsonian began reopening museums in May and See Me may resume in-person in the fall. But the virtual program is likely to continue because it has allowed more people to participate, said Ashley Grady, senior program specialist at Access Smithsonian.
In each session of the program, roughly eight to 12 participants — usually those with memory loss and their caregivers — closely examine two to three artworks or objects in a nearly hour-long session.
“The actual program involves dialogue and engagement by our participants — both adults living with dementia and also their caregivers or care partners,” Grady said. “That’s something that’s really important to us. This program is meant to be for both.”
Hooker, 66, and Goldman, shared the computer screen as they went through one of the program’s events on Wednesday. Goldman, who is in mid- to late-stage dementia, was previously living independently, but as her disease progressed, she moved in with Hooker and her husband.
“I try to gear activities circulating around music and activity for her mostly, but I get a good enjoyment out of it as well,” said Hooker, a retired federal employee. “That’s been my main focus is keeping her busy, keeping her mentally engaged and keeping her happy.”
The two were introduced to See Me by Vikki Kalitsi, the owner of Visiting Angels, a home-care agency based in Largo. Hooker and her mother were not regular museum-goers, she said. But since the pandemic began, the two sought out programs that include music and can take place at home. Music usually helps Goldman stay engaged and calm, Hooker said, especially because her family has a history of playing the piano.
See Me’s organizers and leaders have focused on allowing the participants to direct the experience since the program’s launch in October 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery. The docents don’t read off a script; instead, they ask questions like, “What do you see? If you were in the work of art, what do you think you’d hear?”
That’s how Shoob led the group Wednesday as its participants viewed “Empress of the Blues.” The artwork was displayed across a PowerPoint presentation.
“I would like you to look at the image. Look at it from the top to the bottom, to the right to the left,” Shoob directed. “Let your eyes scan over the whole image for like a minute. We’ll listen to music together while we’re looking.”
Spicer played a bluesy song on his guitar. While Hooker focused on unpacking the artwork, her mother sat alongside her, nodding her head along to each music note, with a small smile on her face.
“Her attention span is very short. She has trouble listening to words,” Hooker said of her mother. “But music, she picks right up.”
The virtual version of See Me launched in May 2020. It relies on multisensory experiences to keep its audience engaged. Often times, that includes music and storytelling so participants don’t just feel like they’re staring at a computer screen, Grady said.
Those kinds of multisensory experiences can be helpful for those with dementia because those at different cycles or stages can still enjoy some of the activities, Kalitsi said. That’s part of why Kalitsi helped connect Goldman, Hooker and other participants with the program.
“One of the things we know with dementia is one of the last things to go is rhythm and music, so with having the musical piece with See Me at the Smithsonian event ... that will be a good way for our participants to have their brains reengaged because that’s familiar,” Kalitsi said.
The virtual version has some advantages over being in person. It allows some to take part for longer periods. It also is free of physical hurdles, like driving downtown in the District, trying to find parking and heading to the spot to meet up with the rest of the group, Grady said. Typically, getting in and out of the museums would add about 30 minutes to each program.
More community organizations from around the D.C. area — and even Baltimore — have also been able to collaborate with See Me, Grady said. The office’s leaders are hoping in the future to host both in-person and virtual versions of the program.
For Hooker and her mother, the virtual version is more convenient. Goldman goes through a sundowning stage in the afternoon, a period of the day where typically those with mid- to late-stage dementia can have increased irritability or changes in behavior. It requires Hooker to be mindful when planning events to do together, Hooker said. Since they both can participate in See Me from the comfort of their own homes, Goldman is able to move around more freely for any needs she has during the program and then come back to the presentation.
“It’s definitely worthwhile having it done virtually this way,” Hooker said. “A definite plus.”