Before this April, Kathy Nimmer had visited an art museum only “somewhat hesitantly” as part of a group. The English teacher, who has been blind since the third grade, says she felt at the mercy of sighted guides’ descriptions. “It’s not a very independent experience,” Nimmer says.
So when Nimmer learned that she would be visiting the Smithsonian Museums in late April as a finalist for national teacher of the year from Indiana, she asked the Council of Chief State School Officers, which runs the teacher awards, to arrange a tour at the American Art Museum, where she had heard about programming for blind visitors.
In the hour she spent at the museum, Nimmer donned gloves and touched three sculptures: Douglas Tilden’s “The Young Acrobat” (1891), Hugo Robus’s “Water Carrier” (1956) and Chaim Gross’s “Happy Children” (1973).
“It was the first time that I felt connected with art in a similar way as my sighted colleagues,” Nimmer says. “It was deeply moving.”
This year, with the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act in July, museum programming for the blind has gained greater emphasis. Such overseas museums as Florence’s Uffizi Gallery and Madrid’s Museo del Prado provide 3-D models of certain paintings for visitors to touch, but at several U.S. museums, visitors can handle original works, as Nimmer did.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts’s “Touch Tours” allow blind and low-vision visitors to touch selected works. Similar programming is offered at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Cincinnati Art Museum.
In Washington, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s touch tours have increased about 30 percent in the past year, according to a spokesman, and the Freer and Sackler galleries are considering such programming as part of renovations. But such other major D.C. museums as the Phillips Collection and the National Museum of Women in the Arts don’t offer specialized tours.
At the National Gallery of Art, blind visitors can’t touch the art, but sometimes there are models, such as a heavily painted surface to approximate touching a van Gogh. And the museum recently increased its “Picture This” tours, which offer verbal descriptions, from once to twice a month, says Lorena Baines, the museum’s manager of accessibility programs.
“There are a lot of issues around touching objects,” says Baines, who added that the National Gallery has to consider its particular collection and conservation concerns rather than what other institutions are doing.
Francesca Rosenberg, MoMA’s director of community, access and school programs, says that when she began working in the field 20 years ago, it was rare for museums to have accessibility coordinators. MoMA, which has had programs for blind visitors since 1972, was “probably one of the first, if not the first,” she says.
“I don’t think it’s red tape-wise such a difficult thing to do,” Rosenberg says. “And you can certainly use the argument, ‘Look at all these other museums.’ ” Works of art, she says, are exposed to more wear and tear from regular museum crowds than from tours for blind visitors, even if they touch the works.
“I think that the institutions that don’t have something in place are scrambling because they’re thinking, ‘Here we are 25 years [after the ADA], we’d better get going on this.’ ”
John Alford, 89, a veteran with macular degeneration, has been attending the National Gallery’s tour with his “seeing-eye daughter,” Pat Werner, for about a year. He says he appreciates hearing details about the lives of artists that the “Picture This” docents share.
“I guess they imagine themselves blind,” Alford says. “They try to give us as much information as they can, right down to the eyelashes, the color of the eyes and the fingernails.”
Such programming, says Beth Ziebarth, director of the Smithsonian’s accessibility program, is cyclical and often subject to the hiring or departure of staff members who “own” the tours. At the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, for example, Harold Snider, reportedly the institution’s first blind employee, pushed for more accessibility in the 1970s, Ziebarth says.
Ziebarth adds she also has noticed that colleagues, as they age, “become more and more aware of the changes that their own bodies are going through, and they’re more amenable to the idea of accessibility.”
Technology, too, could play a bigger part. NGA’s Baines notes that a smartphone app could trigger descriptions as blind and low-vision visitors walk by certain artworks. “We will see a lot of changes in the next 20 years as technology advances,” she says.
Whether the tours involve touch varies museum by museum, as does the use of gloves. In her 20 years at MoMA, Rosenberg says, only one visitor objected to wearing them. “To be honest, I didn’t really blame her,” she says. “Direct contact with the original work of art is the ultimate.”
Wecker is a freelance writer.