The No. 1 unspoken rule in an art museum: Don’t touch. Museum guards are strategically placed throughout museums to ensure harmful oils on visitors’ hands won’t corrode artwork.
But at the current exhibition at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, touching is encouraged.
Works from masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Francisco Goya, and El Greco can be felt at the exhibition for the museum’s visually impaired guests. It features six three-dimensional works from different genres created using a technique called “Didu” that adds volume and texture. The works are accompanied by text in written in Braille. The museum’s sighted guests can experience the exhibit with darkened glasses and an accompanying audio guide.
“Developed in collaboration with professionals in the sector of visual impairment,” reads the exhibition’s text, “this project allows for the reality of the painting to be perceived in order to mentally recreate it as a whole and thus provide an emotional perception of the work. Non-sighted visitors will be able to obtain a heightened degree of artistic-aesthetic-creative enjoyment in order to explain, discuss and analyze these works in the Prado.”
Here’s how it’s done, according to a description from the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum:
This remarkable new technique, developed by the graphic arts organization Estudios Durero in Bilbao, endows flat images with textures and relief contours up to five millimeters thick. A photograph of the image in high resolution is given the most suitable textures and volumes as a guide for a blind person’s hand. Small, apparently insignificant details may suddenly become vital for an understanding of the composition or theme of a particular painting. It takes about forty hours working on an image to define the right volumes and textures, which are then printed using a special ink. Next, in a process lasting around twelve hours, a chemical procedure is applied to give volume to features that in principle are flat. The real image with the original colours is then printed onto the contour in a “hand-friendly” size of 80 x 120 cm.
In essence, what the process does is to give images a three-dimensional quality. The painting is reproduced in relief so the textures and volume of the reproductions can be explored by touch. At the same time, users listen to an audioguide in Basque, Spanish or English specifically developed to direct their “touch interpretation” of the painting. Finally, to give people with no visual problems an idea of the nature of this activity, masks are provided so anyone interested can experience the potential of touch.
Touching the Prado is open until June 28.