As an employee at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Brad Ingles frequently gazed at “Blue Ribbon Fruit,” an artwork that seemingly incorporates all the colors in the produce department. But one winter day, he experienced the piece as never before.
Ingles is one of roughly 350 million people worldwide — or just over 4 percent of the global population — who suffer from colorblindness, according to a study by the Eye Center at the University of California at Davis. The Technicolor-inspired glasses he slipped on three years ago were made by EnChroma, a Berkeley, Calif., company whose shades are appearing at an expanding number of attractions around the world.
Kent Streeb, EnChroma’s vice president of communications, said the current tally is about 90 museums, 11 state and national parks, and three National Wildlife refuges. Resorts, travel outfitters and tourism offices also stock the accessories, which visitors can borrow free. Last spring, Visit Seattle donated nearly 140 pairs to 26 sites across the greater Emerald City, including several art studios, the National Nordic Museum and Chihuly Garden and Glass.
“Think about all of the wonderful venues and places you go to that are colorful by nature: museums, Tennessee fall colors,” said Erik Ritchie, the company’s chief executive. “These things that normal color vision folks take for granted — a CVD [color vision deficient] person can’t see those.”
The Denver museum was one of the first art institutions to provide the spectacles. It acquired four pairs after a former employee visited the Georgia’ O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which had unveiled six pair of glasses in May 2019. The Centre Pompidou in Paris is the most recent participant in EnChroma’s Color Accessibility Program. Last month, the modern and contemporary art museum started loaning out 20 pairs of glasses. In addition, guests can take a free colorblindness test.
The Pompidou shows “how artists have seen or thought of their paintings, but this is also an opportunity for us to grow awareness about people who see differently,” said Augustin Pagenot, the Paris museum’s deputy head of education. Pagenot added that he envisioned incorporating the glasses into tours that would focus on particularly colorful artworks. (First stop: the building’s exterior, which is boldly painted red, green, blue and yellow.)
Don McPherson, EnChroma’s chief science officer, is the brains behind the glasses. His initial intent was to create protective eye gear for surgeons who use lasers in the operating room. But in 2010, during an ultimate Frisbee game, a teammate asked to try on McPherson’s invention. For the first time in his sporting life, he could see the orange boundary cones and green field.
Colorblindness is caused by missing cells called cones in the retina, explained Bryce St. Clair, an instructor of ophthalmology at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “EnChroma lenses work by saturating various color wavelengths to change the perception of similar colors in people with colorblindness,” he said. For people who can’t distinguish between red and green, he said the glasses help them differentiate between the two colors, which they previously perceived as one.
“Colorblindness glasses shift the color spectrum and saturates color,” he said. “I think these are made for museums, sunsets and vacations.”
To borrow a pair of the glasses at no cost at a participating museum, art gallery or other site, look for signage by the main entrance, inquire at the information desk or check the accessibility section on the attraction’s website. Most of the venues allow guests to walk up and rent the accessory, which they can use for the duration of their visit. For example, on a recent weekend at the U.S. Botanic Garden in D.C., a volunteer in the Conservatory lobby pulled four boxes of glasses from a cabinet and requested only an ID for the rental. The Dallas Museum of Art has an online calendar that allows visitors to reserve the glasses for 90-minute blocks.
“The glasses are checked out every month,” said Melissa Brito, the museum’s manager of access programs and resources. “We’ve had such positive feedback online. People share their personal stories.”
Tobi Barth runs Northern Lights Resort & Spa in Canada’s Yukon, where the colors are as visually stunning as a van Gogh canvas. The glasses are a new addition to his operation: Travel Yukon, the territory’s tourism office, delivered two pairs last September. So far, one guest has tried out the glasses on an aurora borealis expedition.
“The lights were out, and the person was super happy,” Barth recalled. “He was crying.”
Tennessee Tourism is familiar with this stirring response to Mother Earth’s palette, especially among colorblind visitors witnessing fall foliage for the first time. Since 2017, the state has installed 15 scenic viewers in such panoramic spots as Ober Gatlinburg, an adventure park with views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Lodge at Montgomery Bell State Park, which debuted its telescope fitted with an EnChroma lens in December.
“To see the deep emotion is quite moving,” said Mark Ezell, the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. “I am glad we are giving this opportunity to the millions of people who don’t normally get to see the spectacular fall colors.”
Tennessee has one of the largest collections of colorblindness viewfinders in the world, but Michigan is catching up. Last summer, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park revealed five viewers at three locations, including two that are also wheelchair accessible.