Art museums recast their vision

New hands-on tours help BMA, others reach out to blind

January 23, 2000|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

They came to see what they could not see.

As they walked the airy galleries at the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday for the first time in their lives, a group of blind people relied on other senses to experience the beauty they and others thought they could never know.

They gingerly patted the bronze muscles of Rodin's "Thinker." They turned pieces of an ancient mosaic over in their palms, lightly scanning the bumpy surfaces with their fingertips.

And sitting before a vast, sumptuous Anthony van Dyck painting of two lovers from an epic poem, they listened closely and let the words create a picture in their minds: "She is a healthy, strapping woman with a beautiful head of blond hair caught up in pearls," said Eva Wortherly, a docent. "She's got that look of love."

Martha Seabrooks, 58, who has been blind since birth, nodded knowingly, smiling. "Ahhh," she said quietly.

The tour is a fledgling effort to make the BMA a place that people with little or no vision can enjoy. Across the country and around the world, other museums also are beginning to reach out to the blind and visually impaired.

As America's population ages and the number of people with vision impairments has increased, so has the demand for services for the blind.

The overwhelming majority of people who are considered blind have some residual vision. Most weren't born blind, so they have visual memory, and many enjoyed museums.

"We're looking at people who have been museum-goers and want to continue to go, and find many things very frustrating," said Roxane Offner, disability consultant for Lighthouse International, a New York City-based resource for vision impairment and rehabilitation. "The labels are very small. The lighting is often very poor. The directional signage doesn't exist."

Lynn Mattioli, a 30-year-old blind woman from Baltimore who advised the BMA on its tour, fondly remembers the Saturdays of her childhood, when her mother would decide on the spur of the moment to take her to an art museum.

"I do make a mental image in my head," said Mattioli, a dietitian. "The painting I see in my head is nothing like the real thing, but I don't care. It's the painting for me, and I can appreciate it and find it fascinating without having to actually see it."

Today, she lives downtown near the Walters but rarely visits it.

"I would go more often if I knew I could show up and somebody could walk around with me," Mattioli said. "I don't have any sighted friends who are into art."

Yesterday, the BMA tried some different tactics to help Mattioli and others experience the artwork.

After describing van Dyck's "Rinaldo and Armida," Wortherly, the docent, reached into a satchel and passed her visitors a scrap of satin, so they could know what the woman's flowing, red cape felt like; feathers, so they could feel what the pale, chubby angels in the painting were wearing; and beads, so they could finger something similar to the creamy pearls in the woman's hair.

Earlier efforts

For many years, other museums have offered limited "touch tours" for the blind, in which people can feel about four or five sculptures. The Walters Art Gallery provides such a tour upon request. The Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, offers three or four sculpture tours, but visitors must call two weeks in advance. Other museums require up to a month's notice.

Partly because the blind represent a small portion of the disabled, most museums have focused on installing wheelchair ramps and making other accommodations, experts said. Artists, museum staffers and people who are blind also noted that most museums didn't think visually impaired people would want to come.

"I said, `How could blind people enjoy visual art?' It sort of threw me back," said Dr. Sy Hoffman, a docent at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama who was a pioneer in creating a program for the blind.

An introduction

Maurice Scott Peret, a Baltimore man who has been blind since childhood, loves poetry and plays the guitar. But he's had little exposure to visual arts. Now 35, he wants to learn about them, and he brought his 10-month-old son, Luc Aaron, on the tour yesterday to introduce him to art as well.

Others said going to the museum is a social activity. Some, like Steve Handschu, a Chicago sculptor who is blind, are artists who want to experience their peers' work.

But opening museums to people who are visually impaired can conflict with a museum's mission of preserving and protecting art. In some cases, guides ask people who are going to touch sculptures to put on white cotton gloves, so oils from their hands won't damage the finishes.

Handschu, who has some residual vision, has been kicked out of New York museums for getting too close to paintings.

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