Saturday, September 09, 2006

Hands-on art for the visually impaired

Bloomington resident Marilyn Kittredge sees the world through a slice of Swiss cheese. That is how she describes her macular degeneration. She has no central vision and cannot read or distinguish facial features, so she was very excited when she heard about the new set of tours the IU Art Museum offers. She registered for the first audio description tour, which took place Saturday with six participants, and got to experience art in a whole new way.

Not only does the IU Art Museum now offer audio description tours, but it is also now one of the first university museums in the low vision Tours for the visually impaired, both audio and touch, can now be scheduled at any time. Patrons wishing to take the tour must call 855-1045 three weeks in advance to answer a series of questions to help the museum determine their individual needs. The touch tours are restricted to two patrons per docent. It's too difficult to see what is going on when there are only X's in these boxes.

e United States to offer special "touch tours" for the visually impaired. The touch tours will be available with a reservation made three weeks in advance. They can be taken in conjunction with an audio tour. Only the audio tour was offered Saturday.Kittredge has taken advantage of several audio tours offered to visually impaired patrons throughout various museums but explained that most of the tours are recorded. IU offers personalized tours given by real people.

"I enjoy museums," Kittredge said, "but it is hard for me to get a lot out of them."After taking the IU tour provided by docents Eleanor Jones and Becky Hrisomalos, Kittredge remarked that it was much more detailed than her previous experiences. She said she can hardly wait to reserve a spot for the first touch tour.Graduate student Marie Clapot, who is visually impaired herself, education curator Ed Maxedon and museum staff have been working for more than a year to put this program together.After moving from France to do her undergraduate work in Michigan and then moving to San Francisco for an internship, Clapot began searching for a museum that would support what she calls the "connection between her handicap and art.

" She found Maxedon and began an internship under his tutelage at the IU Art Museum. The touch tours have been her pet project."The audio description tours create a three-dimensional reality for people without that access," Maxedon said. He said they can be used in conjunction with the touch tours to help translate visual information into a discernible mental image for people with visual disabilities.

The touch tours will consist of artwork that conservators have deemed appropriate for handling. There will be a heavy focus on statuary. Paintings that have not been primed and can therefore disintegrate with prolonged exposure to the oils found on human skin will not be allowed in the exhibit, even though all patrons will be required to wear provided gloves.

During Saturday's tour, the docents described four diverse pieces. Jones pulled a slinky from her bag and passed it around to the patrons to help them get a feel for "Floor Slinky: 32 Elements" in the museum's gallery of Art of the Western World. She played soft jazz music in the background while she described the abstract painting, "Swing Landscape."

She said the artist, Stuart Davis, often played jazz while he worked. Kittredge commented that this piece was particularly hard to visualize because of its abstract nature. Even Jones said: "I am not going to try to describe all of the shapes. It is way too intricate."Hrisomalos had better luck with the sculptures "Torso with Panther Skin" and "Nkisi N'Kende," both of which will be featured on the first touch tours.Sighted patrons can also add another dimension to the tour for the impaired.

During the description of "Swing Landscape," Kittredge's husband Frank remarked that it looked like a jigsaw puzzle that "hasn't been put together yet, obviously," causing laughter and seemingly, a better understanding of the piece.Clapot said it was extremely difficult to train the docents how to describe the art to someone who does not have the capacity of sight and to fully understand each patron's needs. The comments from the sighted patrons, therefore, can be very helpful. "Hearing, touching and seeing are complementary events," Clapot explained.

The program will now be a permanent fixture for the IU Art Museum, but the collection will change based on the availability of new pieces and the individual needs and desires of the patrons. "I think it is going to open the museum up to a whole new audience," said the museum's Manager of External Affairs Emily Powell. "There is a whole new world open to them, a whole new leisure activity. It will also open our eyes to other possibilities. We are moving beyond building accessibility and focusing now on how art can be more accessible."


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