Visit to the Musee of Whatever

Visit to the Musee of Whatever

Réseau Art Nouveau Network, 3rd phase “Art Nouveau and Society” – Optional action for visually impaired people

Visit to the Royal Museum of Arts, 26th October 2005

I think this visit has given us a good perspective of the many things we have to consider to develop an action with blind or visually impaired people. The three actors in our visit were the visually impaired visitor, the interpreting guide, and also in a sense the objects and the interpretation centre itself.

The visitor –

Touch, of course, is all-important. Texture, lines, curves, angles, reliefs, thicknesses and levels were all relevant for the visitor to understand the work of art. Symmetry and asymmetry are also important.

Temperature revealed itself as surprisingly critical. We heard the story of a woman who could determine the nature of a piece of bone which the labs could not identify (if either from a horn or an internal bone) simply by touching it.

But sensitivity is not the same for every person, all fingers are not the same: some people (for example diabetics -and diabetes can cause blindness) do not feel much with the tips of fingers.

Some visitors may see shades of light, and indeed feel discomfort with an excess of light, as the visually impaired person we met: others cannot tell the difference between light and dark. Some can only see in narrow focus vision (and perceive objects better at a certain distance), others have a peripheral vision, and they see the entourage to some degree but cannot focus directly on an object.

Colours can only be understood by people who were able to see previously in their lives. People who were born blind cannot. Partially useful ways to try to somewhat convey colours are temperature (brown is warm, blue is cool), and emotions (red is angry, green is calm).

Sound was also used to understand pieces, mainly by tapping the piece or softly flicking a nail against it. The visually impaired person we met, for instance, was developing the ability to differentiate different kinds of glass, which depending on the chemical composition (percentage of lead seemed important) may give a very different sound when flicked with a nail.

Surprisingly, now I think of it, smell wasn’t apparently very important.

Some blind people have a good imagination and sharp intuition, and can picture a work of art in their minds. We witnessed how the visually impaired person could recognise plant species depicted on vases by touch, feeling the fine relief of the lacquer or the acid treatment –she even came to the conclusion that the attempted flower lilies depicted on a Gallé vase were false (the leaves and the flowers do not correspond to the same plant in real life), something which not many of us could have seen.

Cultural level is a very important conditioning factor. People with a good cultural background, like the visually impaired person we met, are better prepared to discover a work of art (or re-discover, if they had seen it before going blind). As the guide said, it isn’t -it can’t be- the same to explain art to someone who knows of the existence of Picasso or Rodin, and has some acquaintance with their work, than to someone who does not. Although this is true for “seeing” public, too, difficulties multiplied with blind people.

The guide –

We were told without a shade of doubt that audio-guides are useless: there must be a human interaction with the visitor. An audio-guide will not know in which direction the blind person’s hands are going, or if they are reaching for the correct piece. The guide we met was able to understand and anticipate the movements of the visitor’s hand, and she coordinated her explanations with occasional guidance of the visitor’s fingers.

A personal guide is also essential to develop a dialogue, sometimes an extremely conceptual dialogue, which seemed as important for the visitor as touch to recreate an idea of the work of art in the mind. In this sense, the guide has to take the visitor’s previous cultural background into account to be able to help the visitor effectively.

The guide’s explanations must be radically different than those for “seeing” people. For example, you should never point at things or say “here” or “there”: these are not only useless indications for blind people, they also induce confusion. Inviting visitors to touch only details or parts of large works also induces confusion: the visitor must touch the whole piece all over as much as possible to understand it. Colour may be near to impossible to convey.

Sense of bearing is very important for the visitor. When sitting down to touch small pieces, for instance, we saw how the guide was always placing the piece back in the same spot every time the visitor put it down on the table, so that she could reach for it confidently again: when two pieces were being considered, the one that was not being touched at the moment was always put in the same place.

The guide allowed for long periods of silence to avoid interrupting the visitor’s exploration of a piece. It is curious to realize how this silent ambience caught on us, too!

The Interpretation centre

The entourage has to be considered. The colour of the walls has to be solid and uniform, preferably light tones. In the room we saw a very light ochre hue was preferred for the walls, and the floor was dark. Instead, display shelves and cases, and the tables for touch exploration, were a faded pinkish red, to provide a high contrast with the pieces. Lighting was uniform, whitish and soft, with no spotlights, to avoid creating confusing shades.

Again, a sense of bearing is important. We were told that if an activity lasted for a few days, the organization of the room had to remain unchanged to provide an environment the visitors could trust. The guide was adamant in that models of buildings were essential for blind people to acquire a sense of bearing when visiting the building, but that the same model in another building was no more than an abstract piece for them. A model is useful as orientation, not as representation.

The museum held a very strict control on who touched and who didn’t, as these were all original pieces. Only impaired visitors were allowed to touch: even the guide refrained from touching the works more than was strictly necessary.

Conclusion -

I think the visit has helped to open a completely new understanding of this optional action as a challenge in our endeavour to “get Art Nouveau to the people”, as it were, and to do it in a practical, not just theoretical way. I also believe that after this visit we can agree in that trained guides are essential for any direct action with blind people.

Perhaps it was a pity that the museum did not bring a “difficult” case along (someone not sensitive, with little cultural background, blind since birth...) to help us see the challenge in its true perspective. On the other hand, the visually impaired person we met was a very sensitive, intuitive and evidently cultured person, and thus very helpful because she was able to explain herself well and give us a better understanding of how a blind person may approach the discovery of Art Nouveau.

I am also convinced after this visit that the benefit we and the Network can derive from trying to understand how a blind person may “see” Art Nouveau will be very rewarding, and will prove to be enriching of our own understanding of it to an extent we may still mot imagine.

The essential importance of the trained guide also recommends opening contacts with institutions and associations working with the visually impaired: we cannot afford a professional team of guides, but we could co-organise some action with volunteers in cooperation with respective local groups.

Lluis BOSCH PASCUAL, Institut del Paisatge Urbà I la Qualitat de Vida, Barcelona