Dallas museum takes art to the blind, and beyond

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DALLAS (AP) — With their galleries full of paintings and sculptures, museums are a treat for the eyes. So after suffering optic nerve damage, Bobby Jackson of Fort Worth wasn't sure he'd ever visit one again.

But here the former forklift operator was at Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum, taking in some of the museum's extensive Spanish collection using senses other than sight — tracing tactile versions of paintings with his fingers, immersing himself in their place and time with the help of regional music and food.

Using techniques that extend beyond sight, the Meadows is on the cutting edge of efforts not only to reach out to the visually impaired but also to offer multisensory experiences that appeal to a wide range of audiences through touch, sound and taste.

"The extent of what they are doing and planning to do is far beyond most other university museums — and general art museums, too," said Mary Ann Siller, a Dallas-based national consultant for blind and low-vision services who's studied the way museums across the country embrace the community.

For example, patrons can hold a tobacco pipe that mimics one in painter Diego Rivera's Portrait of Ilya Ehrenberg — or hear music of a work's era and place, such as Gregorian chants. Even scents are employed to further evoke atmosphere.

"It's helpful to transport someone, to understand these objects as more than just beautiful works of art," said Allison Davidson, the Meadows' special collections coordinator. "You can imagine yourself in the context of where they were created."

If this sounds like something you'd want to try even though you may not be visually impaired, well, that's sort of the point. The museum doesn't want its outreach to the low-vision community to be in the form of exclusive activities or hours; instead, it hopes to attract a range of learning styles.

"The more areas of our brains we engage, the more we can learn," Carmen Smith, the Meadows' education director, told The Dallas Morning News (http://dallasne.ws/1ePkfsw ).

Museums already struggle to be among the public's recreational options, Smith said, but that task is compounded when considering the visually impaired. The Meadows hopes to alter perceptions that museums are only for the sighted.

Jackson, who's lost most of his vision, was enthusiastic about the idea. "I hadn't been (to a museum) in a while," he said. "I'm gathering steam as I go along. I'm hoping to come back more often."

At the mid-March workshop he attended, which explored artist Joaquin Sorolla's The Blind Man of Toledo, Jackson let his fingers glide over a mini version of the 1906 work that mimicked the texture of the actual canvas. Another version helped him glean what it looked like, with upraised patterns of lines or dots signifying various objects or features of the image.

The informal session was led by artist John Bramblitt, who is blind. He displayed for the group several walking sticks similar to the wooden one used by the cloaked blind man in Sorolla's work, contrasting those with the cane he uses to get around using modern mobility methods.

Sorolla's blind man walks a village road along a stone wall adjoining a river. Behind him are a donkey and cart; farther beyond, an arched bridge and rolling hills.

"Think about what he's experiencing," Bramblitt said. "He's feeling the hardness of the road, with none of the techniques we have today. It's just him out there with a stick, making his way in the world."

Discussion followed. What time of day was it? What time of year? Where was he going? Who used the path?

Among the day's participants were SMU junior John Kalkanli, 22, and his mother, Candan. Blind since birth, Kalkanli was attending his second workshop session, having enjoyed a similar experience last year. "I felt like I was in the painter's shoes," he said afterward. "This is the only place that does this."

The museum's efforts started a few years ago as officials pondered how to reach special audiences. Smith consulted with Art Beyond Sight, a 25-year-old New York City-based organization that develops accessibility programs for the blind, to put her concept together.

Art Beyond Sight director Nina Levent said the Meadows is, along with the Brooklyn Museum, at the forefront of inclusion-minded efforts. "Ultimately, the idea is to have a deep, informative conversation about a work of art," she said.

So far, the Meadows is featuring about a dozen works through multisensory methods.

"We basically did sort of the greatest hits of the collection, works we thought they'd want to appreciate," Smith said. That includes an abstract work by Picasso, which, "as complicated as that is, we thought — we need to make that accessible, to be able to talk about it with someone who is visually impaired."

With Art Beyond Sight's help, the museum trained its docents to use descriptive language that avoids interpretation so that those who can't see the work can make their own decisions about what it means.

"A lot of our national inclination when we describe a work of art is to leap right into what the work is about and what it means instead of telling someone what it looks like and letting them make their own interpretation," Smith said.

Within the year, Smith hopes to have gallery booklets in Braille; further down the road, she envisions an app that would allow those with limited vision to view works on mobile devices. "So, for instance, if you can't get really close to the work, you could zoom in on your iPad," she said.

The Meadows aims to offer a range of inclusive opportunities on April 12, the museum's Family Day Celebration.

The museum has piloted its materials for visually impaired volunteers, children's groups and a summer group of visually impaired high-school students assembled by the state's Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

"They've demonstrated a clear desire to be fully accessible to persons with vision loss," said Joseph Noland, a transition counselor for DARS' blind services division. At their workshops, "It's almost like you're back with the old masters, participating with them. It's like they've been brought back to life."

Robina Rayamajhi, a University of North Texas student with extremely low vision, agreed.

"I don't know of any museums that are doing as much as SMU does," Rayamajhi said. "They've had miniature replicas of the statues done, and it's like, 'OK, that's what it feels like.' It's an intimate experience."

Meadows officials understand that as in the greater populace, not everyone in the blind or low-vision community is going to enjoy art. But, they say, people should be able to decide for themselves.

"If they don't come, it should be by choice," Smith said. "Not because they feel like it's not relevant to them."

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

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