The article recreates a gallery conversation with blind and low-vision visitors focused on The Judgment of Solomon, (c. 1640) by Matthias Stomer. Rather than passively receiving the interpretations of the facilitator, participants work together to build an understanding of the painting as a whole from the details described. The article goes on to give a history of the program's development including a nuanced evaluation of the merits of handling objects as an aid to comprehension.
Art Beyond Sight is a monthly gallery program for visitors who are blind or partially sighted at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). Participants spend each sixty-minute program exploring one work of art through an MFAH education department staff member's verbal description combined with a mix of participants' observations, questions, associations, and interpretations. Reaching roughly 150 participants annually, the monthly program is not a statistical boon for the MFAH, but it stands out as a pedagogical approach in which visitors spend significant time encountering a work of art with shared results and as an example of the museum fostering a sense of community within its galleries.
The dialogical model of the program celebrates a deep investigation of a single work; participants consider the work from various points of view and savor the time it takes for each work to reveal itself. Visitors offer numerous potential interpretations during the discussion, and as the program unfolds, interpretations are challenged, supported, and complicated by other participants' thoughts (Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). The ending point of the conversation is more complex and nuanced than the starting point, and visitors leave asking bigger questions than the ones they had when they arrived.
On paper, the goals of the MFAH's Art Beyond Sight program might seem common or familiar to many museum gallery programs. However, by embracing a pedagogy that values each of the artist's choices as worthy of consideration and revealing these choices through the observations that visitors make about the work of art, the MFAH puts visual observation at the forefront of Art Beyond Sight. In short, the program emphasizes that which is elusive to many of the program's low-vision participants: attention to visual detail. Guided by the outcomes of several pilot programs, visitor feedback, and institutional values, Art Beyond Sight came to privilege observation as the foundation of the program.
The Pilot Phase
The program framework encourages visitors to discover the work of art through their own thoughts and the collective observations of the group. It developed out of focus group conversations and experimentations during the pilot and early public stages of the program. These initial efforts helped identify community members who wanted to be more involved with the museum, with whom the MFAH could build the program together, and who could serve as ambassadors for the program to the blind and low-vision community (Simon, 2010). Focus group comments revealed an interest in simply discovering the MFAH's collection and exhibitions. Feedback on potential program descriptions favored being with the original work of art, no matter how the art was accessed by visitors (Reich et al, 2011).
Pilot programs with small groups of participants — usually limited to three to five visitors — explored three thematically connected works of art with hands-on materials as the primary tool of engagement. Three pilot programs allowed staff to become more comfortable with providing verbal descriptions of works of art, guiding tactile explorations of hands-on materials, and navigating the museum with blind visitors. Reflecting on the pilot programs, museum staff felt that something central to other MFAH gallery experiences was missing from the program: visitors were not interpreting works of art with a depth of understanding. Participant feedback also helped identify some of the program's shortcomings. A logistical concern was that walking through the museum to reach multiple works of art took too much time away from being with the objects themselves. As a result, visitors did not have adequate time to move beyond a cursory encounter with a work of art. Logistically, this also caused the program to run over time, which forced those who had arranged public transportation to leave before the program concluded.
The feedback on the use of hands-on materials was generally positive: tactile exploration was familiar — even expected — for low-vision visitors, but some hands-on materials did not function in the intended way (a raised line drawing of a painting did not communicate a sense of perspective, for example). Visitors enjoyed touching a piece of bronze, but the tactile experience did not lead to an understanding of a bronze sculpture. In a sense, the program relied on the props to do the work, steering attention away from a robust exploration of the work of art. These materials were employed simply for the sake of having something to touch, not because the experience of touch was truly helping visitors understand or connect with the object in a deeper or more meaningful way.
On further reflection, the program was, deliberately or not, minimizing the role that verbal description played in visitors' museum experience. With so much time allocated to moving throughout the museum and manipulating hands-on materials, the verbal description portion was diminished. When visitors asked questions about the work of art, their questions pointed out shortcomings in the verbal description rather than interrogating the object's meaning. Simple descriptions left visitors with a superficial impression of the object. Furthermore, disregarding the importance and potential of verbal description modeled a hasty way to consider a work of art, rather than giving time to value the subtle details and nuances of the object. The program framework would need to change to meet the expectations of visitors and the goals of the museum.
Developing the Approach
A reflective look at the success of other MFAH gallery programs for adults helped us to shape the Art Beyond Sight program in a way that reflected the values, feel, and successes of these programs. Our challenge was to take the experience already offered to the general public — an experience that reflects the pedagogical values of the MFAH as an institution — and make it accessible to a new constituency of blind and partially sighted visitors (McGinnis, 2007). MFAH gallery talks and group tours share a singular goal: for visitors to engage with a work of art in a way that leads to understanding (Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). MFAH gallery programs encourage visitors to look closely at and be attentive to works of art, derive meaning from works of art, forge connections between observations and interpretive ideas, and develop a relationship between the object and themselves.
Revisiting the goals that drive the gallery programs for the Art Beyond Sight program prompted us to work through the sight-dependent language embedded in the goals. How could a visitor "look closely" and potentially forge a connection between "observations and interpretive ideas" with limited access to the primary mechanism that makes this achievement possible? The answer, for the MFAH, was verbal description. Although verbal description had not been given due consideration during the pilot phase, it was now vitally positioned within the program. Staff leading Art Beyond Sight, as well as the participants, would need to work together to paint a clear and detailed picture in the mind's eye of each participant. The mental image created would need to prompt visitors to keep thinking about varied aspects of the work of art, or, in other words, to look closely at it.
Placing the exploration of a work of art at the center of the Art Beyond Sight experience created a shared experience that respected the needs and interests of the diversity of participants in the program. Visitors to the program represent every category in the spectrum of visitor identities, including visitors whose hobbies and interests predispose them to museum visits, social visitors who attend with friends or family members, and visitors who were attracted to the program because it was a unique offering tailored to the blind community (Falk, 2009; Sachatello-Sawyer, 2002; Randi Korn & Assoc., 2010). Participants were not homogenous in their motivations for attending, nor were they homogenous in their experiences with blindness. Some attendees were blind, while others were partially sighted; some lost their sight long ago, while others lost (or are beginning to lose) it more recently; and some visually impaired visitors attend with sighted friends or family members. By planning the program in a way that allows the work of art to be the catalyst of a group experience, the program could accommodate the diversity within this constituency in the same way the MFAH attends to any group of participants on a gallery talk or group tour.
On Verbal Description and Observation
The foundation for a dialogical model of art exploration with visitors who are blind or have low vision is laid through deliberate and intensive verbal description of the work of art. Although the term "verbal description" might make it seem like the person describing the work of art generates observations about the work on behalf of those in attendance, verbal description can in fact yield fruitful visitor observations when done in an inclusive, participatory way. Verbal description is not passively conveyed to visitors; visitors actively produce it. Excerpts from an Art Beyond Sight program that explored The Judgment of Solomon — an enigmatic c. 1640 painting, more than five feet tall by six feet wide, and painted by Matthias Stomer, a Dutch artist active in Italy in the wake of Caravaggio — illustrate these ideas through visitors' own words.
"Across the circular group is a man dressed in a red robe that hangs down covering his entire figure except for his hands and one foot. The collar of his robe is lined with fur — white fur with black spots."
"Would that be ermine fur? Sounds kingly," interjects Robert.
"There's a suggestion that this fur might tell us something about this figure. Let's take in more details: Dangling over this fur from around his neck are two necklaces made up of alternating red and black rectangular gems set in gold. On his head, a red turban is wrapped and fastened with a large red gem. Emerging from the top of the turban is a gold circlet crown, narrow in diameter and punctuated by tall, thin triangular peaks."
"Is he the only person sitting down? He looks like he's sitting, but I can't see a chair and he looks higher than everyone else," adds Michelle.
"Thanks for that observation," the facilitator confirms. "He is sitting on a chair, but we don't see much of it because it is obscured by his robes. And although we can't see a pedestal, the chair is raised off the ground."
Donna adds, "So he's elevated on a throne while everyone else is standing or kneeling? It's good to be king!"
The facilitator continues, "We seem comfortable interpreting this figure as a king. Let's take a look at what he's doing to learn more about him."
Opening up the verbal description to more visitor participation allows dialogue to permeate throughout the entire program, rather than commencing dialogue after the verbal description is completed. It creates a culture wherein visitors ask clarifying questions about what the work looks like, allowing other participants to answer those questions. These types of questions manifest the ways in which visitors are making sense of the work or where they are looking for meaning in the art. When another participant provides verbal description — either through describing what they see or recalling what was said previously — the facilitator knows how participants' understanding of the work is developing.
Most importantly, making verbal description participatory allows partially sighted and sighted participants in the program to share in this component of the program and helps counteract the verbal description as the sole responsibility and the authority of the staff facilitator.
Philip asks a clarifying question: "What do their facial expressions tell us?" He is looking for more evidence to consider.
Kathy answers, "I don't think we can see the woman in blue's face because she is turned towards Solomon."
"The woman in yellow's face seems really pained, like she is really concerned for the child," Margaret recalls from earlier in the conversation.
When verbal description is employed in a robust and deliberate way and the group dialogue includes facets of verbal description, observation is elevated. The facilitator and participants together show that every detail is worth the visitors' attention. Deep analysis of observations makes it possible for visitors to move from recognition to understanding. Recognizing a work of art (a portrait sculpture, a vessel, a history painting) does not yield an understanding of the object (what is the significance of its creation?, why does it look this way?, what questions does it raise?).
Philip suggests the kneeling woman in the yellow dress on Solomon's right might be the true mother.
Michelle concurs, "She's reaching out for the baby with the blanket."
Nadine builds on the argument, saying, "She seems like she is more prepared to care for the baby."
Heather draws attention to the same figure's exposed left breast. "Might that be a sign of maternity?" she asks. "It's seems like she is ready to nurture the baby."
"Or maybe she's just showing off and ready to catch her half of the baby," Kathy draws laughs from the group.
The conversation turns in a direction more favorable to the case of the woman in the blue dress, kneeling on Solomon's left side. Robert makes a connection, "That could be a sign [the exposed breast]. But isn't the Virgin Mary usually dressed in blue? Maybe the artist is equating the other woman with the mother of all mothers."
Nadine, contradicting her earlier support of the woman in yellow, adds that if she were the real mother in this scenario, she would immediately appeal to Solomon. "He's the one making the decisions here." This interpretation seems to explain why King Solomon is looking down at the woman in blue as she returns his eye contact.
To clarify details of the story, Donna refers back to the Bible passage the facilitator read aloud to the group earlier, "Didn't the real mother say to give the baby to the other woman? Maybe that is what she is saying to Solomon."
Michelle further describes this interaction, adding, "They are understanding each other. The woman in yellow doesn't connect with Solomon."
"But on an emotional level," Richard adds, "you might turn to the person who could do the immediate harm." By drawing our attention back to the woman in yellow's gesture towards the executioner, Richard has cast doubt on this line of reasoning.
Neutrality in verbal description is essential in allowing visitors to be the primary stakeholders in the interpretation of the work of art. Admittedly, complete neutrality in verbal description is hard to attain; comments that reflect the facilitator's own interpretations or commonly accepted interpretations can easily seep into verbal description. The transfer of ideas rendered in a visual language to a verbal language itself requires interpretation. However, describing a work of art in terms of commonly accepted interpretations — like describing figures emotions rather than describing how they show that emotion — makes the verbal description shorter and avoids unnecessary misunderstandings. However, that form of description makes the facilitator the interpreter and curtails the potential for other interpretations among the group.
"The woman in blue, can you describe her hand again?" Robert asks.
"It's in the same position you have yours, Robert," the facilitator responds, describing again the woman in blue's arm as being bent at the elbow with the palm of her hand facing upwards and in the direction of King Solomon.
"So it could be like a plea? Like she's begging Solomon to let the other woman have the baby rather than dividing it in half?" He quickly follows up, "Or I suppose it could be a sign of resignation," acknowledging that the ambiguity of the gesture has brought into question his original interpretation.
The MFAH's vast collection — spanning 5,000 years of human creation and touching nearly every corner of the globe — provides many works of art that can sustain a thoughtful and thought-filled exploration and conversation among participants over the course of the hour-long program. In facilitating the program, the staff member's goal is to create a space in which visitors can forge new ideas, connections, and questions through careful observation of the visual details of the work. Every point of conversation comes back to visual evidence, keeping observation at the center of making meaning. With an hour of dedicated time for dialogue about a single work of art, it can be tempting for the conversation to shift to discussing issues that surround the object or, in other words, ideas that do not necessarily require sight to access (an artist's biography, the historical context of its creation, rituals and traditions, etc.), but the program emphasizes using these ideas as another way of reinforcing visual observations made throughout the program.
Nadine speaks for everyone in the group, "We've been trying to figure out who the real mother is for almost thirty minutes, but we keep using the same ideas to support different arguments!" A quick poll of the group confirms the deadlock: about half think the mother is the woman in yellow, while the other half supports the woman in blue. "But I guess the artist has kept us looking at the painting," suggests Nadine.
"And isn't that what an artist wants? For people to keep looking at his work?" asks Donna.
Richard continues, "Initially Solomon had to make a decision and he didn't know [the right answer]. And we don't know. And it was Solomon's wisdom that brought him not to ask a question but to take the approach that he did."
"We see what he valued," adds Kathy, "he valued wisdom and right judgment."
Robert sums up the experience, "The painting reminds us that we aren't as wise as Solomon. He figured out the just outcome quickly, while we are still debating which mother benefited from his wisdom." The group seems to have come to a humbling consensus.
After a brief pause, Richard resumes the conversation, "If that's the interpretation we take away, then this doesn't seem like a typical painting for a church. It seems better suited for people like lawyers and judges." The facilitator confirms that this painting was most likely commissioned for a civic building, and the dialogue continues with this new information in mind.
Visitors' sustained scrutiny of the visual cues in the painting led to inferences well beyond the subject matter or narrative action of the painting.
Art Beyond Sight has been successful in fostering a community of learners within Houston's blind community. The galleries of the MFAH are a place where people can come together, whatever the terms may be. One participant had recently relocated to Houston and attended the program to meet other people who are blind or have low vision. A former third grade teacher in an area school district, who had brought her class to the museum annually until she resigned her position while transitioning to vision loss, remarked that she was able to reconnect with the museum through Art Beyond Sight. The program also builds a sense of community in making meaning from works of art. Visitors participate in the experience together, and although they might not know where the program and their ideas will take them, it is a shared experience. The sense of discovery is greater among the group than what individual visitors would experience on their own. Art Beyond Sight has shifted a view of the MFAH from a place where vision is required to attend to a place people can engage with ideas and connect with other people (Simon, 2010). Manuel, a program participant, summed it up after his first visit to the museum when he said "I thought I would have to touch the art to get something out of coming here. But instead I used my mind, and I think that made it a lot better."
- Burnham, R. & Kai-Kee, E. (2011). Teaching in the art museum: Interpretation as experience. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum.
- Falk, J. (2009). Identity and the museum visitor experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.
- Randi Korn & Associates (2010). A framework for engaging with art. Dallas Museum of Art.
- McGinnis, R. (2007). Enabling education: Including people with disabilities in art museum programming. In P. Villeneuve (Ed.), From periphery to center: Art museum education in the 21st century. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.
- Reich, C., Lindgren-Streicher, A, Beyer, M., Levent, N., Pursley, J. and Mesiti, L.A. (2011). Speaking out on art and museums: Study on the needs and preferences of adults who are blind or have low vision. Retrieved February 22, 2013. http://www.artbeyondsight.org/new/speaking-out-on-art-and-museums.shtml
- Sachatello-Sawyer, B. et al. (2002). Adult museum programs: Designing meaningful experiences. New York: AltaMira Press.
- Simon, N. (2010). The participatory museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0.
Bridget Hoyt, past Tour Programs Manager at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is Curator of Education, Academic Programs at the Snite Museum of Art at the University of Notre Dame. For more information about Art Beyond Sight at the MFAH, contact email@example.com.