The manager of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Accessible Programs gives a history of the institution's services for people with disabilities, with particular attention to services for those who are blind and visually impaired. These include descriptive tours, touch tours, three-dimensional tactile interpretations of two-dimensional works of art, and a long standing art history and art making class for blind and visually impaired students, Form in Art.
On March 26, 1928, the first day the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) opened the doors of its beautiful new Neoclassical building to the public, the first visitor arrived in a wheelchair. In 1929, the museum initiated its Division of Education to enhance its two other major functions — collecting and preserving great works of art. The new division was formed to interpret the collections and to teach art. Museum lessons, gallery talks, lectures, tours, music, studio art classes, and a slide library were offered to "provide enjoyment and profit for all". It is this founding educational mission that has made the inclusion of accessible programs for people with disabilities a natural part of our museum's evolution.
In the late 60s PMA provided a barrier free entrance, free wheelchairs for use by all of our visitors, and tours for Viet Nam veterans and for school groups that included deaf children. In January 1971, Evan H. Turner, Director of the museum, wrote to Miss Anna Warren Ingersoll, artist, art collector, and member of the museum's Board of Directors:
"Dear Miss Ingersoll, A thought: Since with your current eyesight you rarely are able to come to the Museum, it has suddenly occurred to me that possibly I could persuade you to make a visit to the Museum to have a special tour with me looking at some of our new acquisitions as well as old friends with your hands. We do have wonderful new pieces — for an example, in my office now is a wonderful bust of an animated young woman by England's most important 18th-century sculptor, Nollekens — and there are many other things…. Think of it seriously. Nothing would give me greater pleasure and I would hope that you might find it interesting. With best wishes indeed — as always — Sincerely yours, ….."
Later that same year (maybe or not related to that interaction) after numerous requests from agencies serving blind and visually impaired individuals, PMA trustee and Women's Committee member Mrs. H. Fairfax Leary Jr. secured a two-year grant from the George W. Nevil Trust to create a pilot initiative that would allow blind adults greater access to the museum's collections. In addition to tours in its galleries and studio art classes, the Division of Education created a special, touchable exhibition of sculpture by twenty three local artists and a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for touch tours of select objects in their collections, too. The basic concept for this program originated from a meeting of the Volunteer Committee of Art Museums in Los Angeles, from whom Mrs. Leary learned that California, with approximately 80,000 blind people, had an art program 'on wheels' — taking art objects throughout the state. Although other art-making programs for people who are blind existed at this time, Form in Art was the first to combine the study of art history and the practice of art making for blind adults in a major American museum. The Women's Committee of the PMA founded this program, and Mrs. Leary administered it as an Education volunteer for its first five years. In March 2012, Form in Art celebrated its fortieth anniversary. The Women's Committee has funded it for every one of those forty years, 100 percent for the past thirty four of them.
The Museum's Division of Education held its first Form in Art class in March 1972. Each participant paid a $10 fee per semester, and one half of their transportation costs, with the Museum paying the other half. Transportation costs are a major expense for people who are blind, and museum contributions to that expense were a critical part of the program's early success. There were ten students, two artist instructors, and a handful of volunteers. Classes met twelve times during the fall and twelve in the spring. Each student completed three art-making projects each semester.
Each art project was based on objects in the museum's collections. Instructors selected the objects and designed the projects. They discussed the projects with a museum educator who then took each group of students on a one-hour tour in the galleries to learn about those objects and how they illustrated that instructor's project. Today, though the numbers have increased to around fifty students per semester, the basics of the program remain the same.
Experiencing the Museum Galleries: Visual Description
Giving tours for blind students, our museum Education staff, and later volunteer guides, learn to think differently about what the visitor needs and wants. They learn that only about 20 percent of people who are legally blind see nothing at all (about 30 percent in our classes today). The rest have some vision: like being in a very dense fog, having Vaseline smeared over your glasses, looking through a straw or organic polka-dots, etc. In addition, many people become blind over time or later in life, and have strong memories of the visual world. Some people work hard to remember what their vision was like, others concentrate on what they have now, and some explore the adventure of their total darkness.
On tours for people who are blind, guides learn to give less information and to talk about fewer objects — ones that are physically located closer together in the building, so walking time is reduced. Guides learn new ways of phrasing questions to check visitors' comprehension or spark their engagement and participation. They describe the gallery they're in, other visitors in the gallery or groups passing nearby, the art object's basic size, color, level of reality and detail — giving a simple, objective overview onto which they can add layer upon layer of more detailed information. They speak a bit more slowly, repeating and paraphrasing more often — blind people need to remember a lot of information. They point out more connections between the objects they are talking about to help with this remembering. Analogies are also effective in clarifying new concepts. For example when describing how light hits objects and those same objects create shadow, students are asked to think about standing in the shower and having the warm water hit them, while their body creates a space on the other side of them where the water does not hit. Finally the Guide reminds the students to be thinking about how what they are experiencing in the galleries can influence what they will make in the art studios.
Museum guide Judy Ramirez says: "I was blown away by the students' keen interest in art and determination to get to class every week—they do whatever it takes to get here. This is really a marvelous form of outreach, both to those with disabilities, and to those without. It's certainly expanded my life, and expanded my view of what I thought a tour guide could do."
Experiencing the Museum Galleries: Touch Tours
In addition to learning new ways of describing objects, teaching and art making, and extending the length of time students may attend the program, the museum, knowing that enabling each visitor to have their own experience of the great works of art in our care is paramount, and knowing that the only way a blind person could do this is through their own touching, allows it's blind visitors to touch select original objects in its collections. Because it would be a disservice to just let them feel a sculpture and guess what it is, which would create a stressful 'get it right or wrong in front of others' situation, and for the safety of the visitor and the objects (arms and other parts of sculptures often protrude in unexpected places), a specially trained Museum guide must accompany them and describe what the basic object is while they're touching it (smaller details and history come a bit later). People who are blind also have an idea of the value and importance of these objects and are very concerned about unintentionally harming them. These visitors must also remove any objects that might damage the artworks - watch, bracelet, belt buckle, necklace, pocket book, etc. - and wear cotton or nitrile gloves. There are sixty three objects on today's "approved for touching" list, one of which, the Indian Temple Hall, has sixteen fully carved columns and two life-sized figures in it. These objects periodically rotate. When other visitors observe these clearly unique tours, they consider a very different way of "looking" at art and think about how the museum welcomes everyone and responds differently to each of its visitors.
Sally Malenka, The John and Chara Haas Conservator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture, says: "In sculpture conservation there is always consideration of the artist's process and the material and form of an artwork, and we were able to appreciate with enthusiasm the goals of the [Form in Art] program. And we needed to make sure that the program could be carried out in a way that was safe for the collection and visitor. After initial discussions, the Conservation, Education, and Curatorial departments collaborated to select a group of objects on display that were suitable for touch tours and established guidelines for safe interaction with these artworks. Over the years the objects selected have ranged from a fourteenth century stone Virgin and Child to a twentieth century abstract stainless steel sculpture — representing an extraordinary opportunity to contemplate an artwork in a thoughtful and careful way."
Darielle Mason, the Stella Kramrisch Curator of Indian and Himalayan Art, says: "Studying the temple sculptures of India — my research focus — I long ago discovered how powerful a tool touch is for understanding the subtly different ways artists carved the human form. Running my fingers over the lumps and bumps of a stone belly on a temple wall lets me 'see' features that my eyes can't. But in a museum, conservation concerns prohibit touching. So it was exciting the first time the Manager of Accessible Programs, in a bind over an ill gallery guide, asked me to lead a touch tour through the museum's Indian Temple Hall. Helping visitors 'see' this incredible installation — a monumental merging of sculpture and architecture — with their hands rather than their eyes was a wonderful challenge. But it also started me thinking how I might share that experience with every visitor. Often since then, whether writing gallery didactics or lecturing, I've tried to articulate what the stone feels like — and through that how the sculptor or devotee's hands may have experienced the image. I'm currently exploring how new technologies might be used to help everyone touch Indian temple sculptures, and better "see" them through this underrated sense."
Touchable Interpretations of Paintings
Because paintings and drawings may never be touched, in 1995 the museum commissioned me, then a local artist, (more about that later) to make "touchable interpretations" of paintings in its collections so that people who are blind may also experience them. These scale models would allow blind visitors to experience two dimensional works of art through both touch and guided listening. They also offer sighted visitors a different perspective for experiencing a painting — they are encouraged to experience these interpretations with their eyes closed. Finally, these installations facilitate conversations between blind and sighted people about art. Each interpretation consists of a carefully scripted visual description audio component, a series of black and white, raised line, textured diagrams that start with the single most basic element in the picture and then build on it, step by step, to a depiction of the complete two dimensional object. These illustrate the words in the description and facilitate confirmation of the blind visitor's comprehension of them. The interpretation concludes with a three-dimensional, fully colored and multi-textured construction of the painting that shows its subject.
In the Art Studio
In the studio the students create their own works of art with instruction from their artist instructors, deepening and personalizing what they learned in the galleries.
Artist instructor, Vaughn Stubbs, has been with the program for more than thirty years. He has said, "When the Form in Art program started, I was utterly afraid, wondering if my sensitivity and knowledge of art were sufficient to deal with visually handicapped persons. I tried many things to help me understand the blind: walking with eyes closed, working on my own projects blindfolded, and reading books on how others taught the blind. All this helped and made the first meeting somewhat less difficult. But the actual understanding of what it is like to be blind came from working with my students. I came to find that it's not an easy thing to be blind, but one does live with, adjust, and adapt to the change in one's life."
Barbara Satz, a blind student of Stubbs, said of her early experiences in the program: "I felt like a kindergarten kid. He told us to mold anything we wanted. The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is an ash tray! I think I made a cup that day — isn't that original? But when he told us to change that shape into something entirely different, that's when I first began to realize what sculpture could mean to me." Students worked in a variety of materials, such as clay, paper machè, wood, wire, tape, cloth, paint and plaster on projects like "painted" and clay portraits, making a quilt together, creating chimera, and interpreting the fortune in a fortune cookie (we describe pictures to them in words — they describe words to us in an object).
The museum's first Coordinator of Accessible Programs, Sheryl Bar, observed: "Gradually they [the students] build the confidence and courage necessary for self expression. Students work hard to overcome the fear that their work will not look 'right' to the sighted. … In exploring the decorative arts, period rooms, sculpture, and painting in the museum's collections, one thing becomes apparent to them — that each work is unique and valid because it is a personal statement of the artist." For one project, instructor Eiko Fan gave each student an identical, rectangular slab of wood from which to create a mask. One student was running marathons at the time, so his incorporated parts cut from his old running shoes.
Former student Arslan Seraydanian, a retired engineer, literally became blind overnight from macular degeneration. He was eighty years old. His daughter Carol says: "He's unusual in that he pursued art after he lost his eyesight. People don't use their other senses. Now he uses his spiritual eyes, his artistic eyes." His first Form in Art project was in response to a tour of the museum's exhibition Shocking: The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli. Arslan says, with a laugh: "Sometimes I haven't the slightest idea what I'm doing. It just feels good to be working with my hands." He created a fabric dress sculpture for his wife, complete with a superimposed facial photo of her.
The program was originally organized so that each student attended classes for three years and then "graduated" with a certificate of accomplishment. However, those first ten blind students didn't want to leave at the end of three years. Teachers and students and volunteers were just getting the hang of communicating and working and exploring art together. The students were gaining self-esteem through the knowledge they were learning about art, through their inclusion in a broader (seeing) community, and through the self expression they found in making art. All the students wanted to continue — together. And, there was no place else they could go for this kind of experience.
Former student Toinette Allen said: "I get up at four in the morning to make sure I'm ready for the two hours (of the 9:30 a.m. class every Friday). They're just two hours, but they are such fun."
Former student Mary B. Smith said: "No matter how upset you are when you come here, you leave feeling good. The love of all the people here gives me a warm feeling inside. There's a lot of camaraderie."
So, the museum let them stay for another year…or two…or three, as long as there was room for new students. We get one to four new participants and a new volunteer or two most years. Periodically, undergraduate Art Education students also volunteer.
Exhibitions of Student Art Work
That original touchable exhibit of artwork by local artists quickly became an annual exhibit of Form in Art students' artwork. It is held at the museum in late spring of each year. It also travels to various other institutions during the summer. The Wills Eye Institute, a hospital focusing exclusively on treatment of eye and vision ailments, has hosted the Form in Art exhibit in its lobby for the last twenty four years.
A PMA visitor, on experiencing the Form in Art exhibition, said: 'You see through your hands! And you see so much. You teach me more about how we humans engage the world. Wonderful work! You have much to be proud of."
Museum Educator James Stein says: "I'm frequently surprised, too, when I see how unexpected and original their work is. The program helps challenge preconceptions about what people who are blind or have visual impairment can accomplish in the visual arts."
In 1987, Gallery Tom, a touchable art gallery in Tokyo, Japan, organized a tour of eleven museums and art galleries in Washington, DC, Philadelphia and New York for seven blind students and their art teachers from schools for the blind throughout Japan. The students were winners of Gallery Tom's nationwide contest for plastic works by blind pupils. The main purpose of the tour was to study how American art museums show their collections to visually disabled persons.
Upon their return home, Harue Murayama, the director of Gallery Tom, began making plans "to introduce the advanced condition of the museums in your country" to the rest of Japan. She brought the Form in Art exhibition to the Tom Gallery of touch-me art in Tokyo. Murayama said: "The first purpose for inviting the Form in Art collections is to enlighten educators or museums who are backward in education by showing your wonderful system at your museum. The second is, as a matter of course, to encourage blind children and adults by showing such splendid works."
That exhibition at the Tom Gallery in Japan was accompanied by a catalog and a seminar on Art and the Tactile Perspective, and it traveled to the Hyogo Prefectural Modern Art Museum in Kobe before returning to the U.S.
This exposure to the general public allows the blind students to share their perspectives on life — through visual art — with thousands of people, providing inspiration to blind and sighted museum visitors alike.
A Personal Journey
My journey from artist to Manager of Accessible Programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including oversight of the Form in Art Program, began with my creation of these touchable interpretations" for the museum. I'm a sculptor and painter. I make things with my hands. I'm interested in how other people and I perceive things. These "touchable interpretations" are one of the things I have created. In the early 1980s, I met a man who is blind (totally) and we became very close friends. He is also interested in people's perspectives and how things are made. He has a fully equipped woodworking shop in his basement. We made many things together. One year I made a Mondrian painting as a Christmas Card for him. I started with a rectangle of black cardboard, glued on smaller squares and rectangles of white cardboard and paper (cold press and hot press and watercolor paper for subtly different textures of white) leaving a small space between them so he could feel the black lines of the matrix. For the colors, I used a piece of yellow felt, a piece of rippley plastic, back painted blue, and gravel painted red. This sparked fantastic conversations between us. In one, my friend smiled wryly and said: "that square isn't red." I responded with: "Of course it is. That's the color Mondrian painted that square and that's the color I painted it." He said: "Nope. Not red." I was flabbergasted. I didn't know what to say. So, I said: "What color is it?" He said: "Gray." Now I was mystified. I asked him: "Why?" He said: "Because gravel is grey." I decided right then and there to put my sculpture on hold and began a journey to make this experience available to as many people as I could and to improve it.
This path introduced me to a lot of people and organizations, eventually leading me to the PMA, first as a consult making interpretations of paintings in their collections, then on part-time staff as the ADA coordinator, and, in 2003, to the full-time position of Manager of all of the museum's Accessible Programs. I am the museum's third such manager. There is currently no one place that I know of where a person can go to get a degree in Accessibility — to learn how to do all of these things. There is, however, a substantial, and growing, network of people in museums, service organizations, schools, and on their own, who share what they have learned about how to welcome blind and other visitors into museums. Several are doing this in more formal ways. When you're learning how to connect with someone who is blind, remember to engage yourself in their quest as well as engaging them in yours.
The Form in Art Program Today
Today, there are four Form in Art classes every Friday with a maximum of thirteen students in each. Some have been there one, three, five years - others more than ten. They range in age from thirty four to ninety two and are just as varied in their cultural backgrounds, in how long they have had their vision loss, how severe it is, and in how much previous experience they have had with art. We have two artist/instructors and twenty six volunteers. Ten to fifteen PMA volunteer guides are trained to give our Form in Art students, and other blind visitors, tours in the museum's galleries. The cost per semester is still $10 and now $40 for the more advanced class. We still pay half of their transportation costs. Most students use our local public transit Paratransit system. Some ride the public bus or are dropped off by a friend or family member. And, they still create three or four projects in both fall and spring semesters.
Our collaborations with the blind adults in our Form in Art program, and indeed with all of our visitors, continually reminds us that, yes, people with disabilities are special — that all of our visitors are special, including people with disabilities. Everyone has things they can and cannot do. Everyone has their own unique perspective on this world we inhabit and wants to share it — to say to and hear from others, including the artists who made the great objects in our collections and all of us who work at the Museum. People are people, not a disability. Disabilities is a word that may be defined in a way that allows the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) laws to be enforced.
In closing, here are the words of one Form in Art Student, Michael Geischen: "The Philadelphia Museum of Art is an ideal setting for this unique class. The accessible program offers touch tours for blind patrons for many of the sculptures, and the Form in Art class often sponsors descriptive tours of current exhibits. Several of my sculptures have been influenced by some of the greatest artists in history.… Every Friday we get together and share ideas, techniques, personal experiences, and a few laughs. Together we help each other understand our gifts and to reach our greatest potential as artists and as people."
Street Thoma graduated from the Maryland Institute, College of Art in 1969 and began careers as an artist and architectural scale model builder. In 1984, he and a blind colleague started their own three-year project creating an interactive, 3-D "you are here" map that can be used by people who are blind as well as sighted. In 1985, Thoma created and taught with his first Touchable Interpretation of a Painting which allows blind and sighted museum visitors to experience together masterpieces of the visual arts. He also studied American Sign Language at Catonsville Community College in Maryland and at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. during these years. His consulting business involved him with the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1995.