This is a personal account of a dedicated museum docent who lost her vision in 2007, but retained her passion for art. For the past five years, she has been an advisor on the Seattle Art Museum's docent committee for access. She discusses what a museum can do to enable her to form a distinct mental image of an artwork and a deep connection to the artist.
Art has always fascinated me, from my first Introduction to Art History course in college to visits to museums in the United States and Europe. I love the way works of art reveal the thoughts and emotions of the artist, as well as their culture and the historical period. As a docent at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), I shared my enthusiasm with schoolchildren and adults. I was a touring docent for more than fifteen years, providing information on exhibits of European and Asian art, twentieth-century American art, Chinese porcelains, Japanese textiles, Buddhist art, and the works of Van Gogh and Mondrian.
We talked about why the art was made, who made it, the techniques used, and the life of the artist and how that life was reflected in the person's work and what it told us about his or her culture. Think of a portrait of a woman by Picasso, Sargent and Cassatt. Each conveys a different perspective on women in their art that reflects on their own culture and, more important, on their own personal identity. Picasso uses bold, jagged lines and a limited palette. His portraits of women are spare and harsh. They are sexual objects. Cassatt's images are soft, with lots of shading and more of a sense of volume and homey colors. Her women reveal the tenderness within a family. Sargent, meanwhile, portrays confident, beautifully dressed, well-to-do women, with lots of attention to detail in the rendering of their hair and fabrics. His women are symbols of their social status.
As was said in a course I took, "Details in a work of art don't just pile up, they are managed, controlled and put to work." The same needs to be true in describing a piece of art, especially to someone with low vision who has to reconstruct the image with his or her imagination. I learned this five years ago when my sight was gone, suddenly, after a lengthy surgery. Although I can no longer see, I retain a passion for the visual arts.
What makes a visit to the museum meaningful for me is having the opportunity to experience the work of art: To create a mental image of it and to understand what the artist was trying to tell us about his or her culture and history. I do this by participating in a tour, by establishing a connection with the docent and other members of the tour, and by thinking about their ideas regarding the artworks visited. What I want is a tour that allows us to share our perspective and compare our personal reflections.
Until I lost my vision most of the other SAM docents had never known anybody without vision. For many docents who are my friends, it made them more interested in providing access to persons with vision loss and learning how to work with blind and low vision visitors. Seeing my continued desire to experience art, a few docents — one of whom had experience leading tours for people who are blind or low vision — began taking me through the shows. Soon the museum embraced the idea of beginning a program for people with visual impairments and staff and docent training ensued.
Today, I serve as an advisor on SAM's docent committee, specifically in the area of access. I give the docents suggestions on planning their tours for low vision and blind visitors, and feedback on their presentations. For instance, we don't do escalators; the words "here," "there," "this" and "that" should be dropped from the vocabulary when you are with us. You need to be clear about where we are going. Everything needs to be much more organized and precise, and we must be given more time to explore each piece of art on a tour.
A thorough, well-organized verbal description is the key to unlocking the meaning of a work of art for a person with low vision. It can be difficult for people who never have had vision to understand foreground and background or try to imagine a three-dimensional image conveyed in a two-dimensional painting. Describing sounds can help. If it's a seascape, there may be the swoosh of the surf, the scrunch of a canoe dragged onto the beach or the calls of birds flying overhead. If a visitor has never seen color, it helps to describe a "hot" pink or a "cool" blue. Describing how things feel is also important because people with low vision rely on their sense of touch to know where things are, their shape and their texture. Bare feet on a cool tile floor, the softness of a child's hair in a drawing of the bathing of a child can also help those with low vision use their imagination to build an image in their minds. Always the experience is made richer by being able to talk about the art with others, both with and without vision. But it is a very different conversation with people without vision. They reflect more on the historical context and the interpretation of the emotion and meaning of the work. A sighted person will talk much more about the appearance of the image.
Because the SAM docents have known me for so long, they are very comfortable asking me questions and getting feedback. The museum is fully committed to being accessible. The educational staff has always provided the resources needed by the access program. The guards, whether they know me or not, are always friendly and very well trained. The museum pays a company to add full verbal descriptions of the artworks to their audio tours. This level of support is pretty incredible. Providing access to those with vision loss is a new skill, but it is one that can be learned. And, hopefully, it provides rewards for the docents as well as for the visitors like me who have come to experience the art.
Donnelly Wilburn has three advanced degrees: a Masters in Speech Communication, a Masters in Library and Information Science, and a J.D. (Law Degree). She served as a docent at the Seattle Art Museum for fifteen years before losing her vision; now she is a consultant for the museum docents' access committee.