At the Seattle Art Museum, which also includes the nearby Asian Art Museum and Olympic Sculpture Park, there are free monthly tours catering to those who are blind or have low vision. The tours are a combination of detailed verbal descriptions and touch, as well as general explanations and group discussion, said Jenny Woods, manager of volunteer programs at the museum. Often objects on display are not allowed to be touched, so the museum provides alternatives made from similar materials or in similar shapes, Woods said.
“Sometimes we also have other components, like eating. Recently we arranged for a Japanese tea ceremony in connection to an exhibit about Japanese tea pots,” Woods said. “The museum is certainly dedicated to being a place for everyone, so for people who are blind, it means we need to do things differently.”
At the Olympic Sculpture Park, people who are blind are permitted to touch the statues and other works of art off limits to the general public.
The program came about several years ago when one of the museum’s docents lost her vision, Woods said.
“She and her fellow docents really pushed for this, and it all just sort of came together,” Woods said. Since then, all docents who lead these tours have received specialized training. An important component of the tours is also group discussion about the meaning and interpretations of works of art, Woods said.
“You will see a group of people who even though they cannot see having a rich and full discussion of works of art,” Woods said.
Private versions of the tours can also be arranged.
Taking a different approach, The Art Institute of Chicago has developed TacTiles, which are handheld tiles that use composition and texture to reproduce some of the museum’s paintings, making them legible through touch to those who are blind. These 8-by-10-inch TacTiles are available free of charge, and the museum can also organize a tour that uses these tiles in addition to a descriptive guide.
The Art Institute and other museums have also experimented with providing 3D-printed versions of displayed objects that those who are blind can touch and handle.
But Woods said the Seattle Art Museum had mixed reactions to 3D printed objects from patrons who are blind.
“You are getting the shape of it, but that’s really all you are getting,” Woods said. The process is also expensive and materials are often limited to plastic. For now, the museum is focusing on providing objects with texture and encouraging group discussion, she said.
While there is no single inclusive directory of museums with programs to accommodate those who are blind or have low vision, The American Council of the Blind lists some institutions, and the staff at Art Beyond Sight can also make recommendations by phone or email to travelers, depending on their interests.
“There is really a variety out there, whether you want drawing, touching or a tactile program,” Axel said. “I think at this time, a traveler can find anything they like, but not necessarily at all institutions.”