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Touching Works of Art at the IMA



The Indianapolis Museum of Art has always had a knack for making its art easily accessible to everyone. Now the museum is joining the ranks of many others of its kind around the country in making tours even more useful and thought-provoking for the visually impaired.

Using gloves, guests are allowed to touch certain pieces of art on these tours. - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • Using gloves, guests are allowed to touch certain pieces of art on these tours.

"Touch & Audio Descriptive Tours," as they're referred to by IMA staff, provide detailed descriptions of each piece and offer a tactile experience for some of them. The IMA Conservation Society has given permission for 15 of the sculptures to be felt using nitrile gloves. Docents can assist visually impaired guests who wish to touch the works. They will place one of the guest's hands as an anchor point at the base of the piece, while the guest's other hand is free to systematically explore the art's surface as the docent describes it. Most of the sculptures on the list are bronze.

Docents receive special training to learn how to describe not only the pieces but their space within the museum as well.

"There are other sensory experiences that you get being in a museum versus being at home at your computer having access to an audio description to a work of art," says Jennifer Todd, manager of docent programs. "It is different than being in the same physical space as the piece." Todd has gone to great lengths to ensure that guests on the tour are given descriptions of everything around them as well. "It is like looking at an art history book and seeing the Mona Lisa. How is that experience different than being at the Louvre in Paris?"

These subtle nuances ensure that the IMA's tours are better than what one could ever get from home. It's easy to listen to a description of an isolated piece of work, but hearing about its actual setting within the gallery and the space around the guest, creates a more realistic image. Each description brings forth small details that a simple visual assessment might pass over without notice.

For those who have transportation issues or cannot travel for various reasons, many museums have made their audio descriptions available online. The Guggenheim, for example, provides eloquent descriptions about some of its selected works. Docents at the IMA tend to use a clock face as a point of reference for each work they describe.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • Georgia O’Keeffe’s Jimson Weed

"In the upper left, at about 9 o'clock, is an early blossom, shaped like a tube just beginning to unfurl ... To the right of this new blossom is the fully opened bloom, which fills the site from the 12 o'clock- to 3 o'clock-position." Such is the description of Georgia O'Keeffe's Jimson Weed. Docents also speak about the history of each piece and accounts of its medium.

To describe a sculpture, docents tend to use its base as a point of reference and build from there. The installation is described in its entirety, and then each characteristic of it is explained in relation to the other. For complex pieces, such as The Flight of Europaby Paul Manship, this relation is critical. The docent sculpts with words an image of Cupid within the statue. "His height is about the same dimension as from the top of Europa's head to her elbow," says the docent.

Comparisons are always given for any measurement during the audio descriptions. For the O'Keeffe piece its dimensions are likened to a queen-size mattress. The Flight of Europa statue is roughly a shoulder's width in length.

The Flight of Europa by Paul Manship - EMILY TAYLOR
  • Emily Taylor
  • The Flight of Europa by Paul Manship

The IMA will partner with the Indiana School for the Blind this spring to bring in students for group tours. The public tour (the first Saturday of the month at 11 a.m.) typically doesn't have more than 10 participants. Currently the only real challenge Todd faces is getting people in the door.

"It is not like the 'build it and they will come [concept],' we really need to keep reaching out and reaching out," says Todd. "We are seeing what it is we need to adjust, so that people know what we have to offer."

The Touch and Audio Descriptive Tours program is a perfect example of such offerings.  It is only fitting that the museum is reaching out to its visually impaired visitors in hopes that they can get in touch with and truly experience the art around them.

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