Blind Art Lovers Make The Most Of Museum Visits With 'InSight' Tours

Jan 5, 2017
Originally published on January 6, 2017 8:48 am

Dorlyn Catron's cane is making its radio debut today — its name is Pete. ("He's important to my life. He ought to have a name," she says.)

Catron is participating in one of the America InSight tours at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum offers twice-a-month tours, led by specially trained docents, to blind and visually impaired visitors.

Docent Betsy Hennigan stops the group of nine visitors in front of Girl Skating, a small bronze sculpture from 1907 by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle. The roller-skating girl is full of joy. The visitors — of varied ages, races and backgrounds — stand close together, hands on top of their long canes, facing Hennigan as she describes the artwork: The little girl careens forward, arms outstretched, her hair and her dress flow behind her.

Carol Wilson trains the 12 volunteer docents. "Sight isn't the only pathway to understand art," she says. Wilson suggests the docents invite visitors to imitate the pose of a sculpture and use other senses in their verbal descriptions.

"There's a red in one of the paintings and I've said it's like biting into a strawberry," says docent Phoebe Kline.

William Johnson's painting Café depicts a man and a woman sitting side-by-side, having a drink in a jazz cafe. "There's no way you can see music in this piece," says Hennigan, "but I ask them to imagine hearing jazz. ... Can you smell cigarettes? Can you smell the alcohol?"

Docent Edmund Bonder uses real music to help bring to life a painting of a young woman at a piano. He describes her fingers on the upper right part of the keyboard, and then plays some classical piano music on his smartphone right in the middle of the gallery. No one shushes him.

"I check with security personnel beforehand and let them know this is what's going to happen," Bonder says with a laugh.

Sometimes low-vision and blind visitors can actually touch the art — in Latex-free gloves. Kline learned something herself, when a sixth-grader felt Hugo Robus' sculpture Water Carrier.

"She ran her hands down the body of this female figure, and her first remark was: Oh, she's pregnant," Kline recalls. "And I had never thought about that. But in fact, the figure does look like a pregnant woman. Here was a kid really showing me something that I had been looking at for 35 years, probably, and had never noticed."

The visitors move slowly through the museum, some "seeing" in their imaginations, others, with low vision, getting really close to the artwork to see it better with magnifying devices. The docents take questions about the art and the artists. Visitor Kilof Legge listens intently. He's taken lots of these tours. He has had macular degeneration since childhood and has deeply missed art.

"For the longest time I really felt angry when I came into a museum," he says. "And hurt and insulted, almost. Because these are public places and I felt I was denied access." He says he is "grateful and excited" to have the art world opened back up to him through tours like these.

This was visitor Cheryl Young's second American InSight tour. She was born sighted, so she has color memory. "This experience ... brought back another piece of my life that I haven't been able to explore since my vision loss," she says.

Twice a month, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum helps blind and low-vision visitors to see art in their minds' eyes — and demonstrate that there are many ways to experience a work of art.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And across this country, museums are opening their doors to what might seem like an unlikely group of visitors, people who are blind or have other vision problems. Here in Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian's American Art Museum offers tours by specially trained guides, or docents. They're specially trained, and they prove that there are many ways to experience works of art. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg took a tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPPORT CANE TAPPING FLOOR)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Dorlyn Catron's cane scopes out the museum.

This will be your cane's radio debut.

DORLYN CATRON: OK, then.

STAMBERG: Dorlyn says the cane's name is Pete.

You've named him?

CATRON: I have. Well, you know, he's this important to my life. He ought to have a name.

STAMBERG: Wonder if she'll go home and say she saw something beautiful at the museum today.

BETSY HENNIGAN: So if you want to just follow my voice, we'll head out into the courtyard and get on an elevator.

STAMBERG: Nine visitors and their slim, white canes ride up to a gallery. Docent Betsy Hennigan stops them in front of "Girls Skating," a small, bronze sculpture from 1907 by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle. The roller-skating girl is full of joy.

HENNIGAN: Her arms are extended, just all the way out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Is her hair everywhere?

HENNIGAN: Her hair is sort of flying out behind her, so the skirt is kind of flying out...

STAMBERG: The visitors - mixed ages, races, backgrounds - stand close together, hands on top of their long canes. They face Betsy's voice, not the artwork. They're listening hard.

CAROL WILSON: Sight isn't the only pathway to understand a work of art.

STAMBERG: Carol Wilson, who trains the 12 volunteer docents, suggests they have visitors imitate the pose of a sculpture and use other senses in their verbal descriptions. Docent Phoebe Kline.

PHOEBE KLINE: For instance, there's a red in one of the paintings. And I've said it's like biting into a strawberry.

STAMBERG: Describing William Johnson's painting "Cafe," two people sitting in a jazz cafe, Betsy Hennigan talks about music.

HENNIGAN: There's no way you can see music in this piece. But I ask them to imagine hearing jazz. And then I start to even talk about - can you smell cigarettes? Can you smell the alcohol?

STAMBERG: Docent Edmund Bonder uses real music for the painting of a young woman at a piano. He describes her fingers on the upper right part of the keyboard and then, with his smartphone, plays some Debussy or Sibelius - and nobody says shush.

EDMUND BONDER: I checked with their security personnel beforehand...

(LAUGHTER)

BONDER: ...And let them know this is what's going to happen.

STAMBERG: Sometimes, low-vision and blind visitors can touch the art in latex-free gloves. Docent Phoebe Kline learned something herself when a sixth-grader felt the Hugo Robus sculpture "Water Carrier."

KLINE: She ran her hands down the body of this female figure. And her first remark was - oh, she's pregnant. And I had never thought about that. But in fact, the figure does look like a pregnant woman. Here was a kid really showing me something that I had been looking at for 35 years probably and had never noticed.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCENT #1: A lot of body language in art...

STAMBERG: The visitors move slowly through the museum - some seeing in their imaginations, others with low vision getting really close to a painting to use binoculars or magnifying devices. There are questions.

CHERYL YOUNG: I know that in poetry every word means something to the poet. So does the same concept hold true for an artist?

STAMBERG: Yes, says the docent. For painters, every stroke can count. Visitor Kilof Legge listens intently. He has taken lots of these tours. Since childhood, he's had macular degeneration, and he's deeply missed art.

KILOF LEGGE: For the longest time, I really felt angry when I came into a museum - and hurt and insulted almost because these are public places and I felt like I was denied access. And finally, to have these tours and open up the art world to me again, which I loved as a kid, I am just so grateful and excited.

STAMBERG: Every one of the visitors looked glad to be on this American Art Museum tour. And the docents had a good time, too.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCENT #2: I want to just add that this was a fabulous experience.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED DOCENT #2: You guys were great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Yeah, thank you.

STAMBERG: This was visitor Cheryl Young's second special museum tour. It's called America InSight. She was born sighted so has color memory and plans to join many future tours.

YOUNG: This experience for me just brought back another piece of my life that I haven't been able to explore since my vision loss.

STAMBERG: Twice a month, on Thursdays and Sundays, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., helps blind and low-vision groups to see art in their mind's eyes.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous Web version of this story misspelled docent Phoebe Kline's last name as Klein. ] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.