A New Way to See Art

Museum programs for the blind challenge notions of how people connect with great works. 

Blind visitors touch a sculpture of the Louvre's Tactile Gallery collection at the National Museum in Bogota. The collection of replicas of famous works found in the Louvre was conceived for the blind and visually impaired. ((William Fernando Martinez / AP))

People often stand before celebrated abstract artist Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings and don’t get it. At first glance—and second, and maybe even third—his signature pieces just look like large canvasses covered with black paint. Legend has it that when the Museum of Modern Art first exhibited them a man was so offended he cancelled his membership.

But Reinhardt’s dark squares aren’t monochromatic fields of pigment. They contain what American art critic Irving Sandler calls “ghosts of lines and ghosts of color,” a challenge to viewers to discover elusive shapes and tonal variations. The Guggenheim Museum’s catalogue claims the black paintings push the limits of visibility: Look too quickly and you’ll miss the whole thing.

So of all the art to choose, it would seem strange that art historian and museum educator Georgia Krantz finds these works important to share on her tours for the visually impaired. She is the creator of the “Mind’s Eye” series at the Guggenheim, in New York, which provides “sensory experience workshops” for museumgoers who are blind or have low vision. Beyond merely describing artworks, these workshops, like a growing number of programs at leading museums, are taking a multisensory approach: Their aim is to use touch and smell in addition to language to elicit the same emotions for blind visitors that others have when they view works by Bourgeois or Dali or Monet—an artist famous for pondering the very experience of seeing outdoor France.

“We see through our brains, not our eyes,” Krantz explained. “The eye is just one of the channels through which sensory information is passed to the brain for processing.”

Indeed, cognitive scientists have found the senses interact in a number of brain areas, previously considered vision-specific. And for blind subjects in particular, touch can excite neurons normally reserved for sight. With the right tools, neuroscience suggests, blind museumgoers can be moved by visual art like anybody else—and that the essence of painting or sculpture isn’t vision, but rather a meaningful connection between artist and audience.

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Imagine having to interpret Jeff Koons’ Play-Doh, a 10-foot neon-colored mound of aluminum sculpted to resemble the putty-like toy many kids grew up squishing in their hands. Despite being painted metal, the artwork is deceptively tactile, with the crustiness and cracks of the real thing. “Whether you’ve lost your sight or are blind since birth, play dough is a kind of universal memory. We all remember how it feels and smells,” Krantz said.

On its own, however, a description of Play-Doh’s physical properties, or how it took Koons twenty-years to create, isn’t as likely to cause pangs of childhood nostalgia. So instead, “to make it present in the moment,” Krantz came up with a multi-step solution when Play-Doh was on display at the Whitney Museum’s 2014 retrospective. First, she handed out actual Play-Doh, and encouraged blind visitors to squeeze and inhale. Then, to show them the artwork’s dramatic “visual ruse,” she offered them a sample of the metal used, provided by Jeff Koons’s studio. Finally, to give a sense of scale, she walked her visitors around the large installation.

“Each work sets up different questions and options,” Krantz explains—and that’s true of every medium, from paint-on-canvas to elaborate three-dimensional work. In 2014, Multimedia designer Ezgi Ucar worked with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, to add sound and smell to small replicas of the Museum’s famous sculptures for the blind—or “tactiles,” as they’re called in the museum world. Her project, which she called “Multisensory Met,” was inspired by one of the Met’s pieces, Power Figure, a nearly four-foot spikey wood and metal sculpture from 19-century sub-Saharan Africa. And she envisioned “Multisensory Met” for sighted viewers like herself, too, who might emotionally or intellectually connect more to artwork if they weren’t only seeing it with their eyes. “When I saw [Power Figure], I really wanted to touch and smell it,” she explained. “All of these materials were added to the original figure during rituals like dirt from burial sites and white clay from riverbeds.”

So she put “a little bit of essential oil” atop her Power Figure model to simulate the object’s original scent—or at least, how it smelled to her. And to express the sculptor’s intent—the sculpture as spiritually intimidating—Ucar wired the inside of her tactile so it emits a buzzing sound when someone touches it.

In another instance, one of Krantz’s colleagues once translated Salvador Dali Surrealist style, by passing around a silicone breast implant. The idea was to convey the way he paints a person’s “strange melting body” and the “morphing texture” he’s famous for.

Silicone gel mimics the feel of human fat well, but Dali wouldn’t have known that in the 1930s—and that highlights the delicate balance translators have to strike in each interpretation. While the process might seem random, converting a two-dimensional experience to a three- dimensional one requires thoughtful restraint. “You can bring in so many things,” said Danielle Schulz, who oversees access programs for the Denver Art Museum. “The one hang up is to be true to an artist’s intention.”

To impart the softness of an impressionist like Monet, for instance, Krantz dislikes distributing cotton balls. “Everybody knows them. They’re too powerful a suggester,” she said. The translation, that is, must not only be artistically accurate, but conceptually faithful as well. “Cotton balls would add a dimension to the painting that Monet didn’t have himself,” Krantz said.  But the translation process often does have an unavoidable healthy dose of subjectivity. At the Met, Ucar created a scratch-and-sniff version of the iconic Monet resort-scape Garden at Sainte-Adresse, mixing powdered floral perfume and spicy-cocoa scents on a stamp pad; touching specific parts of a photograph of the famous painting emits different aromas. “I have to invent the smell version of what we see,” Ucar said.

Even if an artist is alive, Schulz describes a similar challenge when Denver Art Museum educators commissioned a tactile for Mud Woman Rolls On, a contemporary clay, 10-foot-tall piece, made by Roxanne Swentzell, of an oversized female with four children at the entrance to the American Indian galleries. The mother holds the largest child, who holds the next one, and so on. But rather than design a replica where each figure was sculpted separately so more blind viewers could interact with it at once, the museum made a single model of the entire sculpture. “The physical connection is important to feel as well as see,” explained Schulz, because the work is about passing knowledge down through generations.

The irony of this new approach to interpretation, of course, is that most museums are filled with “Do Not Touch” signs. They strive for quiet, odorless spaces that focus attention on the artwork. But more than just helping the visually impaired, the innovations of Krantz and her colleagues bring up fundamental questions about the best ways for everyone to engage with art—and whether or not museums actually could be giving all visitors, sighted or not, richer experiences.

In fact, some contemporary artists are challenging the notion of the art museum as a visual place, using sound and smell as their medium. To take one example, a recent installation by Andrea Fraser, Down the River, included no physical objects. Fraser filled the Whitney’s fifth floor with only pre-recorded noise of a maximum-security prison. This winter, at the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Museum, chemist-artist Sissel Tolaas designed Smell, The Beauty of Decay: Smellscape Central Park, a touch-activated map that releases aromatic paint.

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“The question is can we translate seeing a Picasso into another modality?” asked UCLA cognitive neuroscientist Ladan Shams, whose lab studies how the brain processes and interprets sensory data. For a long time, she says, science was sold on vision as the dominant sense in humans. But her research shows that vision doesn’t function independently; it’s malleable, and can be “strongly influenced” by touch and sound. In one study, published in Psychological Science in 2011, her team showed participants a large number of dots on a computer screen accompanied by sound through the speakers. In one phase, the dots moved around randomly; in the other, some moved together horizontally, right to left. People who heard the simulated movement of sound—lowering the left speaker and then raising the right—in the same direction as the dots were able to track the motion better with their eyes than those hearing sound in the opposite way. In other words, sound enhanced sight.

There’s evidence that blind people’s senses interact so they respond to certain physical objects the way others see an image. Using PET scans, a 1996 study in Nature found that cortical areas associated with vision were activated by touch in Braille readers blinded early in life. And later work helps explain how people without any visual reference can still learn new behaviors and actions by imitating others, using “mirror neurons,” which respond, in these cases, to sound instead of sight.

“Congenitally blind individuals still have vivid dreams,” said psychology professor and Dean of the Sciences at CUNY Graduate Center Joshua Brumburg*. “Based on functional imaging studies, we know there is some activity in the visual part of their brains.”

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Although research shows the senses are intertwined, there are skeptics when it comes to sharing art with blind viewers through tactiles. Reviewing the latest science of touch, The New Yorker’s Andrew Gopnik’s wrote last month that “every now and then, someone … starts a program for the visually handicapped to experience art through their fingers. But such enterprises often have a hopeful, doomed feeling to them: they seem more willed than wanted.” He calls the modern museum “the reign of the optical” and that historically “touch” has been associated with children who don’t know better.

Perhaps this sort of criticism is part of why The Birmingham Museum of Art has widened its tours for the visually impaired to include people who can see. Yes, the museum’s art educators play Renaissance music to embody Renaissance paintings and regularly use tactiles, according to the BMA’s director, Gail Andrews. But the museum realized art programs designed for the blind could also give sighted visitors an “empathy experience.” As part of a partnership with visually impaired children in Liberia, Alabama students wore goggles, glasses, or a bandana to tour the museum as blind viewers. Art, Andrews said, draws out emotions, building compassion through face-to-face interactions.

But if a museumgoer doesn’t have to visually see a piece of art to connect with it or use art to connect with others, how important is proximity to an actual masterpiece? Is it necessary for the Louvre’s Tactile Gallery to even be at the Louvre or for viewers to stand before Play-Doh? Simon Hayhoe is a cultural anthropologist at the London School of Economics, specializing in art education and blindness. In a 2013 paper published in the Harvard Educational Review, he presents three case studies that explore whether blind people need to visit museums to engage works of art. Sure, it’s impossible for anyone to touch the Mona Lisa and there are thousands of images online— including the Louvre’s sophisticated virtual Mona Lisa, where viewers are “much closer” to her than anywhere else. “But you feel a sense of possession of the famous work,” Hayhoe said. “It’s important to be close to the painting to feel that sense of cultural ownership.” He likens blind people viewing tactiles at a museum to attending a stadium football game, versus watching it on television. There is a certain expression of self-identity being part of a cheering crowd or facing a Leonardo da Vinci, regardless of vision.

“It is and it isn’t the same to see art when you’re blind,” said Dan Burke, who has retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that causes a gradual decline in vision. “It is a very moving experience when you recognize a piece or feel an emotional connection to new art.” Burke lost his sight over a thirty-five year period and talks about the intense flood of inspiration he had touching a large bronze octopus, Pacific Giant, in Colorado’s Benson Sculpture Garden and visiting the Louvre’s Tactile Gallery—just like anyone in the hallowed Paris museum.

Burke’s experience is a reminder that for all its power, vision also can be a crutch when it comes to art. After all, as Krantz explains, Reinhardt’s black paintings aren’t immediately accessible to visual viewers either. Anyone who wants to get the work has to slow down and try to connect with the canvas—or they’ll see nothing at all.

* This article originally misspelled Joshua Brumberg's last name as Bromberg. We regret the error.