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Experiencing Art Museums with a Visual Impairment

For the Museum Access Consortium


Fran Prezant

Hi. I’m Fran Prezant from the National Center of Disability Services and I’d like to welcome you to our program in our series on the museum environment for individuals with sensory impairments. I would like to introduce two speakers I have with me today.

First, Pearl Rosen who is the coordinator of our Arts & Culture program here at the National Center of Disability Services and the purpose of that program is to increase arts and cultural institutions for people with disabilities. Our guest speaker for today is Karen Kacen. Karen is legally blind and is a frequent participant in verbal description for touch tours at museums in and around New York City. She has 20 years of experience working with individuals who are blind and visually impaired focusing on job development and advocacy issues. Oh, presently she is a trainer and presenter and has been a consultant for museums with expertise in public relations and marketing strategies for people with visual impairment and blindness.

Pearl Rosen

I’m Pearl Rosen and I want to welcome Karen Kacen and thank her
for joining us today. Karen as you heard is an avid museum-goer and someone who also likes to be creative in art herself. She also has personal and professional experience related to accessibility for people with blindness and visual impairment. Karen will be here today to talk about some experiences related to her museum visits and I am going to ask her to share a memorable museum experience right now.

Karen Kacen

Sure, one of my favorite experiences was at The Metropolitan Museum of Art where I was viewing a Monet painting and from a distance this artwork looked like mud. It just didn’t look like it had any color at all and I wondered why the tour guide had picked this particular painting and the closer we approached this artwork I started to see some detail and color and I was starting to get excited, because now I’m wondering what it is I’m looking at and it turned out that it was landscape it was a lake and there was a boat on the lake and there were buildings in the background and as she described it … there were blues and lavenders and greens and yellows and oranges and all these wonderful colors and I now started to see shape and color where as when I approached it, it looked pretty much flat and all of the sudden it took on a dimension where it looked three dimensional and how it looks like the water was actually moving and I just got very, very excited.

I’m kind of like a child in a toy store when I go to the museum because when I first look at things they do look flat and I don’t see detail and then when someone describes it to me I get chills running up and down my spine because my brain will remember this experience and then when I look at pictures in the future I’ll remember what I’m looking at with all the color and all the detail. Wow, that really sounds like a wonderful experience for taking in a Monet and beginning to understand the impressionist. Now I know that you also enjoy tactile tours.

Pearl Rosen

Could you let us know what a tactile tour is like for you?

Karen Kacen

Sure, well also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art I’ve done the Egyptian Tour where I’ve gotten to touch Egyptian sculptures and it’s the kind of thing when you first touch the statue they show you how smooth it is and the temperature how cold it might be if its I suppose I’m trying to think of the materials that there made from, marble would be cold and then you could tell by feeling where the repairs have been made because those areas are not cold there warm or even hot to the touch and you could not tell by looking at this that it has been repaired.

Insight, yes insight, that someone would not pick up visually and it’s amazing how much has been repaired and fixed on these sculptures and statues and you would never know it unless you actually felt it. Well you know it’s always exciting to find out secrets behind the works themselves. I would imagine you know having the opportunity to touch a sculpture that it could be thousands hundreds of years old thousands of years old is certainly a special opportunity.

Pearl Rosen

Do you find that when you’re touching a sculpture that’s that old that your reaching back into history?

Karen Kacen

That’s a good question, I get very excited because I have felt things that were three and four thousand years old and that’s an opportunity that the average population doesn’t have and to feel for instance, eyes and indentation in the eyes and indentation in the eyelids and to know that that was created thousands of years ago with such intricacy it’s really, really amazing.

Sculpture tours in particular besides just the change of materials that may happen, you find that sculptors may use special tricks like I was privileged to touch a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David and Michelangelo when he created the eyelids, there was actually the eyelids were actually lifted above the eye so that they made a shadow and so it was a terrific illusion but when you touched it you cold feel wow the eyelid is actually out from the eyelid to make a shadow so you find these kinds of changes that sculptors will make for an appropriate illusion visually.

So, but when you touch it, it just doesn’t lie you can feel it you can feel it and you know those lines certainly indents will feel different from how they are visually and that’s exciting and interesting in terms of capturing the motion. You could feel the motion sometimes in a gesture in a sculpture and also you don’t realize when you look how much they have to make an indentation to create that effect.

So when you’re touching something like a nose or an eye or lips you’re feeling a lot of detail and depth and how much space that actually takes up. So I find it very interesting. That’s exciting. It really is exciting.

Pearl Rosen

Yeah, the general public will definitely be excited hearing us talk about sculptures and the privilege to touch. I want to go back to verbal description. I’m sure many people are not familiar with verbal description in terms of painting. Can you give us a description of a verbal description?

Karen Kacen

It would be different than a regular tour for a sighted person in that when you have eyesight and you go to a museum basically your able to see pretty instantaneously what your looking at and so your counting on your tour guide to give you a historical background or an interpretive background or as I, a blind individual, we want to hear the history secondary to a description of what it is that were looking at and so we rely on the tour guide to talk to us about color, shape, textures, brush stroke. If there are people in the artwork, are they looking at each other? What is their emotion or facial expression without reading too much interpretation into mood because sometimes that can be very subjective, but it would to speak about much detail as you can and all of these different aspects and then relate it to perspective and than history and what the artist was trying to drive forth and I imagine that you’ll have some tour guides that will give a more flowery kind of interpretation and others that will be more direct.

Pearl Rosen

Tell me about your impression of tour guides in terms of verbal description. What do you prefer?

Karen Kacen

Well, I prefer tour guides that will give me different perspectives on possibly viewpoint, as well as detail. I really want to know as much detail literally as possible as for a background, foreground, color, shape and all of that and perspective is very, very important. I prefer tour guides not to be too historical, but to be more into what it is we’re looking at and its great if they can be versatile. It’s really nice when you can go to a museum and say oh I see something colorful over there can we include that in the tour.

Some tour guides will stick to a particular exhibit or specific paintings that they’ve chosen and that’s great, but if I do see something along the way that draws my attention, I love to have the freedom like anybody else would of going over and look at it. That’s very important for docents who are going to be conducting verbal descriptions who realize you want access to information on works of art the way anyone else does. Exactly and don’t necessarily want to prescribe to a particular tour. Exactly that’s very, very important.

Pearl Rosen

Do you find that when you’ve have gone on a verbal description tour of paintings that adaptive type devices from the point of view of things created to go with an exhibit like a large print information or a photograph of the painting that your looking at or even a tactile reproduction. Have those been beneficial for you?

Karen Kacen

Extremely. I mean in a perfect world my dream tour would be where labels are in large print and photocopied perhaps in a loose-leaf, such as the Jewish Museum does, they have that in Braille and large print, so anything that’s on the wall I can read and this would be a loose-leaf that you could be available to carry around and they have this for there permanent collection I believe and sometimes for special exhibits.

Also, replicas such as at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum they have a tactile photograph, a tactile picture of wallpaper and I could touch the picture and feel the flowers so I’ll know what the wallpaper actually looks like and then they have this box when you first enter a box where you can actually feel the layout of the apartment, right, its like a little architectural model of the floor. Exactly, which is really helpful for understanding the layouts of the apartments and give you a larger view. I know I have seen that, and it’s very exciting.

And the other aspect is lighting and I think that some museums don’t actually realize the importance of lighting for me due to having Albinism and corneal diseases. I would need indirect lighting and in some museums the lighting is actually too bright or too dim too glaring. So it’s wonderful if a museum could concentrate on comfortable lighting which would be great for everybody not just people with different eye disorders. You were mentioning before that you sometimes take a hat with you to the museum to block out lighting. Sometimes, I’ll have to wear a hat with a visor and different kind of glasses. The problem is however, with the glasses that I’m wearing now which are yellow which are great for cutting out different types of light, its making everything look yellow. So, I if I take my glasses off then all of the sudden the lighting its brighter and I can’t see at all. So it’s sometimes harder to find a happy medium.

Pearl Rosen

Wow, tell me about do you what kind of aids do you carry with you to help you see better.

Karen Kacen

I always carry my magnifier with me and I keep it around my neck. Now, you know, in museums you cannot get that close to reading the labels on the walls because of the alarms going off, which I set off accidentally, accidentally but I did carry my magnify and I have a monoscope. This is a telescope that I would use to see artwork. Now, because the focal point is so small, I would only be seeing a little patch of the artwork.

So I would have to move my head in different directions to take in the whole thing and it also means that I would have to be further back on security guards interpret this device as a camera. They think it’s a lens and have often mistakenly asked me to stop using this thinking I was photographing. Well given how small cameras come these days, it’s not surprising and yes so you would use these in addition to verbal description to see up close on a painting to look at textures or fine details within that.

Pearl Rosen

Do you think it would be helpful for museums to carry some of these devices like magnifiers or what would be helpful to you for museums to carry - you know accessibility aids for people who are visually impaired?

Karen Kacen

I’d actually not thought of that, I mean it’s a wonderful, wonderful idea, if they can do it. I do know however, because peoples vision the acuity differs that you would have to have a wide range of different types of magnifiers with different intensities and a distance lens like this a telescope would be great. I haven’t come across a situation except one museum that actually had magnifiers. It seems like it’s a luxury that we often just don’t have. It’s not even a consideration but it would be so great to have that.

Pearl Rosen

Well you know, I think it’s important for museums to realize that if they’re going to create a program to accommodate the needs of people who are visually impaired that having an assortment of magnifiers you know which be great especially where there’s exhibits that include a great deal of detail. So that would be great. Also, do you find that audio description tours that are on tape; are those helpful to you or do you find you wish those are also adapted in terms of description?

Karen Kacen

I myself have not been able to take an audio tour in a museum because of basic problems with seeing the buttons on the tape recorders and I’m able to see the corresponding numbers on the different displays. So, I cannot actually find my way around to know when to push the button in front of a particular piece of art. What I did in one museum is I had a volunteer. He and I were connected with headsets to the same tape recorder and we were connected literally by the headset and he was walking in front of me. So he was able to work the button connection he would work the button connection and we would hear it at the same time.

Well there is new technology that is becoming available that I happen to see at last years American Association of Museum Conference where you had the it was all digitally done where you carried a little pack and you had a headset and as you approached the work that was intended it would automatically talk to you.

Pearl Rosen

Oh that’s great. So no buttons, so hopefully we will be moving into that world that it will make it much accessible for everyone and including to people who tend not to enjoy technology that would be incredible. That would be great for everybody. What suggestions do you have for museums in an increasing access for individuals with visual impairments? Do you find that front line staff plays an important role in accessibility? It’s kind of a double-barrel question I’m asking you.

Karen Kacen

The staff that works at a museum it’s so important for them to be sensitive to people with disability and now speaking about blindness and visual impairment. It would be great for them to learn to be more verbal when they give directions instead of pointing and saying over there over there go that way. To perhaps say at 12:00 o’clock 1 o’clock, to use a different framework for giving direction and for knowing that if we look close at something its not because we’re going to do something to the artwork that we shouldn’t be, but because we need to get close to see.

I would feel so much more comfortable with that knowing that they were sensitive to my using my distance lens, right. And I imagine even using a cane could be since that’s not something that some front line museum staff may be comfortable with, especially if there’s pedestals and things along those lines. So, its important that for front line staff to become familiar with how you need to negotiate the space, so that they can give you descriptions and make you feel welcome in that space.

Pearl Rosen

Exactly, yes it’s very, very important. Along the same topic of increasing access in museums for individuals with visual impairment: do you think the concept of having individuals with disabilities on a museum advisory council is important?

Karen Kacen

Definitely, definitely, and I believe having people on an advisory council who have had positive and negative experience. So your listeners can hear both sides of the story. I also think you would want to have avid museum goers as well as people who have not gone to museums that frequently to find out why their not going.

Pearl Rosen

That’s a good point. That’s a very good point. Thank you and also for individuals who are blind now their experience with what they need and would want to see at a museum would be different than someone who is visually impaired.

Karen Kacen

Someone who’s blind might prefer a touch tour as compared to a verbal description tour it depends on what the person is seeking what their interested in.

Pearl Rosen

Jumping back to the idea of verbal description and tactile in terms of what they would be interested in:  we had discussed previously to this interview about how the whole world of art has opened up to you now as an adult and that as a child you were not given the privilege of going to museums and enjoying the kinds of techniques that you enjoy now that years ago verbal descriptions really means reading the label and getting an art history lesson and not necessarily connecting to what your seeing.

Where we’re finding now that educators realize how important the arts are for all children and that some of those barriers are breaking down but given that there are many individuals like yourself who have not been exposed to the art. What would you suggest for how museums can inform this population of people who did not grow up with art that as adults would enjoy the benefits of this?

Karen Kacen

There are forums such as in touch radio where they have interviews on the radio I believe 24 hours a day 7 days a week and they reach thousands of people. Also the American Council for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind have newsletters that are national and they reach thousands of people. I’ve been finding out that when I went to Baruch the computer center for visually impaired people,

I was so surprised that the people in my class had no idea that there were about six museums in New York that do tours for blind and visually impaired people. And I thought what a shame because they didn’t realize that they could, they could still appreciate and enjoy art and had though that this was totally closed off to them. So these kinds of forums, the newsletters and in touch radio. Also, the New York State Commission for the Blind can send announcements to people when they send general letters or can do a special mailing if the budget permits.

Pearl Rosen

So there’s many different ways of letting people know. What about the Internet for people who are blind in terms of them getting information that way?

Karen Kacen

Thank you for reminding me because I’m new to the Internet and this is a whole new world for me. I never thought I would be able to participate in the Internet and using a computer and now I am and it is very exciting. And there are many sites on the Internet that somebody with a disability can go to learn about different museums and exhibits. Definitely has opened up a new world.

Pearl Rosen

So are there any particular websites that people who are visually impaired and blind use for information that could be helpful for museums?

Karen Kacen

Yes, the American Foundation for the Blind has a website, I believe it is www.AFB.org. They have message boards and publish all different kinds of information on their website. It’s really a wonderful place to go to. So that you might be able to a museum put a listing there of a show coming up that will have verbal description or tactile tour accompanying it. Sure, I’m not sure how they would go about it to be perfectly honest but they do have message boards and I’m sure if they contact the American Foundation for the Blind they may be able to and also the American Council for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind have websites and I’m sure they would print something.

Pearl Rosen

Do you know of more regional places like these are national organizations but regional places where people would go to find out about things occurring in their own city or town? Where they may be able to post something.

Karen Kacen

Well, I know the Jewish Guild for the Blind and the Lighthouse International and Helen Keller Services for the Blind all have websites, and so possibly they can find out through those resources as well.

Pearl Rosen

Well that’s all good information for museums that want to connect to people with visual impairment and blindness in their community. If I also might add, the Andrew Haskell Library for the Blind is right here in New York City.

Karen Kacen

Yeah and that’s on 40 West 20th Street, right 40 West 20th Street. They have a newsletter definitely and that newsletter comes out I think three or four times a year and I believe they will also let institutions leave flyers there. When I visited, I also found large print flyers there.

Pearl Rosen

Very good. Well, I want to thank you so much for sharing your experience. Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Oh it’s our pleasure to do that and I hope that both the visually impaired and blind community and museum community will find this helpful. Thank you very much.

Pearl Rosen

Pearl and Karen, I would thank you for being here today and providing this stimulating discussion. If anybody’s interested in additional information, please contact us at the National Center for Disability Services and we will display the information across the screen for you. Thank you and we’ll look forward to seeing you at our next segment.