More Than Meets the Eye

My new favourite book for this project is More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art by Georgina Kleege (2018).The picture shows Kleege at an exhibition she recently curated (Wilson, 2018). I’ve already listed Kleege as one of the visually impaired writers, curators or artists who I’m influenced by.  The very title of Kleege’s latest book would be an apt title for my research, which investigates what assets blind and partially sighted people bring to art galleries and the appreciation of art.

In the introduction, Kleege sets out her own position:

Rather, the hope is that blind people can bring a perspective that has not been articulated before. If we abandon the notion that blindness can only diminish, damage or destroy identity, and adopt instead the idea that the experience of blindness, in all its varieties, can in fact shape and inform other facets of personality and personal history, we will move towards a more genuinely inclusive society. The integration of blind perceptions and experiences will change the foundational assumptions of the culture; change how the human condition is defined. And I believe this is the goal worth working toward. (2018, p. 13)

From this position, Kleege calls for a rethinking of the accommodations made for blind and partially sighted people in galleries. I’m particularly struck by her critique of audio description, and her call ‘to abandon the pretext of objectivity. It is impossible and beside the point’ (2018, p. 121).  I’ll pass this on to the describers in my curated event.

In tune with the blind and partially sighted people I’ve been talking to in Leeds Art Gallery, Kleege wants an end to segregated provision, such as touch tours, in galleries and museums.  Apart from the problematic nature of segregation, this needs to happen because perceiving art using non-visual senses is a way of opening up access and engagement with art and heritage for everyone, not just disabled people. And this isn’t just Kleege’s opinion, of course. I’ve already mentioned Candlin’s writing on touch that argues for recognition of touch as a way of understanding and learning, that supports intellectual enquiry (Candlin, 2010).

A final word from Kleege:

I hope that audio description can be elevated from its current status as a segregated accommodation outside the general public’s awareness and launched into the new media – a literary / interpretative form with infinite possibilities. (2018, p. 108).

References

Candlin, F. (2010) Art, Museums and Touch. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kleege, G. (2018) More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, E. (2018) ‘How a Blind Professor Is Helping Other Sight-Impaired Museum Visitors Experience Art’, HyperAllergic 17 January. Available at: https://hyperallergic.com/421929/haptic-encounters-contemporary-jewish-museum-san-francisco/ (Accessed: 3 May 2018).

Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums

Perhaps my key text, this book by Simon Hayhoe (2017) covers his research on why blind and partially sighted people go to art galleries (called museums in this and other texts). Mainly through in-depth case studies, he shows that visually impaired people have as many reasons to visit galleries as sighted people.  To think otherwise shows basically disablist thinking: applying limiting assumptions about how visually impaired people perceive and engage with art.

While I find Hayhoe’s definitions of active and passive exclusion of disabled people confusing and not altogether coherent, particularly when the concept is extended to active and passive inclusion, I have taken a lot from his writing. He seems to have carried out, in more depth, some of my ideas in my research proposal, especially talking to individual blind and partially sighted people in art galleries, particularly New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have chosen Leeds Art Gallery as a focus of my research with blind and partially sighted people for (I think) similar reasons that Hayhoe carried out research at The Met: while Leeds Art Gallery is nowhere near the scale and global reputation of The Met, it nonetheless is Leeds’ most well-known, historic and prestigious gallery, as demonstrated when it re-opened following refurbishment last year (Blow, 2017). I thought it would be more likely that my research participants had visited it before and indeed, several of them know it very well.

Hayhoe robustly challenges the ocular-centricity of art galleries, arguing that this goes hand in hand with the idea that sight is the primary and most important of the senses, which leads to perception through other senses being overlooked and not properly catered for. Hayhoe points out:

As the consumers of fine art – or what we can also call physical, plastic or tangible art – people who are blind find that touch and residual vision play a significant role in their understanding, as it lends something to their emotional appreciation of aesthetics and the purpose of art. (p. 21)

As I shall show through my literature review and other references (e.g. Candlin, 2010; Hetherington, 2003; Pye, 2007), touch provision in art galleries is generally very poor, if it is available at all.

A stone sculpture of a boy seated on a toy train, on the right, is being touched at its base by a kneeling woman
Touching a sculpture in Leeds Art Gallery

Importantly, Hayhoe is one of a growing number of people who argue against blindness and art as being characterised purely in terms of deficit and hopefully suggests that:

We are now on the edge of a new form of the post-deficit model of blindness and a truer understanding of the holistic relationship of creative activity, picture comprehension, and a more complex notion of identity. (p. 43)

My own research aims to take an asset-based approach and to consider whether this is a relevant approach to curation. I have noted Hayhoe’s parallel emphasis on a post-deficit approach.

To end at the beginning of this book, Hayhoe sets out his hypothesis in the preface (his italics):

Artworks hold significance and value beyond their perceptual content, and a misunderstanding of this content leads to exclusion. That is to say, we do not need to see, touch, smell, hear, or taste artworks to garner meaning from them or develop some value in our minds of knowing they exist and understand them. (p. xviii)

I’m looking forward to hearing the viewpoints of blind and partially sighted people in Leeds about the understanding, meaning and enjoyment that they gain from artworks.

 

References

Blow, J. (2017) ‘First Look: ‘Stunning’ rediscovered Leeds Art Gallery roof revealed after decades’, Yorkshire Evening Post 12 October. Available at: https://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/first-look-stunning-rediscovered-leeds-art-gallery-roof-revealed-after-decades-1-8801139 (Accessed 25 April 2018).

Candlin, F. (2010) Art Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Hayhoe, S. (2017) Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums. London: Rowan and Littlefield.

Hetherington, K. (2003) ‘Accountability and disposal: visual impairment and the museum’ Museum and Society, 1(2) pp. 104-115.

Pye, E. (ed.) (2007) The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.

Taking touch to another level

Reading Candlin’s Art, Touch and Museums (see previous post) i really enjoyed reading about Jordan McKenzie’s interventions. The particular chapter is about touching modern and contemporary art and examines relational aesthetics where the art only exists as a result of participation or involvement and breaks down barriers between audience and artist.

This doesn’t always go according to the artist’s or gallery’s plan and the curtailing of Robert Morris’s solo show at the Tate Gallery in 1971 is a cautionary tale. Participants’ over-zealous and vigorous engagement with the works led to a series of minor accidents.

Nowadays, gallery installations, including participatory works, are likely to be closely guarded by staff and security. McKenzie’s ‘unlicensed actions’ (Candlin p.182) certainly tested this and transform the works he interacts with. Andre Dance (2008) turns industrial steel flooring into a disco floor.  Although visitors are allowed to walk on Andre’s work, security guards end McKenzie’s movement. Serra Frottage (2008) (pictured above) takes place in a publicly sited sculpture, so touching is implicitly allowed. Not rubbing, stretching against or caressing, though. Police are called to end this intervention.

McKenzie’s ‘Minimal Interventions’ are cheeky, witty and highlight issues around touch and art. They might influence my own practice.img_6605

As I passed through Dortmund Square shortly after reading this chapter, the coincidence of seeing a protest sign taped on a public statue was striking!

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

Candlin, F. (2010) Art Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

McKenzie, J. (2008) Andre Dance [Performance]. Available at: http://www.jordanmckenzie.co.uk/modular-unit-bag/ (Accessed: 18 April 2018).

McKenzie, J. (2010) Serra Frottage [Performance]. Available at: http://www.jordanmckenzie.co.uk/modular-unit-bag/ (Accessed: 18 April 2018).

 

Epilogue

Inspired by McKenzie’s work, I was considering organising a touch tour of some of the public sculptures in Leeds, perhaps enhanced by improvised performance. This idea was soon scuppered when I took a look at some sculptures that were on a manageable, accessible route. Most were placed on high plinths, well out of reach. You can pat the bottom of Henry Moore’s reclining woman (outside Leeds Art Gallery) and there is another piece that is at ground level. Not enough for a tour, though. I’ll have to re-think…

 

 

Art, Museums and Touch by Fiona Candlin (2010)

This is the first book I’ve read for my research that focuses on touch in museums. I have a few others on my list, but thought this would be the most useful, interesting – and critical. (Other books on my list appear to be more toolkits and / or case studies, providing guidance rather than a critical view). Touch is obviously an important area to consider, and I’ll discuss it with the blind and partially sighted people I meet with. But touch certainly won’t be the sole focus of my research.

Candlin has written a wide-ranging survey of the history and shifting use of touch in art museums. In short, she writes that touch was largely written out of art history by a few influential mid twetnieth-century art historians (Alois Reigl, Heinrich Wolfflin and Erwin Panofsky). In writing about touch and vision, touch was relegated as inferior, superceded by understanding through vision as civilisation developed.

A great deal of this book is not directly relevant to my project. But while I concentrated on the chapter relating to touch and access provision, I found that other chapters were also helpful in helping me understand the use and specificity of touch, and to begin to think how much I should focus on this. While Candlin’s writing on the history of art, touch and gender was fascinating, I moved along quickly because it doesn’t help me develop ideas about touch and visually impaired people. I’ve gleaned useful background information from chapters about ‘Museum visitors and a changing sensory regime’ (pp 58-90) and ‘Curators, connoiseurs and expert object-handing’ (pp 91 – 118). These reveal how at various times in the history of museums’ development, object handling was part of the experience offered to visitors. The apparently particularly British habit of striking or grabbing museum objects became something of a scourge across Europe in the early nineteenth century as the practice has destructive consequences. Candlin notes that this would have been an upper-class habit, as these were the people with means to travel abroad. Fears of allowing working class people into Britain’s museums in fact proved to be unfounded.

The inconsistency of allowing curators to handle objects as part of their assessment and understanding of collections, while forbidding others to do the same is noted. Of course conservation and preservation is at stake (but perhaps this needs a re-assessment), but Candlin points out that it isn’t just touch that is a threat to conservation and that can damage objects. Heat, light, humidity, dryness insects and bacteria, pollution all pose hazards. Transporting objects between institutions is likely to be much more damaging than handling. Museums deal with these in different ways, including the use of glass and cases that actually obscure the visual perception of artworks. But generally touching is off-limits.

Candlin questions the use of touch as it is used in much museum access and education provision. This book emphasises the importance of touch and is a call to include touch as an important element of museology – for curators and visitors. So Candlin does not question the use of touch for blind and partially sighted visitors. She is, however, critical of many touch tours and similar initiatives because they fail to think about how touch should best be used to support people’s understanding of artworks.

For example, writing about a number of gallery exhibitions where sculptures could be touched, she points out how uneven and disjointed they were, due to curators’ restrictions on what could or could not be touched:

The shows had no thematic or historic context and there was little or no connection between the subject matter of the sculptures or between the artists who had made them, and so as exhibitions they made little sense … In short, touch exhibitions did not necessarily make art objects comprehensible to their intended audiences and as exhibitions these events largely failed. (p.123)

Blind and partially sighted people are being short-changed with such exhibitions and the approach to access:

… disability was understood [by museum staff] as being an impairment or lack that as far as possible needed to be made good through the other senses, and so touching functioned as a substitute, albeit an inadequate one, for sight. This mode of access was entirely normative for it attempted to introduce blind and partially sighted visitors to art objects understood within a visual paradigm, rather than recognising that touch might comprise a different way of engaging with the exhibits. (p.124)

However, Candlin recognises that practice is improving and developing and cite’s Tate Modern’s tours, which focus on intellectual access so that people gain an understanding of why the artworks they are studying are significant, as good practice.

Beyond being an offer for blind and partially-sighted people, touch is being used as part of a variety of museum projects aimed at combating social exclusion.  Touch and handling in groups is being used to create a supportive atmosphere; people open up more, share stories and experiences. Almost a therapeutic tool. 

Great claims being made for beneficial outcomes of handling museum objects – are they justified? And where is the evidence that they prevent or alleviate social exclusion?

 

Reference

Candlin, F. (2010) Art Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Professional Practice & Study: Getting started (LAUMACUP705)

Last week (22.3.18) I presented my draft research proposal to the MA Curation Practices cohort.

In brief, I plan to research blind and partially sighted people’s experience of galleries and what can facilitate / improve this. I feel this is an issue that I have somewhat neglected in my practice.

For my thesis, there is a lot of literature to go on, particularly concerning museums – key texts in references below.

A curated project informed by this will involve conversations with a small number of visually impaired people, who are interested in art. At first I was thinking of getting them together in a focus group, but now I think it will be more realistic to have individual conversations: walk round Leeds Art Gallery, record discussions.

I am challenging myself to take a more experimental approach – reflective, iterative, continually planning and evaluating. No “end product” planned, let’s find out where it takes us! Potential for talk, tour, workshop, paper, small exhibition.
(Influenced by Aggregate, Fritha Jenkins’ recent exhibition and live curation at LAU Gallery, pictured below).

Borrowing from community development / social policy – taking an asset based / strength based approach: What do visually impaired people bring to the gallery? But grounded in the social model of disability (of course) (Barnes, 2012).

 

 

References

Aggregate: Fritha Jenkins and Edna Lumb (2018) [Exhibition] Leeds Arts University, 14 February – 29 March.

Art Beyond Sight http://www.artbeyondsight.org/index.php (Accessed: 16 March 2018).

Barnes, C. (2012) ‘Understanding the Social Model of Disability: past,
present and future’, in N. Watson et al. (eds.) (2012) Routledge Handbook of
Disability Studies London: Routledge, pp. 12-39.

Chick, Anne (2018) Inclusive exhibition design and curation: Improving intellectual access for blind and partially sighted visitors to non-permanent exhibitions through co-creation and co-assessment. The Design Journal, 21 (2). ISSN 1460-6925.

Hayhoe, S. (2017) Blind Visitor Experiences at Art Museums. London: Rowan and Littlefield.

Sensing Culture (2017) https://sensingcultureblog.wordpress.com/about/ (Accessed: 30 March 2018).

Vocaleyes (2016) Museum Access Information Guidelines 2016. London: Vocaleyes.

Vocaleyes (2016) State of Museum Access 2016 A survey of UK museum website access information for blind and partially sighted visitors. London: Vocaleyes.

Woodhall, A. (2016) Sensory engagements with objects in art galleries: material interpretation and theological metaphor PhD Thesis, University of Leicester.

Liberating Culture / State Fair

Liberating CultureJust been reading Liberating Culture: Cross-cultural perspectives on museums, curation and heritage preservation by Christine Kreps (2003). It is excellent in showing that curation is not the preserve of Western museums but is an activity that indigenous communities carry out. In a number of examples Kreps shows how different indigenous populations collect, store, preserve and display objects. She makes a case for transforming professional museum practice, recognising that this is already happening with positive results for everyone involved.

I was interested in the idea of heirloom-type property, such as the pusaka of the Dayak people in Indonesia (Kreps, 2003, p.36, pp.50-56) as this was so recognisable in the heirlooms, which might or might not have high monetary value, handed down through families in many other cultures. I wondered what heirlooms I had of my own? Not many: grandma’s wedding ring (worn all the time); dad’s watch (doesn’t work); some old photos.  None of these are particularly well cared for, perhaps I’m not so good at curating after all!

Kreps writes about the importance of communities being in control of their cultural heritage in non-Western countries, but perhaps this could be broadened to include a range of communities, taking a bottom-up approach to keeping their culture alive.

“Of critical concern is how people in varying national and cultural contexts are gaining greater control over the protection and management of their cultural heritage.” (Kreps, 2003, p. 144)

I was reminded of other (albeit Western) examples of communities curating their culture and heritage, while keeping it relevant to the community and updating practices to reflect contemporary interests. State Fairs in the United States, as well as being a showcase of the best livestock and crops, have extensive art and craft displays. Prizes are given in many categories, taking in quilting and other needlecrafts, wood- and metalwork, fine arts and photography by all age groups and more specialised activities. Digital expertise, contemporary music and dance and other modern arts are recognised and celebrated. On the other hand, heirlooms and other personal mementoes, such as vintage toys, garments handed down through generations and old photographs, are also on display and in competition. These displays of personal items form a temporary museum during the life of the fair, and was a popular area of Kentucky’s State fair in august 2017 when I visited.

Texas State fair
Needlework entries at Texas State Fair
The Kentucky State Fair says that you can

“learn about the unique story each county has to tell through exhibits and items ranging from historic objects and crafts to local treasures” (Kentucky State Fair, 2017).

The Minnesota State Fair, in common with many other of these huge scale events, has the support of professional curators (Legge, 2017). This could be an example of what Kreps calls “hybridisation”! (2003, p. 153).

Of course I say this tongue in cheek, as I think it would be wrong to say that State Fairs have been marginalised or undervalued in the same ways as many indigenous people’s cultures. Of course, they stand in stark contrast to expressions of Native American culture.  But these examples show how diverse communities across the globe have similar aspirations for keeping their traditions and cultures alive and face similar challenges.  As Kreps argues, we must not think that indigenous peoples are any different in these respects.

 

References

Kentucky State Fair (2017) Pride of the Counties. Available at  http://www.kystatefair.org/prideOfTheCounties.html (Accessed: 10 October 2017)

Kreps, C. (2003) Liberating Culture: Cross-cultural perspectives on museums, curation, and heritage preservation. London: Routledge.

Legge, L. (2017) ‘Piles of pickles, quilts, woodcarvings are shown at the Fair. This guy wrangles it all.’  Twin Cities.com Pioneer Press, 26 August 2017. Available at  http://www.twincities.com/2017/08/26/minnesota-state-fair-creative-activities-quilts-building-who-wrangles-it/ (Accessed: 10 October 2017).