Friday, June 25, 2010

Sharing the Experience at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Art-Reach hosted "Share the Experience" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) on Friday, June 11th.  The event, a program of Art-Reach's Independence Starts Here cultural access initiative, encouraged guests—including donors, members, and community leaders—to experience art as people who are blind or visually impaired experience it.

To begin the event, the  Philadelphia Museum of Art shared a number of tools it provides through its Accessible Programs to enhance the museum experience for people with visual impairments.  These include Braille and raised-line museum maps as well as touchable interpretations of art such as tactile representations, miniature sculptures, and three-dimensional replications of two-dimensional paintings.  These tools were on display at the event for guests to touch and experience, with written descriptions to serve as a guide for those who are blind or visually impaired.

While such tools help open up the world of art to those with visual impairments, they are only part of what makes visual art accessible to those with disabilities.  As Street Thoma, Manager of Accessible Programs at the PMA says, "The most important way to make art accessible is the language that we use to describe things."  One key element of art accessibility is audio description.

At the event, audio described tours were available for event attendees.  For guests with visual impairments, the tour gave them an opportunity to experience a work of art in the Museum's collection through audio description.  For guests with sight, blindfolds were provided to allow them to experience the art as those who are visually impaired experience it.  Sighted guests were encouraged to put on their blindfolds or close their eyes before viewing the art being described, allowing them to rely on the description alone without any visual point of reference.

After the audio describer presented a description of one of the PMA's paintings, guests were asked about their experience.  One guest with sight said, "It was captivating to hear her [the audio describer] speak.  The way she presented information was very thoughtful."  Another sighted guest said, "I enjoyed the way it [the audio description] was presented.  It unfolded like a story, and the description was neutral, so it gave you the opportunity to interpret it yourself."  One guest who is visually impaired said, "It was almost like I could see it [the painting]," while another commented on the importance of asking clarifying questions during any audio description.  "You can't make quick judgments; you have to ask if you can't see the details."

For more information about the Accessible Programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including the Form in Art program, call (215) 684-7602 or TTY (215) 684-7600 or e-mail

- By Jennifer Oglesbee
Jennifer is a Special Projects Ambassador in the Art-Reach Ambassador Program

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


TURN IN to 501 Vine Street, and you’ll see what I saw in April: the curves and shapes and colors and grains that define the craft of wood turning. When I arrived, I immediately spotted the lathe, basking proudly in the light on the windowsill, and knew that this device, guided by the deft hands of an artist, was responsible for the beautiful objects I was about to see. Albert, Ron, and William, the inspiration and administrative backbone of the organization, gave me a warm welcome, a hint of the sensory pleasure that pervades the Wood Turning Center in Philadelphia. I began my journey.

HAD I MADE A WRONG TURN? As I entered the gallery, I was struck by the apparent anomaly that I saw ahead. Pieces made from glass and linen and leather and clay in a wood center? Then I saw the sign: “Magic Realism---Material Illusions”, and I understood my mistake. Here was a special exhibit that played with expectation and its intersection with reality. On display were illusions of materials: a child’s cotton dress…really wood; a birch tree branch…really clay; a lacy linen corset…really glass. I had been exposed to the unexpected interconnectedness, OK… the magic… of materials!

TIME TO TURN BACK THE CLOCK by paging through the books and photographs in the next room.  By perusing through the shelves that lined the walls, serious scholars, able artists, and just fascinated folks could read about the history of wood turning, the process that defines it, and the artists who produced its most acclaimed work. Out of sight in a climate-controlled area, the WTC houses a permanent collection of wood-turned objects that are rotated out for display periodically. If time had permitted, I could have researched the past and gained even more appreciation of this special craft.  Next visit!

THEIR TURNSTILE KEEPS MOVING!  WTC also invites hobbyist turners to enhance their skills, experienced wood artists to find new inspiration, and researchers to expand their knowledge. Most importantly, WTC encourages the general public to discover and appreciate this very special place. There are only three craft art studios in Philadelphia, the other two devoted to either clay or fabric. The Wood Turning Center is unique: its focus is wood, and its mission is to elevate the perception of this craft art to the level of fine art! After my visit, I was a believer!

NOW, IT’S YOUR TURN. Be a visitor. You have lots of choices. Three specific and well-defined programs are available for Art-Reach members, each one offering some combination of museum history, process explanation, exhibit information, sample pieces, and lathe demonstration. Also available is a hands-on turning experience! The WTC kindly offers an “on-the-road” alternative, taking portions of the program to member sites, thereby reaching audiences unable to travel. 

 IT’S SOMEONE ELSE’S TURN: Do you need another recommendation? Maybe Brandee will convince you! Brandee, a young woman with many physical challenges, along with Debbie, her nurse, and Lynda, her doctor, spent the morning of April 29th at WTC. I was there too. Wood artist, Philip Hauser, a retired executive who confessed to a long-time love affair with wood, patiently demonstrated how wood is turned on the lathe. He slowly transformed a chunk of unfinished poplar into a “lidded box.” As Philip worked and talked, Dr. Lynda orally conveyed the visual details to Brandee, who is visually impaired. The pleasant smell of burning wood filled the air as the turning continued. With each new curve and detail, Dr. Lynda placed the transformed creation into Brandee’s open hand, thus stimulating her tactile response. Dr. Lynda’s expressive narrative voice reflected the beauty of the evolving piece, enhancing the sensory experience for this special guest with limited independent abilities. When Philip ended his demonstration, he gifted the finished piece to Brandee, concluding what Dr. Lynda described as “unequivocally, one of the best experiences Brandee has ever had.” She added her intention to return soon with other Rec Care folks.

 However you choose to experience this craft and art, whether at the WTC site or on your own turf, you will see the curves and shapes and colors and grains. You will feel the warmth, smell the wood, and welcome the peace. Your senses will tell you… you made the RIGHT TURN!

-by Barbara Speece