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


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