Volunteer tour guide Jessica Duarte describes a painting of Maharana Amar Singh to Lynda Spinney (centre) and Joan Caswell (right). Photo by Lodoe Laura Haines-Wangda/Torontoist.
The last time Joan Caswell visited the Art Gallery of Ontario, she could see.
That was before a rare genetic disorder caused both her retinas to detach—the first when she was fifteen, the second when she was eighteen—leaving her effectively sightless, except for some slight perception of light and dark.
Sunday was her eightieth birthday, and also the day of her first return visit to the AGO since losing her sight more than sixty years ago. The Gallery had little to interest her during all those decades, but now things are different. For the past year, the AGO has been quietly offering multi-sensory guided tours for the blind and visually impaired.
Jessica Duarte and Jean Crawford, both volunteer guides, lead Caswell, her (sighted) daughter Jocelyn Campbell, and two other visually-impaired visitors, Coranna Lee and Lynda Spinney, into the entrance of the AGO’s current flagship exhibition: “Maharaja,” a display of art and jewels related to India’s royal courts.
“We’re in a room with very high ceilings,” says Duarte. “It almost feels like an Indian palace, with beautiful blue arches.” The group moves inside and sits on folding chairs in front of a painting of Maharana Amar Singh, a ruler belonging to India’s Mewar Dynasty during the first decade of the eighteenth century. Duarte and Crawford pass around samples of fabric that are supposed to approximate the feel of Amar Singh’s robes. They spend about fifteen minutes describing the painting in detail, paying special attention to clothing and jewelry.
The AGO began offering multi-sensory tours in late 2009, and the program has slowly been gaining popularity.
The Gallery’s small corps of volunteer multi-sensory tour guides use a number of different tools in order to make visual art engaging to the rest of the senses—everything from miniature raised-line versions of paintings, to portable audio players loaded with music that’s evocative of certain artworks, to purple nitrile gloves that visitors can wear in order to run their hands over select items from the sculpture collection.
Galleries and museums around the world offer similar services for visitors who can’t see. The Louvre has a multi-sensory program, and so do the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.
“You want a blind person to have an experience that is authentic and comparable to that of the general public,” says Nina Levent, executive director of Art Education for the Blind, a New York City-based consultancy that promotes exactly what its name suggests. AEB has been training museums to serve vision-impaired visitors for almost twenty-five years.
Closer to home, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa leads adapted tours for people with special needs. The Royal Ontario Museum does also.
In 2009, the ROM began offering what staff there call “tactile tours,” during which visitors are allowed to touch real artifacts from the museum’s collections.
“Our exhibition design, our customer service policy, our visitor experience as a whole should provide something accessible for everyone,” says Johanna Contreras, access program manager at the ROM. She adds that the museum also offers tours in American Sign Language, and is in the process of developing programs for visitors who are both blind and deaf.
AGO multi-sensory tours are offered regularly on the first Sunday and the first Thursday of each month, and at other times by special arrangement. They last about ninety minutes and are free with admission, though you have to book a spot in advance.
The ROM’s tactile tours are offered on the third Thursday of each month, at 2 p.m., and are included with the price of admission. Visitors are asked to reserve spots in advance, but drop-ins are accommodated on a first-come, first-served basis.