Photos C/O Art Galley of Hamilton

 

Walking through an art gallery or a museum is mostly a visual experience, whether you’re looking at a sculpture, a painting or a photo. This can be exclusionary for people with little to no vision. The Art Gallery of Hamilton is aiming to make art accessible to a larger range of people with their Touch Tours, monthly group tours which take visitors through a sensory exploration of the art on display.

The tours are run by Laurie Kilgour-Walsh, the Senior Manager of Education at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. In 2007, Kilgour-Walsh attended an orientation program at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, a program targeted at new museum and art gallery employees in order to acquaint them with the process of running a large museum. Kilgour-Walsh says that one of the orientation activities inspired her to begin the Touch Tours. A patron of the gallery, who had lost her sight late in life, walked the visitors through the way that she now experiences art.

“[S]he started talking about her interaction with the sculpture, how she sees it and how she encounters all the different facets of the artists making the work, what the work looks like, the personality of the piece, just through the sense of touch,” said Kilgour-Walsh.

“[S]he started talking about her interaction with the sculpture, how she sees it and how she encounters all the different facets of the artists making the work, what the work looks like, the personality of the piece, just through the sense of touch,” said Kilgour-Walsh.

The Touch Tours were specifically created for people with vision loss, but all are welcome to attend. In many ways, the tours enrich the art-viewing experience. Kilgour-Walsh says that the average time that a person spends looking at a piece of art is about 30 seconds. Art viewing is almost entirely sight-based, unless there is an audio component to describe the artwork. The tours slow down that experience, allowing participants to explore the art in new ways.

Over time, the Touch Tours have evolved to include the other senses. For example, during an Emily Carr exhibition, small salt shakers with pine tree and pine essential oil created the smell of the forest to accompany Carr’s work. 

“In other cases, when we have our public offering, sometimes people [attend] who are curious, who just want to have a sensory experience are coming and that is actually what we see most often. And so some of that is leading us to think more about tours that engage senses, rather than simply focusing on description . . . forming an image in your mind based on the words and feelings, and engaging hearing and sight and sound,” said Kilgour-Walsh.

The primary art medium that the tours display is sculpture. The benefit of sculpture is that it is, by nature, much more tactile than a painting. Running your hands over a sculpted apple is much easier to understand than a painted one, particularly if you’ve never seen an apple. Many of the sculptures that the tours use are made of bronze, because it is a fairly durable material, meaning that it’s unlikely to break or snap under pressure. 

“[W]ith bronze casting, the original work of art is often made in like, clay or wax or some very soft surface, and then cast later. And so feeling this work, you can actually find those spots of the sculpture where you can see how the artists would have used a finger to put in a curve or detail. You can actually follow those movements with your fingers,” said Kilgour-Walsh.

“[W]ith bronze casting, the original work of art is often made in like, clay or wax or some very soft surface, and then cast later. And so feeling this work, you can actually find those spots of the sculpture where you can see how the artists would have used a finger to put in a curve or detail. You can actually follow those movements with your fingers,” said Kilgour-Walsh.

Paintings are trickier to include on the tours, but they’re such an integral part of our culture that the AGH has been working hard to include them in the tours. Paintings are much more delicate and easy to tarnish, and they are also fairly flat, with little texture, making them difficult to perceive through touch. The Touch Tours has adapted over time to include paintings. Now, each tour provides a posterboard version of the original painting that visitors can hold in their hands. The posterboard paintings are then covered in different textures of paint to illustrate the different sections, with raised paint being used to outline larger shapes. The participants are then able to experience the painting through touch, feeling their way through the art. 

The Touch Tours have also created materials that illustrate what the different aspects of the paintings would feel like. They’ve created small samples of fabric to demonstrate what is being portrayed in the paintings to create a more immersive experience.

“[A] lot of people who come don’t know what canvas feels like, so we have blank canvas so you can feel the give of the surface and the texture. If we talk about images where there’s a certain kind of fabric — we’ve had a couple of painting of really beautiful Victorian dresses — we can use something like this where we’ve got that silk fabric and we’ve got suede and we’ve got all of those different things to have a sense of being able to touch the fabric that is being portrayed,” said Kilgour-Walsh. 

They also have small samples of different paints, from acrylic to watercolour, in order to give an idea of what the painting itself feels like.

Touch Tours and other accessible options are slowly being integrated into more museums and galleries, like the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada and even the Museum of Modern Art. These improvements not only help people with accessibility needs, but also anyone interested in experiencing art from a fresh perspective. 

For anyone interested in exploring the Art Gallery of Hamilton (123 King St. W.), admission is free for McMaster and Mohawk students with a valid student ID. 

 

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