I think it’s important for you to know about my sight. I have retinitis pigmentosa. I was trained at the Lighthouse to use my cane, so I am a person who has seen the world from both sides. I have seen the world as a place of no barriers, no interferences at all, and now I can tell you that this is a world that is filled with barriers.
When I walk into a museum, people usually meet me at the door, and I need to have a description of the entire place. I want to get a feeling of this museum, the space in the museum. What you do with your eyes, I need to use somebody else’s voice to tell me with their own eyes what I’m experiencing. That adds so much more to my perception, to my experience in the museum. When I walk into the museum I want to know where the gift shop is. I want to know where the coat room is, where everything is in that lobby. When I go upstairs into the gallery I want to know what color carpeting is on the floor. I want to know what color the walls are. I want to know how the paintings are hanging on the wall -- whether they’re single paintings, or whether they’re hung in salon style, one on top of the other. This, as I said, really adds to my experience.
I have become an accessibility self advocate. I believe I have been put on this earth to teach people that we are whole. We are all different, everybody is different in many different ways, and I believe that there are many ways to get to where you want to go.
One of the ways to make a museum accessible for me is [through] this verbal imaging that we’ve been talking about, and also the tactile, the touch tours, that have become a part of the program at the Jewish Museum. When I have groups coming to the Jewish Museum, we meet at the desk at the entrance of the museum in order to help them into the museum. At the Jewish Museum, the other part of what I want to talk about, are these touch tours, which I have learned from Art Beyond Sight. I have been involved with them for many years, and I was part of all the work, all of the research they were doing before. I am using all of the skills for myself that they were researching at that time for raised drawings. It has just been miraculous for my experience in art.
What we have done at the Museum is to reach into our own collection. We have a fabulous collection, a permanent collection, and what we have created, I have some descriptions of it here, is called a Tableau Vivant. What we do is, I have selected certain paintings. The painting you will see here is called Friday Evening, it’s of a woman sitting at a table. She’s very pensive. It’s an Isidor Kaufmann painting [from] the early Twentieth Century. He is really reminding us about these different communities that were being lost because life was changing so much at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. What we did with this work, for example, is -- in this work she’s wearing this beautiful costume and the type of clothing somebody would wear living at that time. And there’s lace on it, so of course we had pieces of lace that people could touch. Also, I had a friend who had a computer, and he replicated these painting in actual size for me on the computer. It was truly amazing. So the Museum has a collection of copies of their works.
When groups come to the museum, first we take them into the classroom and we have that painting. For anyone who has low vision, they can see the painting and we have made models. They are not exactly the same, but they give a sense, they’re three-dimensional models, of what someone would see in the painting. We literally set it up. There’s a table here; on the table are two lit candles in candlesticks; there are challahs on the table. I made those out of clay, the kind that dries very quickly. And, again, the tablecloth. The painting is unfinished so it really has a wonderful Twentieth-, Twenty-first -Century atmosphere to it. So we create the whole atmosphere of the painting. Then what we do is take the group -- after they have touched all these objects -- into the galleries, in order [for them] to have the experience of walking into the galleries, to smell the gallery, to hear the gallery, to hear the people in the gallery, to feel the walls, not literally, but as a blind person. I can tell you, you just know when those walls are there when they enter into your own experience. To give them the same type of experience that people would have coming to any museum and being able to walk the galleries. We always have people assisting them, of course. We have the large-print labels, which we put in a holder at the beginning of the exhibition. People take them with them and return them when they are finished. They have been very helpful, in that we are living in a time in New York with an aging population, people losing their sight; they are very helpful. They are always being used; they are very helpful to people.