Please Touch the Art

Grasping the beauty of the Museum of Modern Art's collection on a tactile tour for the blind.

Please Touch the Art

His legs were strong and lean. She’d felt his muscular calves and the bones of his knees. She’d touched his thighs, his tense quadriceps contracted mid-stride.  His right hand was up in the air but she’d grabbed his other fist down by his waist, caressing the knuckles pointed at the floor. She’d felt surprise, excitement even, standing before this giant man. He felt smooth and firm—and ice-cold, too.

That’s how Orah Gibbons, sixty-one, remembers the first time she encountered Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Saint John the Baptist in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Gibbons, a diabetic, started losing her sight twenty-five years ago. Now blind, she experiences art with her hands and her imagination as she follows guided tours for the visually impaired several times a month.  “It was so exciting, I could really see what he looks like,” the tiny redhead said, widening her pale eyes as she remembered Rodin’s six-foot-six sculpture of the saint. “It’s amazing, those little eyeballs in my fingers.”

Gibbons is one of many blind museum-goers allowed the  privilege of getting their hands on MoMA’s art. Of course, this is a largely damage-proof process: Anyone who wants to touch the museum’s art must wear plastic gloves under the vigilant eye of a guide. Still, there is a transgressive element to feeling art rather than simply admiring it. Everybody says “don’t touch” in museums. The visually impaired are perhaps the lone exception to that rule.

Naomi Davis touches a Pablo Picasso sculpture during a tactile tour at the Museum of Modern Art
Naomi Davis touches a Pablo Picasso sculpture during a tactile tour at the Museum of Modern Art

It’s hard to deny the appeal of tactile tours. “Most people would agree that it’s what everybody wants to do, but no one can,” says Francesca Rosenberg, MoMA’s Director of Community, Access and School Programs. Yet, those visits still appear as a lesser alternative to the visual experience of the arts. After all, the reason why we let the blind touch objects is that we believe it will “create an experience comparable to that of a sighted visitor,” according to Nina Levent, the executive director of Art Beyond Sight, a nonprofit organization that specializes in museum access for the blind. In short, touch tours are viewed as a fallback option.

The misconception lies in the idea that touch is devoid of its own aesthetic value—that “it is too close to the body…too little connected to higher cognitive functions,” as Rachel Zuckert, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, puts it.

So what if art wasn’t only meant for the eyes? Beyond the mere attraction of physical contact, touching inspires an entirely novel reaction to the works that is perhaps just as intense as that of the average visitor, if not more so, say philosophers, anthropologists and of course the blind themselves. When it comes to visiting museums, sighted people may well be the ones missing out.

Touching priceless art may seem like a ridiculous proposition. So ridiculous, in fact, that even The Onion has mocked it in the past, reporting fake news that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “hoping to boost attendance… launched a new initiative that allows patrons to prod and scratch at the paintings in its revered collection.”

But touching art was the norm back in the day.

Early museums in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were very similar to private collections. The curator himself gave the tour, and handling the art—at least pieces like statuettes and sculptures—was a routine part of the visit. The tactile experience of art was considered necessary to fully grasp the beauty of a piece.

“The curator, as a gracious host, was expected to give information about the collection and offer it up to be touched,” writes Constance Classen, a researcher on the cultural life of the senses. Likewise, guests who didn’t grab their preferred pieces on a visit came across as rude.

This led to a hands-on experience of art that today could get a person arrested. During one tour, French Cardinal Mazarin, who died in 1662, had to alert one of his clumsier guests that “the pieces break when they fall.” The Ashmolean Museum, built in Oxford, England, in 1683 as the world’s first university museum, used to give away parts of its collection to visitors “of extraordinary quality.”

By the eighteenth century, philosophers were profoundly convinced of the aesthetic value of touch. Denis Diderot’s “Letter on the Blind” not only suggested for the first time that the visually impaired should be able to read with their hands, but also that beauty can be grasped, literally, with the sense of touch. “The blind judge beauty by touching,” Diderot wrote.

Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher, later argued that the only real way to appreciate a sculpture is by holding it, in order to feel the artist’s craftsmanship.  “Everything that has form is only known through the sense of touch, and sight reveals only visible surfaces—moreover not the surfaces of bodies but surfaces exposed to light,” he wrote in his book “Plastik.”

Gradually, those ideas started disappearing. Museums became increasingly accessible to the public, including the lower classes. And as the type of visitor changed, so did the policies on touching art, explains Fiona Candlin, a museum studies professor at Birkbek, University of London. The nineteenth century also coincided with the rise of empiricism and objectivity, which emphasized the importance of vision above other senses. Tactility became an unsophisticated approach to a much too sophisticated medium.  In essence, touching art was considered primitive because the “plebs” wanted to touch.

Today, the tactile experience is still almost entirely banned in the art world. In the United States, blind touch tours happen in most museums, but that’s largely a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which states that public institutions should provide accommodations for any type of disability (though some museums had implemented tactile visits years before; MoMA started its tours in 1971).

When touch tours first began, visually impaired visitors were permitted to hold works of art with their bare hands. Soon, though, museums argued that some pieces of art were too fragile to be handled and that the oils in the skin could damage certain materials.

Georgina Kleege, a writer and an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is visually impaired, says that most blind people she knows can remember an anecdote about “illicitly touching art” before touch tours became the norm, including one of her friends who practically climbed on Rodin’s “Kiss” with the assistance of one of the Rodin Museum’s guards, in Paris.

MoMA educator Kirstin Broussard leads a tour in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”
MoMA educator Kirstin Broussard leads a tour in front of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

The majority of works that can be grabbed are now bronze sculptures. And gloves are mandatory.

“That ship has sailed,” Kleege says about the glove debate, though she still wishes she could feel the art barehanded. What she finds irritating is that most museum educators strip the tactile experience of its intellectual relevance. Access visits are often simplified as a way of allowing the blind to visualize art with their hands.

Yet physical contact goes beyond that. People with little or no visual memory don’t always form mental images. Someone who loses her sight later in life is more likely to have a “mind’s eye” that visualizes objects in three dimensions. But Kleege, who became blind at eleven, says she just doesn’t think in images, even being the daughter of two visual artists. Instead, her brain focuses on her other senses—on temperatures, sizes or textures. In her world, tactility is king.

To better understand this, it may be worth comparing aspects of the typical and tactile art experiences. The pleasure of visually discerning the smallest details in a Renaissance painting or on a stained glass window, for instance, resembles the intellectual enjoyment of actually feeling every inch of a piece—touching its uneven lines, appreciating how smooth or rough it is.

“Part of it is the pleasure of the material,” Kleege explains. “And part of it is that my hands are where the artist’s hands once were. It’s definitely not about playing a game of guessing what I’m touching—in some ways, it all feels like an abstraction.”

That’s also the conclusion of a study on the psychological effect of touching art by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the Johns Hopkins Brain Institute. Last year, the museum invited the general public to caress  replicas of statuettes and sculptures from thefifteenth century that had been designed to be held.

Steven Hsiao, a neuroscientist who specializes in the aesthetics of touch at Johns Hopkins, tested the audience’s reaction to different materials, altering the shape, size and texture of the originals. He would create one copy of a sculpture and an altered copy made of a rougher or smoother material, for example. Part of the study was also conducted in a laboratory, where blind individuals were evaluated separately while sighted people got to see and then just touch the statuettes.

Two of Hsiao’s conclusions are worth highlighting: First, both visually impaired and sighted people found rougher textures unpleasant and smoother ones more agreeable, but the blind felt so more intensely.

Secondly, some of the replicas were a mere outline of the actual statue: Those basic copies didn’t look or feel anything like the original, but people with vision found them extremely comfortable to touch. The blind, on the other hand, didn’t like those shapes at all. Since they couldn’t feel any details, the enjoyment of the object was gone.

“Sighted people get the same information,” Hsiao says. “But they don’t appreciate it the same way.” Those who can see, it seems, simply aren’t as aware of the message their hands convey. And that’s a result of centuries spent neglecting our sense of touch.

Does that mean that museums should let everyone handle their collections? Perhaps. “But say that to any curator and he’ll fall on the floor and have spasms,” Kleege says with a short giggle.

There is another alternative, though—letting the blind guide the general public. Instead of having docents help the blind envision the contents of a museum, the visually impaired would help the sighted community feel what they can’t touch: Although this room is hot, the bronze of that sculpture feels really cold; while the statuette over there looks smooth, it feels incredibly grainy; or that piece over there near the wall—you can feel small scratches on its backside. “All these bits of information add up to something,” Kleege says.

Mary McMullen, who has very limited vision to due a cataract, explores an Umberto Boccioni sculpture
Mary McMullen, who has very limited vision to due a cataract, explores an Umberto Boccioni sculpture

And it’s not like non-blind visitors aren’t curious.

In a forthcoming article about the most recent time she went on a touch tour at MoMA,  Kleege remembers the astonished reaction of sighted museum-goers when she wrapped her palms around the last piece of Henri Matisse’s “Jeanette” series. She’d requested the tour two weeks in advance in order to be able to explore the art on her own during normal hours instead of accompanying a visually impaired group on the museum’s day off. Her docent was a young art history graduate who took her from crowded room to crowded room, explaining to the guards what they were doing so that Kleege could touch the sculptures without being interrupted. The two women were in the middle of discussing Matisse’s intent with the “Jeanette” series, four sculpted portraits that the French artist had hoped to turn into an abstract painting. Suddenly, a visitor snapped a picture of the scene. Many others had also taken their phones out, surrounding the pair.

“I was temporarily distracted,” Kleege writes in her piece, which will be published in Disabilities Studies Quarterly. “What exactly were they taking a picture of here?” Unsure of whether her photographers were envious or simply moved, Kleege wondered whether she’d become “an example of performance art, here at the museum.” But after a short while, she returned to her conversation with the docent, her palms still wrapped around the Matisse head. That day, she remembers, the first thing she’d told her docent before starting the tour was “I wish everyone could do this.”