To many members of the visually impaired community, touch is imperative to the way they see the world. The "Do Not Touch" signs in museums can hinder their ability to experience art as a result.
The Columbia Museum of Art has worked alongside Able SC, a center for independent living, to provide an accessible artistic experience through Public Touch Tours. Touch Tours provide opportunities for visitors — specifically members of the visually impaired community — to touch and interact with various artworks that are on display.
The tour is designed to evoke as many senses as possible — the most prominent of which being touch.
All of the pieces on display have their dimensions, textures and stylistic features thoroughly explained to visitors by a tour guide who is educated in the arts. Visitors also have the opportunity to touch some of the items in the collection, including furniture and sculptures, without endangering their preservation.
The museum has been making an effort to listen to the community's needs, said Glenna Barlow, the curator of education at the CMA.
“(We are trying to) get in the habit of thinking through every time we have a program, how can we make this a little bit more accessible?” Barlow said.
People with visual impairments from Able SC took part in beta testing for the exhibit prior to the event.
Sarah Massengale, a community access specialist at Able SC and member of the visually impaired community, participated in the beta testing. She said that it is important for places like museums to make efforts to include people with disabilities so that they feel welcome.
“(Engaging with the art) opens a whole new world where you realize art belongs to you too," Massengale said. "You are a part of the public, and art is accessible to you."
Ann-Chadwell Humphries, a visually impaired poet and art enthusiast in Columbia, said that she often works with others, including USC's Student Disability Resource Center, to create more accessible spaces for the visually impaired.
Humphries said that putting art behind a pane of glass can make it difficult for a blind person to have any understanding of the piece. She said that if she cannot use her other senses to interact with the art, she cannot experience it.
“It's nothing. It feels like nothing,” Humphries said. "You can say 'There's a book in there,' but it has no meaning."
Art was never meant to be put behind glass, but to be experienced, Massengale said. For her, this means being able to physically interact with a piece of art.
“When you gatekeep art of any kind, from anyone, you’ve done the artist a disservice. And you’ve done the community a disservice,” Massengale said.
In order to welcome people of all walks of life, Massengale said that galleries should work with members of the disabled community to learn how to best accommodate them.
“That's another really strong statement to the visually impaired community of, ‘Hey, we want you here,'” Massengale said.
The Touch Tours do not occur on a regular basis. But Barlow said that the museum hopes to hold more consistent events in the future and that private Touch Tours can be scheduled by calling the museum.
The CMA will be holding its next Public Touch Tour on Jan. 23 at 4 p.m. For more information, visit the Columbia Museum of Art's website.