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04.05. The Museum through Touch: New Modes of Aesthetic Engagement

Georgina Kleege (Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and disability studies scholar)


Jilian Crochet, Grieving Organism, 2018, silk velvet, sand, faux fur.

[Image description: Green velvet organic shapes intertwine on a dark brown faux fur background. The velvet folds and bulges with the weight of the sand inside creating different shades of green as the velvet captures the light.]

Museums around the world offer touch tours for people who are blind and visually impaired. In some cases, these programs have existed for decades, even as early as the 19th century. Where these programs fall short is that they are often based on a reductive understanding of both blindness and touch perception. Frequently, they seem based on a simplistic analogy where the two eyes of the sighted are compared to the two hands of the blind, as if merely laying a finger on an art object will instantly transmit an image to the blind person’s mind’s eye identical to what the sighted person perceives visually. There is an emphasis on object recognition—what the art work depicts—rather than allowing for appreciation of qualities such as texture, temperature, density, sonority and the meaning that can be derived from the artist’s manipulation of materials. The other problem with these programs is that they are limited to blind and visually impaired people and risk reinforcing stereotypes about blindness as mystical and other-worldly. What would happen if touch access became available to all museum visitors ? What would need to change in display practices to open up these experiences to everyone? This talk will describe some recent projects meant to explore the radical potential of tactile and haptic encounters with art. It will also feature work by disabled artists who create work meant to be experienced through multiple sensory modalities, including touch.


Georgina Kleege is Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a writer and disability studies scholar now living in New York City. Her most recent book, More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art considers museum access programs designed for people who are blind and visually impaired with particular scrutiny of the philosophical, psychological and political underpinnings of such programs. It also highlights the work of blind artists, writers, scientists and activists who bring new perceptions and insights to visual culture.

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