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How Do You See a Museum with Your Eyes Closed?

One day last winter, Guggenheim visitors were treated to a very special and unusual program called “The Touchy Subject,” developed by artist Carmen Papalia and guided by museum educators. During fifteen-minute, one-on-one tours, visitors were asked to close their eyes, and then were led by educators through the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright building, exploring the architecture through touch, tuning their ears to sounds, feeling in their bodies the ground, space, and air. Without the use of sight, these ordinary experiences became extraordinary revelations, and the visitor-centered approach to touring at the Guggenheim took on dimensions that educators had never before imagined.

Museum tours have certainly come a long way. In her 1989 performance piece, Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, artist Andrea Fraser critiques art institutions in high and hilarious fashion through an enactment of the museum tour. Posing primly as a docent under an assumed name, Fraser corrals visitors in galleries as well as bathrooms, relentlessly pontificating in bombastic language on art, beauty, taste, and value. A parody, certainly, and a stereotype, perhaps, but the hyperbole, the herding, the coercion, the interminable monologues—happily, those days are behind us.

Today’s practitioners embody a different sensibility. Museum educators see themselves as facilitators rather than didacts, and they recognize the key role of the visitor in the unfolding exchange around works of art. Tours focus on collective dialogue, and educators invest time and thought into devising methods for more provocative engagement—crucial for institutions whose audiences are increasingly eager for participatory experiences.

Educators at the Guggenheim like to filter ideas through various channels. For example, a teaching method that favorably serves one particular audience may well play an instrumental role in serving another. The confluence of different voices and areas of expertise in the exchange of ideas generates programmatic innovation and refinement. It is within this context that we began working with Carmen Papalia.

Papalia is a young artist whose practice has evolved as an inquiry into the senses and perception. Through the creation of objects, video, sound, and participatory events, he explores strategies for engaging the world through senses other than sight. His work could be characterized as a phenomenological investigation that considers both the body and consciousness as catalysts for heightened modes of experience, perception, and cognition.

Papalia is blind. He resists this label because, as he claims, his practice is not about blindness. It may originate from a body that happens to be without the faculty of sight, and much of his work does incorporate objects and activities identifiable with people who are blind (white canes, “blind walks,” and the like). Papalia’s practice began in earnest when he lost his sight, but his artistic objectives speak to something that transcends the fact of his physiological nature and the devices used to negotiate it. He seeks to sensitize people to the power of perception and its potential for reshaping and enhancing one’s relationship to the world.

For the Guggenheim’s educators, dedicated to expanding possibilities for visitor engagement with art, Papalia’s practice offered an exciting terrain for investigation. During an extended training, a group of 20 education staff, K-12 educators, and adult educators worked together with Papalia to understand the objectives and methods of his practice. Reviewing his work through a candidly personal and deeply thoughtful narrative, he exposed the educators to sensory modes of thinking and conditions of being that were surprisingly unfamiliar and brimming with educational potential. Touching different materials with eyes closed provoked an acute awareness of the reliance on sight, as well as the awakening of other senses when the use of one’s eyes was not an option.

The training culminated in the public tour program where educators were able to exercise what they had learned. We all agreed that there was no better place to do this than the Guggenheim. The building is, of course, visually arresting: the interior, glass-domed void draws the gaze upward, and moving along the spiraling ramp offers an almost dizzying array of vantage points on the art, fellow visitors, and the architecture itself. But the building is also a monument to sensory and perceptual experience, with its changing natural light, the incline of the ramp, shifting architectural soundscapes, and more intimate as well as more open spaces. Tour participants, educators, indeed the very energy of the museum were activated if not veritably transformed during this event (watch the video above—it elaborates the experience beautifully).

Perhaps it wasn’t a surprise for educators steeped in the value of visitor input that the real learning happened during the interactions with the visitors. What was remarkable was the degree to which visitors embraced the program concept, the quickness with which their other senses were stimulated, and the depth and nuance of their experiences. The tour participants taught us so much about a building and an environment in which we work every day. We were all struck by how prioritizing sight actually blinds us to so much of what is immediately present around us. Working with Papalia, we realized that seeing does not require sight. We see through our brains, not our eyes: the eye is just one of several channels through which sensory information is passed to the brain for processing. The absence of sight can harness the power of the other senses in constructing images in the mind’s eye and producing an understanding of one’s reality.

Responses to the program would suggest that Papalia’s objectives were realized. Participants spoke not of loss or limitation, but rather mobilized states of attention and insight. This is the kind of learning environment we strive to create at the museum for visitors as well as educators—one of ever-expanding opportunity and possibility. With Papalia, we were able to connect our wider audience—as well as a more diverse group of educators—with the kind of teaching and learning that drives a Guggenheim program specifically designed for people who are blind or have low vision, called “Mind’s Eye.” Multi-sensory engagement and verbal description, techniques regularly used to teach non-sighted visitors about art, were equally valuable during “The Touchy Subject” in sensitizing sighted visitors and educators to different modes of observation.

This addresses a larger issue critically important to museum institutions: accessibility. Museums continually seek to accommodate increasingly diversified audiences, including people with disabilities. Doing so ingrains understanding about difference and how to dismantle the barriers that discourage people from visiting museums. Diversifying audiences means cross-institutional commitment to really examining and accommodating a broad and intersecting range of visitor interests and needs. In this capacity, museums have an opportunity to design environments that generate mutual regard. Programs like Papalia’s that consciously connect diverse perspectives represent important steps toward more universal access to the museum experience.

The Guggenheim will be offering other exciting experimental tour programs in the galleries in the coming months. Our next experimental tour will take place Wednesday, June 4—check our calendar in the coming weeks to learn more.