Blind Art Lovers Make The Most Of Museum Visits With 'InSight' Tours

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Docents on the America InSight tours guide visitors through the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Dorlyn Catron's cane is making its radio debut today — its name is Pete. ("He's important to my life. He ought to have a name," she says.)

Catron is participating in one of the America InSight tours at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum offers twice-a-month tours, led by specially trained docents, to blind and visually impaired visitors.

Docent Betsy Hennigan stops the group of nine visitors in front of Girl Skating, a small bronze sculpture from 1907 by Abastenia St. Leger Eberle. The roller-skating girl is full of joy. The visitors — of varied ages, races and backgrounds — stand close together, hands on top of their long canes, facing Hennigan as she describes the artwork: The little girl careens forward, arms outstretched, her hair and her dress flow behind her.

Carol Wilson trains the 12 volunteer docents. "Sight isn't the only pathway to understand art," she says. Wilson suggests the docents invite visitors to imitate the pose of a sculpture and use other senses in their verbal descriptions.

"There's a red in one of the paintings and I've said it's like biting into a strawberry," says docent Phoebe Kline.

William Johnson's painting Café depicts a man and a woman sitting side-by-side, having a drink in a jazz cafe. "There's no way you can see music in this piece," says Hennigan, "but I ask them to imagine hearing jazz. ... Can you smell cigarettes? Can you smell the alcohol?"

Docent Edmund Bonder uses real music to help bring to life a painting of a young woman at a piano. He describes her fingers on the upper right part of the keyboard, and then plays some classical piano music on his smartphone right in the middle of the gallery. No one shushes him.

"I check with security personnel beforehand and let them know this is what's going to happen," Bonder says with a laugh.

Sometimes low-vision and blind visitors can actually touch the art — in Latex-free gloves. Kline learned something herself, when a sixth-grader felt Hugo Robus' sculpture Water Carrier.

"She ran her hands down the body of this female figure, and her first remark was: Oh, she's pregnant," Kline recalls. "And I had never thought about that. But in fact, the figure does look like a pregnant woman. Here was a kid really showing me something that I had been looking at for 35 years, probably, and had never noticed."

The visitors move slowly through the museum, some "seeing" in their imaginations, others, with low vision, getting really close to the artwork to see it better with magnifying devices. The docents take questions about the art and the artists. Visitor Kilof Legge listens intently. He's taken lots of these tours. He has had macular degeneration since childhood and has deeply missed art.

"For the longest time I really felt angry when I came into a museum," he says. "And hurt and insulted, almost. Because these are public places and I felt I was denied access." He says he is "grateful and excited" to have the art world opened back up to him through tours like these.

This was visitor Cheryl Young's second American InSight tour. She was born sighted, so she has color memory. "This experience ... brought back another piece of my life that I haven't been able to explore since my vision loss," she says.

Twice a month, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum helps blind and low-vision visitors to see art in their minds' eyes — and demonstrate that there are many ways to experience a work of art.

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A previous Web version of this story misspelled docent Phoebe Kline's last name as Klein.