K.C. museum puts blind in touch with fine art

— Warren Logan's hands skim the 15th-century marble bust, tracing the lifeless eyes, the slightly agape mouth, the precisely chiseled fur.

He is blind, but he can see.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's new touch tour is among programs at more than 100 museums nationwide that attempt to do what once was thought impossible: make art accessible - even visible - to those with little or no sight.

"I get a good picture of the art," 14-year-old Warren said after a recent tour. "I can actually visualize it."

The Nelson-Atkins program has participants first feel pieces of slate and marble - the materials of which the works they'll feel are made. Later, specially trained docents guide the hands of the visually impaired across 500-year-old Spanish tomb covers, an Italian bust of St. John the Baptist and numerous pieces by celebrated Modernist sculptor Henry Moore, asking them questions about their perceptions and offering them history on the piece.

Tina Jinkens dreaded class trips to the museum as a child. But now, the 35-year-old blind woman's face fills with delight as she touches art.

"I always felt like I didn't get that much out of it," Jinkens recalled. "But if someone can put their hands on a sculpture and really get something out of an exhibit, it may open up new worlds to them."


Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

Docent Carolyn Reintjes, left, talks to Tina Jinkens as she feels a 15th-century marble bust of St. John the Baptist during a tour for blind persons at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. The new touch tour is among programs at more than 100 museums nationwide.

Art museums first began to make their collections accessible to those without sight in the early 1970s, though with major museums like the Nelson-Atkins only now implementing such programs, the spread across the country has been slow.

The "Form in Art" initiative at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was among the first to reach out to the blind with a three-year program combining study of art history, tactile examinations of objects in the museum's collections and participants' own creation of artwork.

Because original paintings cannot be touched, the Philadelphia museum makes reproductions that may emphasize the heavy brush strokes of Van Gogh or another artist's signature elements, dioramalike models that use materials like glass to represent water or terry cloth for a lamb, and black-and-white interpretations that allow someone with limited vision to more easily see the contrast.

The museum also offers tours for the visually impaired that include more than 50 touchable pieces.


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