Inclusive Museum: Preparing Tactile Models For Exhibition

Audio description: a coloured photo. A model of Tsaritsyno memorial estate on a table. It is an ensemble made of 3 groups of plastic buildings. In the foreground, there stands the Small Palace, a semicircular crenellated fort. The Grand Palace, with lancet windows and high corner towers, is in the middle. The composition is completed by a two-storied flat-roofed building, the Bread House. All the buildings are connected by a grey rounded path.

Olga Shu, head of tactile models workshop, exclusively for the “Special View” portal writes about preparing tactile copies of museum exhibits for presentation: choosing the best museum items, the size of a model, and the optimum location for the models.

I first heard the word “inclusion” at the Garage Museum of contemporary art.

Inclusion means equal access of people with disabilities to all spheres of social life. Museums, among other public spaces, play a very important role in integrating inclusion into public awareness. Inclusive departments are opening in many museums, the experience of interaction with the community is accumulating. Innovative solutions taking into account the needs of disabled persons, including sightless people, are introduced and tested here. The etiquette of meeting, accompanying, communicating and giving a guided tour to a disabled person is formulated in detail.

It so happened that the beginning of my career as a creator of tactile models coincided with the “new wave” of inclusive programs in Russia. Together with museums which had just started making inclusion open and noticeable to every visitor, we faced numerous issues and questions, we were learning and developing together. That is why in this article I would like to share the experience I have accumulated during my five-years’ work and explain the ways to prepare an exhibition that includes tactile items.

How Can We Show Art to Visually Challenged Guests?

There are two essential tools for telling a sightless person about a work of art. They are visual description commentary and a tactile model (a model of an object adapted for tactile examination). They complement one another. It is crucial to use both tools simultaneously and make sure that the tactile model and the visual description do not contradict one another. Transforming a painting into a tactile model is not just a mechanic process of turning a visual image into its relief copy. Complicated viewpoints may be used in the painting, figures may cross or overlap one another. That is why in order to enhance its perception one may need to strip the image of information noise and emphasize the key elements. A tactile models creator and a visual description specialist must work together and come to an agreement as to which elements should be given special attention to and which, on the contrary, should be omitted. Otherwise it may happen that the visual description specialist might be speaking on some object profusely, a sightless person might be trying to find it, but the tactile model creator thought it to be irrelevant and never transferred it into the model in the first place.

What Sets Tactile Models Apart From Other Types of Tactile Aids

A tactile model has a predecessor — relief graphic aids that were manufactured for educational institutions. But the basic purpose of such aids is instructive presentation of data. A tactile model, on the other hand, is aimed at telling about the language of an artist, finding a balance between intelligibility and aesthetic contents. A tactile model preserves the composition, the design, points of view and perspective of the original.

Moreover, a museum is a public space, that is why a tactile exhibit is under heavier use than tactile aids in libraries or residential schools for the visually challenged. The model must withstand a large flow of visitors, including sighted persons. It must cause no injury, it must not break, it must be easy to clean. At the same time, its appearance must not ruin the exposition of the museum room: it must fit into the exhibition space. It must also be understandable and pleasant to touch.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A young woman in a white T-shirt is holding a broad circular pedestal of a white tactile model, a copy of Takashi Murakami’s Scarlet Heartsculpture. It is a stylized mushroom resembling a toadstool, about 30 cm in height. Several pairs of hands are reaching to touch the model. A boy of about 10 with a dark cloth over his eyes is studying the curves of the mushroom’s cap. Snail whorls are symmetrically spaced along its edge, and there is a double “skirt” under the cap.

The Role Of a Tactile Model Inside The Museum Space

A high-quality tactile model gives visually challenged persons freedom to interpret a work of art by themselves, and not just follow the interpretation of a sighted person. It enables one to touch the culture of the humanity without mediators.

What is more, such a model fulfills a social function, too. Tactile items thoughtfully integrated into the exhibition space give the society a signal that visually impaired persons are its equal members.

What Else May Be Used For Guided Tours

A mnemonic map of the museum space may be provided for independent navigation around the premises. It is a plan of a building or an institution that is used by sightless or partially sighted visitors by touch to help them move around the room or territory unaccompanied.

Objects Made Of Natural Materials, Aromas and Sounds May Also Be Introduced

During previous exhibitions at the Museum of Russian Impressionism, in addition to tactile models, tactile stations also included a piece of canvas with oil paints over it, and embroidery, and a fragment of a keyboard. Moreover, the museum uses aromas that are associated with the presented paintings.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A man in a classic grey suit is studying objects at a tactile station using both his hands. The tactile station is a white rectangular desk with samples helping to perceive the painting placed on the wall over it. The hands are touching a white relief image of a girl with long beads over her chest. To the left of the tactile copy there is a rectangular fragment of canvas with black and yellow oil paints on it, spices of the same colours under a spherical glass cover, and the title of the painting given in Braille script.

Manual Guide On The Process Organization

  1. Teamwork

    It is important to unite the efforts of your tactile models creators and representatives of your museum’s departments. At first, a kick-off meeting should be held, where the participants of the project should meet one another, look around the place for the oncoming exhibition and discuss the concept of the project. The people that must definitely come together during such meeting are: the person who makes general decisions (the curator of the exhibition, the director), the person who makes decisions concerning the visual component of the exhibition (designer, artist, architect, representative of the exhibition department), inclusion specialist (museum employee or a freelance expert on accessibility) and the tactile copies creator. Further on, common correspondence must be organized. This will increase the chances of tactile components’ being convenient, usable and smoothly fitting into the exhibition space.

  2. Choosing The Works of Art To Make Tactile Models For

    One should choose key pieces of art based on what one is trying to tell the visitors. One shouldn’t be afraid of complicated objects. It is preferable to consult experts about proper adaptation of such items. Otherwise you risk leaving out the works of art that are most interesting for your audience and keeping sightless guests from discussing the exhibition in full. When you are talking to your tactile models creator in detail about each piece, it is crucial to agree upon which details are to be omitted in order to make the model understandable.

  3. Choosing The Size Of A Model

    The size of a model should be balanced: it shouldn’t be too small, but it shouldn’t exceed a person’s average tactile field (105 by 55 cm). Ideally, a visitor should be able to study your model in whole without leaving the viewing point. The size of a tactile model does not depend on the size of the original artwork, it is chosen solely from the point of view of the model’s understandability. If the model is too small it will be difficult to read it. If the model is too big, by the moment a person reaches its right corner he or she may forget what is in its left corner. You may choose the size by printing the image and using your hand as a measuring unit (your palm and the pads of your fingers).

  4. Placing The Models Inside The Museum Space

    The best place for the model is directly beside the piece of art it interprets. It is more convenient and logical for guiding a group of sightless visitors around the exhibition. The models that are exhibited in the museum room on a permanent basis help to create a genuinely inclusive environment. Thus sightless persons may visit the museum spontaneously and on their own, at their convenience, and not as a part of a group, and spend as much time viewing the exhibition as they wish.

    Audio description: a coloured photo. A dark wall with five paintings by Yuriy Annenkov in dark frames with white passe partout. They are a call board and sketches of theatrical costumes. Under the central painting there is its tactile copy. A coloured mockup of the stage scenery for the Gasplay is placed upon a medium-height dark stand. It is a bright industrial space with white ladder pedestals on both sides. In the middle and background there are black pipes of a plant and silhouettes of tower cranes.

    If the models cannot be placed inside the exhibition space, mobile miniatures can be manufactured to be distributed during guided tours. In this case it will be practical to order several copies of each model, so they can be given to several visitors simultaneously.

    Viewing of the exhibition must be comfortable. There exist certain recommendations concerning the height to place the tactile materials at and the inclination of the plane where they are displayed. For example, one can use for guidance the Garage Museum recommendations concerning Braille labels. Galina Novotortseva writes: “ is important to remember that when an average-height person puts an open hand onto such label, his or her wrist mustn’t be bended too much. That means that a label below waist level should be placed horizontally, one at breast level should be tilted, and one at eye level should be fixed vertically”.

    Keep in mind that a tactile exhibit, as any interactive object, kindles interest in all visitors without exception. The models should be accessible for children and wheelchaired visitors, so the level of 70 to 80 cm should be considered for the placement of such objects. In order to create friendly atmosphere, tactile items may be marked with special “Touch me” signs (an image of an open hand, for example).

    Within one museum space, tactile objects and Braille signs for different exhibits must be placed according to the same scheme. In this case a sightless person moving from one item to another will know where and what kind of information may be found.

  5. Choosing The Technology, Materials And The Appearance Of The Models To Be Made

    While working with sculptures, installations and structures it makes sense to use materials that to the touch resemble those of the original piece. If using such materials is impossible, one can additionally provide samples of such materials. For example, a piece of bronze or wood.

    Audio description: a coloured photo. A tactile model of an installation from Louise Bourgeois exhibition. Eight vertical metal rods are fixed along the edge of an oval wooden pedestal. The left part of the armature is covered with metal mesh which has an arched opening in it. Delicate spiral stairs are placed inside the structure. The composition also includes spheres of different sizes. Two of them are wooden, laying on the floor on both sides of the stairs, seven more are made of blue glass and are fixed on side supports.

    It is recommended to supplement models of architectural objects with a human figurine or another element to demonstrate its scale. It is also helpful to include samples of materials the building is constructed of. For example, a brick, a roofing tile, a fragment of a stone, a piece of interior decor in its actual size. If a tactile model of an architectural object includes its surroundings, the elements of the landscape (for example, paths) should be marked by tactile means and by contrast.

    Audio description: a coloured photo. A tactile model of the Amber Museum building made of brown brick. The defensive complex of the fortress comprises a circular two-storied tower with crenellated parapet and a wide brick wall with portholes. Inside the inner court of the fortress there is a crenellated watchtower. The model demonstrates the texture of the original, a brick building with a base made of big rocks.

    Paintings and graphic works need to be adapted. Flat artworks with no distortions due to perspective may be shown using contour tactile graphics.

    Audio description: a coloured photo. Tactile graphics, an illustration by Yuriy Annenkov to The Crocodile fairy-tale by Korney Chukovskiy. A relief image of a crocodile in a waistcoat and a bowler hat. The predator is walking down a cobblestone road. He is holding a palm-shaped umbrella, a cigarette clutched in his teeth is fuming. To the right, a fragment of the fairy-tale text is displayed, and repeated in Braille script.

    If spacial dimensions are important in an artwork, if it has complicated composition, there are unusual angles of view, objects overlap one another, then a 3D relief image should be made. The relief must be high enough, it must have definite edges and layout according to perspective. One should easily find main characters and their distinctive features by touch. Some less important details and elements may be omitted so as not to confuse the viewers and not to distract them from the key figures.

    Audio description: a coloured photo. A white tactile model of Bathsheba at Her Bath painting by Rembrandt. A naked woman is sitting on a wide bed with bedsheets and cushions piled high. There is a round medallion around her neck. Bathsheba’s hair is set in a high hairdo, delicate locks are spilling down her breast. An elderly serving woman is gently washing her feet.

    While working on a project, one should avoid glossy surfaces, because they cast flecks of light which obstruct the perception of the model for partially sighted guests. If you are creating single-coloured tactile models, preferably avoid black and white colours, because partially sighted persons will find it difficult to see details on them. If you are making many-coloured models, you may need to adapt the colours, to increase brightness and contrast or add contours. To make the right choice of colour and height of the relief, you may consult a visual impairment specialist.

    Audio description: a coloured photo. Exhibition space. A woman with purple manicure stands with her back turned to the camera. With her left hand she is studying a tactile model of A3 format. It is a model of Alexandr Deyneka’s painting A Girl by a Window. Winter.The copy displays a relief image of a girl in a black T-shirt standing by a window with a bright curtain. Snow-covered trees are seen through the window.

  6. Labeling

    Tactile information mustn’t look like something out of place inside the museum room. It must be a natural addition to the exhibition. One of the ways to achieve such an effect is to make Braille script labels in the same style as all the other labels in the room, use matching colours and the same font. Texts and Braille script should be highlighted against the background using contrast, thus they will be easily readable for partially sighted visitors.

    Braille script has many peculiarities. There are special programs to turn regular text into Braille script. But mechanical translation may result in grave mistakes. For example, in Braille, the same symbols are used for letters and for numbers, but the difference is that numbers are preceded by a special numeric character. If you omit such sign, the number 714 will turn into the word “гад”, which means “scum” in Russian. That is why Braille texts must be edited with great care. Also, there are certain rules for blank spaces usage, and the usage of upper or lowercase letters is a big topic for discussion. To avoid mistakes, you may seek assistance of All Russia Association of the Blind libraries staff or hire blind people who use Braille script every day to edit the labels (note that not all sightless people can read Braille script).

  7. Audio description: a coloured photo. A young woman in a bright striped shirt is studying a Braille album with both hands. The large red horizontal sheets of the album are held together by two big metal braces.

  8. Visual Description

    It may be used as the text that will be easily obtained by any museum employee. You may also equip the tactile model podium with an audiosystem including a button and headphones. Audio record must not be too long, so that listening to it in the museum room should not cause discomfort. What is more, QR codes may be placed on exhibit labels, giving links to the commentary recording on the net. The code must stand out to be found by touch, and it also must be marked with a Braille script note. QR codes for all the objects within one exhibition must be located uniformly, thus they will be easy to find. A sightless person will read the code using his or her smartphone. But remember that not all visually challenged people use QR codes.

  9. Rules For Working With Tactile Models

    According to the Ministry of Culture recommendations, the number of persons in a group should not exceed 10 for partially sighted and 5 for totally sightless individuals. In our experience, the optimum number is 4 to 5 visually challenged persons, plus attendants. While preparing for a guided tour you should keep in mind that an excursion for visually impaired visitors will take noticeably longer, because certain time will be given to visual description commentary and studying of tactile models. Up to 6 exhibits may be viewed during one such tour. A tour for totally blind visitors will differ from that for partially sighted ones. Persons with residual vision will try to obtain as much information as possible using their eyesight and spend less time on tactile studying.

  10. Audio description: a coloured photo. A female visitor of an exhibition is standing with her back to the camera. She is looking at black and white illustrations by Pavel Pepperstein through a big magnifying glass. The illustrations in identical dark frames are hanging in two rows on a white wall. The woman is wearing a white demi-season hooded jacket, a pink headscarf with a knot at the nape of her neck, and dark glasses over the headscarf.

    It is more comfortable to study tactile models using both hands. A mobile model it may be put on a table or on one’s knees (if seats are provided for the tour). Otherwise, an assistant or an accompanying person may hold it in his or her hands to show to the group (if the model is not big, not exceeding A4 format). If the composition is complicated, a sightless guest may need your help. In this situation, having asked for the person’s permission, you may take his or her hands into yours and help in finding the elements you would like to draw the guest’s attention to.

    Audio description: a coloured photo. Two persons are sitting across a white table facing one another. A tactile model of Moscow Gothics painting by Victor Pivovarov is placed between them. One of the persons, the one wearing a badge, is helping the other in studying the model by directing the visitor’s hands. The fingers of the second person are touching the model: a human figure composed out of 3D geometric figures.

  11. Hygiene

    In pandemic conditions this issue is especially urgent. It is crucial to understand that examining the model while wearing gloves is inconvenient. For sightless persons, their hands are their eyes. For example, sighted persons cannot study a painting properly while wearing welding goggles. That is why it is important to have a disinfection procedure thought through. A lacquered item may be sterilized using alcohol-based antiseptics, or washed with soap solution without any risk of damaging its surface. Unfortunately, such measures do not work with models or albums made of fabric, paper, wool or silicon. They will accumulate contaminations and cleaning them will not be easy, or their appearance will be damaged in the process of cleaning. That is why it is better either not to use such items at all while the danger persists, or not to exhibit them in the museum room to minimize the contact of large quantities of visitors with them. They should be used solely during guided tours with sightless persons who will be asked to sterilize their hands before and after studying the models.

  12. Feedback

    Audio description: a coloured photo. A sunlit workshop with large windows. Tactile mockups are fixed upon a drawing board. Two middle-aged women in dark glasses are sitting in front of it. One of them is studying a model of Maternity painting by Pablo Picasso. A grey-colored relief of Madonna and Child is brightly lit by a green drawing-board lamp. A young woman in a checkered jacket is standing behind the two middle-aged women. She is looking at what they are doing and smiling.

    It is important to consult experts and users even at the stage of project development. But it is equally important to request feedback after a guided tour: you should ask what the guests liked or disliked, what could be perfected. You will be able to use this knowledge in future projects.