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Rubin Museum Makes Art More Accessible to the Blind

Pater Aaron/Rubin Museum

New York City has over 420,000 blind or visually impaired residents, and that’s not counting the tourists. Most of the city’s museums have some programming for visitors who can’t see the art. On International Disability Day, Sarah Gibson joined a tour for the visually impaired.

GIBSON 1: At the Rubin Museum in downtown Manhattan, six visitors and one seeing-eye dog stand at the entrance to a sound installation. Jeremy McMahan is the tour-guide. (0:10)

MCMAHAN1: So, welcome to “Himalayan Wind”, or also known as Khandroma, that was done by this group called the Soundwalk Collective. And this also was recorded in Mustang in Nepal. So if we want to go head on in, but just again, it’s kinda dark so if you need some extra help I’m happy to help you navigate it.

KAUFFMAN1: Thank you! (0:20)

GIBSON 2: The Rubin trains guides on how to make its exhibitions of Himalayan art accessible to the visually impaired. First tip? Use your body as a guide. Mcmahan puts out his arm for visitor Sharon Kauffman. She has limited tunnel vision and can’t see in dim light. (0:17)

KAUFFMAN2: Certain times he’ll stop at a piece and it’s the right piece with the right lighting and the right thing and I see it perfectly. Other things I don’t see at all. (0:12)

GIBSON 3: Kauffman’s experience is typical for a visually impaired visitor. To her, the installation room is a blur, but she can make out shapes and gradations in light. Mcmahan keeps this in mind when he brings visitors to the Tibetan shrine room, which has ornate carved furniture and dozens of candles and sculptures. (0:18)

MCMAHAN2: And so, you may notice some flickering lamps that outline the perimeter of the shrine room. These are butter lamps, so actually I do have butter lamp to pass around. No butter in this lamp (laugh) but you can feel what a butter lamp would look like.

KAUFFMAN3: And what’s it made out of?

MCMAHAN3: This one is made out of pewter. (0:21)

GIBSON 4: Using this tactile strategy is common. McMahan carries a tote bag with incense and amulets for visitors to smell and touch. He uses it with school kids and sighted adults too. Crista Earl is with the American Federation for the Blind. She says this kind of whole-museum approach is essential, because many visitors don’t realize they need accessibility programs. (0:21)

EARL1: So who benefits from accessibility besides the obvious blind and visually impaired? First off, that group of people who are blind or visually impairment is much bigger than most people probably think. (0:12)

GIBSON 5: She says imagine your grandmother. Maybe she had cataracts and went to the Metropolitan Museum. She didn’t sign up for a visually impaired tour, (0:08)

EARL2: And your grandmother went into the museum and she came back out the other side without really getting very much from it because all the labels were too far away for her to read, and the pictures were hung too high, all the lighting was too low, and a hundred things that kept her from really being able to benefit from the display. (0:15)

GIBSON 6: Advocates say that for museums to truly serve the public, they need to make accessibility the default, not something you have to sign up for once a month. That way, Earl says, (0:09)

EARL3: You automatically open it up to many audiences you didn’t know you had. (0:05)

GIBSON 7: Guides at the Rubin Museum agree. They say giving tours to the visually impaired has made them better at educating all visitors who come through their doors. For Columbia Radio News, I’m Sarah Gibson. (0:11)

Sarah Gibson is a full-time M.S. candidate at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she is focusing on social justice, environmental and radio reporting. Prior to Columbia, Sarah worked with nonprofits in North Carolina. She earned her B.A. in History from Brown University.Twitter @schadgibson; Email:


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