How the San Antonio Museum of Art is Growing the Practice of Multisensory Tours

Authors: Robert Langston, Teacher and Community Engagement Coordinator, San Antonio Museum of Art

Keywords: art, accessibility, accessible art, San Antonio Museum of Art, SAMA, Larry Johnson, American Council of the Blind of Texas, ACBT, Lighthouse for the Blind, Guide Dogs of Texas, Alamo Council for the Blind, OWL Radio, multisensory

Abstract: Robert Langston, former art teacher of students in Kindergarten through 12th grade for fifteen years and the current educator of the community at the San Antonio Museum of Art, describes the evolution and continued efforts of the museum to provide access to visual art to patrons with visual impairments.

What are the most effective ways to present visual art to people who are blind or visually impaired? This was the question that occurred to San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) docent Susanne O’Brien in 2013 when she met Larry Johnson by chance in a robotics class for grandparents. Johnson has served as an active member of the blind community and is an advocate for people with disabilities. He is the former president of the Alamo Council of the Blind as well being a long-time member and former board member of the American Council of the Blind of Texas (ACBT).

The museum’s docents, who interpret a global collection of ancient to contemporary art for visitors of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities, constantly seek to adopt new techniques for making art accessible. O’Brien invited Johnson, who is also a nationally recognized writer and radio and television broadcaster who has been blind since infancy, to speak to the group of docents about working with people with disabilities.

Thus was born SAMA’s Multisensory Tours for the Blind and Visually Impaired program. A group of docents dedicated themselves to offering monthly tours for the low vision community every first Saturday. These multisensory tours included descriptive language, touch, sound, and smell components to enhance the visitors’ experience of artworks in the museum’s collection. Through Johnson’s feedback and research into best practices, the program continued to evolve under the leadership of Norma Gomez-Perez, Lead Docent of the Multisensory Tours for the Blind and Visually Impaired Visitors Program.

A docent holds a three-dimensional replica of a piece of art for a patron to explore with his hands. The original, a large green mask, is pictured in the background, preserved behind glass.  

A San Antonio Museum of Art docent presents a touchable replica of a work of art to a patron as another docent shares information verbally with the group

In 2014, SAMA hosted multisensory tours for the American Council of the Blind Convention, offering three themed gallery tours: Museum Highlights, Art in the Americas, and Life, Death and the Afterlife. Since then, through the tireless work of Gomez-Perez, the museum has continued its outreach with local and national groups who advocate for the low-vision community. Visitors from Lighthouse for the Blind, Guide Dogs of Texas, Alamo Council for the Blind, OWL Radio (a free community service of the Low Vision Resource Center co-sponsored by Texas Public Radio and the San Antonio Express-News), and the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (TSBVI) have all participated in the multisensory tours program. In 2017, SAMA docents were given national recognition for the program at the National Docent Symposium in Montreal.

Today, monthly tours are structured to present five or six art objects within 60–90 minutes, allowing ample time for multisensory exploration. Each monthly tour has a different theme that highlights artworks from the museum’s collection. In the Asian gallery, the theme might be Love and War in South Asia, and in the Oceanic gallery, Traditions and Ceremonies in the South Pacific. Typically, visitors can expect to encounter a musical or sound selection, a verbal description with thematic and historical context of the object presented, a chosen aroma, and touchable objects that include tactile diagrams, materials representative of the artwork, or even scale models of the artwork itself.

Approximately four to six visitors with low vision participate in each tour. Some attend regularly; at other times, new visitors join the tours, often with sighted companions or guide dogs. The Saturday tours and tours for school groups are offered free of charge, and arrangements can also be made for custom tours.

Five people are shown walking through the art gallery in front of a wall of paintings. Three of them are using guide dogs.

San Antonio Museum of Art patrons walk through the gallery with dog guides

SAMA’s Multisensory Tours for the Blind and Visually Impaired program continues to grow and progress. As experienced docents rotate out of the group and new recruits come on board, basic training is continuous. This spring, the museum’s docent association hosted Scott Baltisberger and Sara Kitchen of the TSBVI Outreach Program, who presented a workshop on working with the blind and visually impaired. Their talk sparked questions and provided an opportunity to share experiences. As the program evolves, docents will continue to seek out the latest best practices and reach out for feedback from the low vision community and the organizations that serve it.

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