Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Powers of Perception...

Maya introducing the students to the touch gallery

Adrienne discussing Dan Flavin's One of May 27, 1963, 1963

As our time here at the museum comes to a close, we’ve been thinking about the tours we’ve found most rewarding. Maya, Jen, Adrienne and I were assigned to give a tour to high school students from the Blind Service Association. I was a little nervous about giving this tour because honestly, I didn’t really know what to do. So to prepare for the tour we talked with a few staff members that had done similar tours in the past and scoured the Education Resource Center for ideas. A few days before the tour we decided to walk around the museum paying special attention to four of our senses: smell, taste, sound, and touch. We were astounded at what we discovered! There are so many pieces in the museum that require more senses than just looking. Here is a run-down of our Powers of Perception tour…

(Mary D.) Our tour began with bringing the twelve students and four chaperones into Griffin Court, the main entrance of the Modern Wing. Since I love the design of the Modern Wing, I thought it was important for the students to understand more about the space they were standing in, even if they couldn’t see it. Smell, sound, and touch all played a really big role for the entire tour, and these senses worked really well for understanding architecture! First I had them tell me what they sensed in the space around them. I was bombarded with a dozen answers! They were telling me “It must be big, because everything echoes,” and “The air is a lot colder and more open in here.” Thought that could sense light said, “The ceiling must be glass, because it’s much brighter when I move my head upwards.”
Next we headed outside to Pritzker Garden. I asked them what the differences were from the inside of the building. They caught on that it used the same flooring and that the only thing that separated inside for outside was a large glass wall. They loved listening to Louise Lawler’s sound piece, Birdcalls. Lawler squaks the names of artists in the modern wing to make them sound like birds.This was a piece that we didn’t know about until we listened closely! Here's a clip of the same piece installed at the lily pond of the Huntington Library:

(Adrienne) Going into my piece on the blind tour I was a bit worried because it was the only piece we planned that is purely visual…or so I thought. I spoke about Dan Flavin’s florescent light piece “One of May 27, 1963” and had the kids come very close. Probably too close, blind people see with their hands and when I asked if they could sense anything around them one girl reached directly in front of her and held onto the vertical florescent light.

Other than that mishap, I think the talk was successful. A few kids who did have some level of sightedness were able to tell the others that the light was red while the ones who could not see and were standing close to the pieces could sense the warmth of the light and the buzz of the electricity. It was very interesting to experience a light piece in this way. Flavin’s objective is too create an environment with the light and I had never thought about sensing that environment with any other sense than sight.

(Maya) After Jen helped the students explore the Felix Gonzales Torres Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) candy piece and a video installation, I led the group towards the touch gallery under the grand staircase. Leading students through Alsdorf gallery was a bit of a challenge! Luckily, Renzo designed this gallery to have a wide, open pathway on its south end, so students moved through the space a little more easily. Once we reached the end of Alsdorf, we arrived at a few steps. I quickly learned a good trick: count the stairs for students first! This worked pretty well until we made it to the set of stairs just under the Grand Staircase, where students pretty much just had to hold on the railing and help each other.

I’d also like to mention how impressed I was by the group’s museum navigational skills. The Blind Service Association group is made up of 40 percent of students who can see some color and shape, and 60 percent of students who are fully blind. The chaperones are also either partially or fully blind. In this case, students who had partial sight would lead fully blind students and chaperones through the museum and visa versa.

Upon entering the gallery, the group was thrilled to discover that they could touch the objects and even read wall text in brail! I began my part of the tour by going though my very structured lesson plan—asking one open-ended question after the other and hoping to guide their thinking and reach a conclusion. Mid-way through this process, I decided to change gears and just let the students explore the space themselves. We were lucky enough to have one student who understoood brail, so she read the text aloud to the rest of us as we felt the sculptures. My experience with the Blind Service Association was one of my most rewarding here at the Art Institute. We certainly learned to experience the museum in a new and profound way that did not involve seeing. I am so happy to have had the opportunity to co-lead this tour with such incredible fellow interns here at the AIC this Summer!

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