【Museums Link Asia-Pacific】Making Visual Art Accessible: Interactive Design in Hong Kong Connects Multi-Sensory Experience
Source: Beyond Vision Projects
Author: Catherine, Chan Wai-Tung（M.A. in Art Management and Cultural Policy, National Taiwan University of Arts）
In recent years, the museum profession put more effort in the promotion of cultural rights. Improvements have been made on architectural facilities, exhibition designs, guided tour services, and educational promotion activities etc., aim to enable people with disabilities to participate in cultural activities. However, some art forms, constrained by characteristics per se, require certain special designs to break through the viewing barriers. While the mainstream society is visual-oriented, conventional fine art exhibitions rely on eye observations. How can museums remove obstacles faced by the visually impaired in accessing visual art through innovative transformations? Learning from the case of a Hong Kong based non-profit organization, Beyond Vision Projects (BVP), this article seeks to explore the new possibilities in technology-assisted art appreciation. Combined with teaching resources and activities, the visually impaired are encouraged to be the main body of artistic creation. Such design allows museums to become a more people-oriented and disability inclusive platform.
Keywords: cultural rights, disability inclusion, social design, visual art
If you can’t see someday, (how) can you still enjoy exhibitions?
In order to meet the conservation requirements of artifacts or specifications of multimedia works, visual art venues are often dimly lit, no touching of artworks, provide explanation on wall tags with tiny fonts. These restrictions intimidate the visually impaired. Even some exhibitions provide audio guides, most targeted general audience, thus content of those recordings are mainly background information of the exhibits, which may not be adequate to make up for the absence of visual details. Aware of the needs of visually impaired people for accessible art exhibitions, Hong Kong based social designer Rico Chan developed the “Tactile-Audio Interaction System (TAIS)”. In 2016, he founded Beyond Vision Projects (BVP), a non-profit organization that promotes social equality and inclusiveness by working on sensory experience.
Enter the world of art, with our hands and ears
TAIS is a touchable device that converts images into touch and sound. It provides a more suitable channel for the visually impaired and the elderly with low vision to receive information. Meanwhile, people with normal vision can use it to awaken other senses beyond vision. The uniqueness of TAIS lies in the synchronization of tactile and audio, which facilitate the process of picture imagination for visually impaired persons and low-vision elderly. During research and development, designers communicate with visually impaired to find out appropriate operating mode and presentation method that they could easily understand. Systematic bilingual (Cantonese and English) audio description is provided based on the principle of “big picture before details”. For sense of touch, compositions are composed of protruding lines, such as using shape of leaves to represent dense forest. “Tactile Colour System” is invented to indicate colors with different textures. Different from automatic audio guides which activate by sensors, TAIS emphasizes participants’ freedom of choice. Reading direction is marked by an arrow in a corner of the rectangular frame, besides there are small protruding squares in the middle of each boundary to clue the positions of buttons for audio description. Users are invited to press the buttons for listening, and they can stop the recordings at any time. TAIS devices can be connected with a speaker or earphone according to site conditions.
TAIS has a wide range of applications, starting with western art classics, the BVP produced installations of 2D paintings, it also 3D printed Mona Lisa’s head sculpture. Later series cover Hong Kong island map, city landscape (Victoria Harbour), architectural landmarks (the former Legislative Council Building) and public art (the mural of “Kowloon Walled City” on Graham Street, Central) etc. In coming future, they are considering making TAIS for Chinese calligraphy works and international city maps. Besides, BVP cooperates with local cultural institutions and schools to provide teaching resources, training courses and workshops. For example, they made teaching materials in cooperation with the Hong Kong Society for the blind, and freely provided to teachers and students in Ebenezer School & Home for the Visually Impaired. They also created tactile aids for the Hong Kong Children’s Discovery Museum “Amazing Bugs!” exhibition. In addition to teaching aids, courses are offered to guide visually impaired students in learning about colours, which further encourage them to paint under the assistance of touch, and organized field trips for students to take photos of those landmarks depicted in TAIS installations. In Hong Kong, visual art is a compulsory subject from primary school to junior secondary school, but visually impaired students are being excluded in normal curriculum. This project received positive feedbacks from beneficiary, with students reported that TAIS has realized their desire to appreciate visual arts.
To promote the belief of inclusion of persons with disabilities, the BVP designed “touchable” self-portrait workshop, in which participants are invites to close their eyes, relax their bodies, touch themselves with one hand, and simultaneously use their other hand to present the tactile feeling with continuous line drawing. This activity is not limited to self-portrait, a blind person even draws his guide dog. The hand-sketched manuscripts are scanned and printed with special technology to become one’s unique tactile works, which allow people with or without visually impairment to share the same artistic experience.
An inclusive museum movement: accessible facilities for everyone
BVP was founded under the inspiration of a visually impaired photography exhibition in Japan. Throughout the years, it is committed to international networking, it has partnered with museums and related organizations in Taiwan, South Korea and the US etc. In 2019, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco commissioned the BVP to tailor-made TAIS sets for 8 selected exhibits. The museum invited local visually impaired people to experience these items and asked about their feelings. More than half of the participants reported it was their first time to visit a museum, such surprising findings reflecting the urgency of developing visual aids in museums. For Asia regions, the BVP collaborated with Taiwan Association of Non-Visual Aesthetics Education and Another Way of Seeing, a non-profit art platform serving the blind in Seoul, South Korea. In the coming future, BVP will work with more international NGOs, for example, in launching a program to bring visually impaired people to explore the natural environment and train some of them to become ecological docents.
Taiwan takes a leading role in promoting social inclusion and cultural equity in Asia-Pacific region, related practices including the “Audio Description Guide Mobile Application” developed by the National Museum of Taiwan History (NMTH) for its permanent exhibition, and an “Inclusive Learning Program” for people with mental disabilities. In addition to serving the disabled, the National Taiwan Museum offer multilingual guide tours to new immigrants and migrant workers. A network formed by several museums in Taiwan also creative aging services to address needs of the ageing society. In the 2018 “Cultural Accessibility in Asia: New Trends in Museum Education” international symposium organized by NMTH, scholars and practitioners from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Australia etc. were invited to share their insights. At that time, the Hong Kong Disabled Art Association was invited too, during which they introduce the making of handmade tactile art with simple materials. This year (2020), the Centre For Community Cultural Development located inside the Hong Kong Jockey Club Creative Arts Center, cooperated with Clayton Lo, a local visually impaired curator, to open Hong Kong’s first “tactile art space”, it will be reopened for public visits when the pandemic eases. While COVID-19 last, hygienic considerations restricted the exhibition of tactile art. In response to this situation, BVP and K11 Art Foundation launched an online learning “Little Nature Ambassador Programme”, which consists of a take-home multi-sensory learning kit to motivate children to care for the environment, such attempt demonstrated the flexibility of sensory aids.
As social awareness improves, the issue of people with disabilities being discriminated alleviates. What the genuinely hope is to truly integrate into society and live like normal persons. Therefore, we should not treat disabled people with a pathetic attitude, instead we should respect their autonomy. Accessible facilities are their basic rights, while these facilities can also be enjoyed by everyone. To truly implement equal rights, museums should abandon the mindset of separating the disabled for special care. Clever designs and technology innovation can be in place to remove barriers, so that exhibitions can connect audience with different needs.