Opportunities for blind or visually impaired people in Japan to appreciate art are on the rise thanks to increased use of audio descriptions, tactile methods and simple human dialogue.
Whether or not art lovers are disabled, conversations among patrons and staff at museums across the country are helping them gain a deeper understanding of the many interpretations of works on display.
Last September around 20 people, including some with visual and hearing disabilities, gathered at the National Art Center in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, where a Southeast Asian art exhibition was being held.
A participant with full sight described a painting that created a “pastoral impression” despite including a depiction of a bombing.
The leader of the group, who is blind, then asked “Which parts make you feel this way?”
“It’s the houses on stilts and the animals,” the person answered. The painter is “probably expressing the daily life of war mixed with a feeling of serenity.”
A man in his 30s, who listened to the conversation with his eyes shut, said, “I was able to get an image with the words of others, and found it possible to appreciate art without relying on my eyesight.”
“Listening to other people’s opinions helped me deepen my appreciation,” added a woman in her 20s. The event was organized by the Shikaku Shōgaisha to Tsukuru Bijutsu Kanshō Workshop (art appreciation workshop created with those who are visually impaired), a nonprofit organization that has held more than 100 similar programs since 2012 in cooperation with art museums across Japan.
“We would like to provide opportunities for blind people to know other people’s feelings through dialogue instead of giving one-sided explanations to them,” said Kenta Hayashi, head of the NPO.
But it is also important that the blind and those with poor vision interpret pieces for themselves, and don’t solely rely on explanations from museum staff, experts say.
Mori Art Museum, also located in Roppongi, has held some 40 events to help the blind appreciate art, attracting around 500 participants, since 2003.
In 2016, the museum incorporated audio descriptions for people with and without visual impairments.
When an event is held, staff meet participants at nearby train stations and ascertain the degree of their disabilities to customize programs appropriately.
Participants exchange their thoughts and impressions about three or four pieces of art. Staff then explain the pieces in detail so participants can deepen their understanding while enjoying conversation.
Artists also participated in a program in mid-October sharing their own explanations of the pieces they had created.
A female participant, who has a congenital form of blindness, said, “I had nothing to do with art because I was born blind, but I could relate and enjoy the pieces by touching them.”
Sumika Takashima, a staff member at the Mori museum, said, “We will cooperate with artists to offer programs that enable many people to enjoy art in their daily life.”
Outside of Japan there are several innovative ways in which art is becoming accessible to the visually impaired community — including 3-D printing of especially famous works, which allows blind people and those with poor vision to experience iconic pieces through touch. Other methods include incorporating Braille into visual art, extra-textured paintings, and tactile art and tactile tours customized for the blind.