Multimodal Approaches to Learning Conference: Reflections

This week, we are exited to have Jamie Walsh, graduate student at the University of Oregon and founder of the Quickest Flip, share with us her thoughts on the 2012 Multimodal Approaches to Learning Conference. We believe that multimodal approaches to learning* present museums with exciting opportunities in terms of creating a more accessible and inclusive space for people of all abilities. This conference happens every 2 years, so stay tunned for the next one in 2014!

*Multimodal learning refers to an embodied learning situation which engages multiple sensory systems and action systems of the learner. (D. Massaro, Multimodal Learning)

The Multimodal Approaches to Learning Conference in New York last month sounded like an excellent way to meet and interact with a variety of individuals also interested in museum accessibility and inclusion. However, this conference proved to be much more than individuals interested in museum accessibility, bringing together artists, art historians, neuroscientists, scholars, curators, educators and museum administrators to engage in cross-disciplinary discourse regarding issues of:

  • accessibility
  • learning methodology
  • the role of the museum to a community
  • creating experiences for museum visitors
  • engagement of all human senses
  • the overall meaning of art

Peggy Fogelman, the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described the conference as an opportunity to learn from one another, foster dialogue among fields, and think outside of ones own discipline.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Walsh.

The conference started off with a speech by renowned Theater, Opera, and Festival
Director, Peter Sellars. Mr. Sellars, began his speech with the quote, “The giant lie is that there is a normal, and art is here to prove that there is not.” He spoke about the presence of disability creating the presence of patience and, in turn, a “zone of deep attention.” Sellers argued that this zone of deep attention is what artwork is all about. It allows viewers to actually stop and look, hear, touch, smell, taste, and think. Proving to be a gifted and enthusiastic storyteller, the audience remained enthralled as he spoke of “zones of profound equality,” the visible world vs. the invisible world, the interrelation of all senses, and the fact that all humans are different and incomplete. This speech set the tone for the remainder of the conference, where I soon learned that multimodal approaches to learning and exhibition design reaches past accessibility for individuals with disabilities, creating greater access and inclusion for all.

The museum culture of “don’t touch and don’t make noise” makes attending museums a purely visual experience. What does this mean for people who are blind or visually impaired?

For the weekend I was fortunate to be assigned as a guide for Siegfried Saerberg, a curator and Professor of Sociology and Disability Studies in Germany. Professor Saerberg is blind and has curated shows that take place in total darkness, creating a strictly touch experience of art objects. He spoke of individuals coming into contact with a large figurative sculpture in which they had to bend down to the floor to touch the base and reach up above their heads to touch the top of the figure, in turn, manipulating their bodies in a similar way to the sculpture itself. This powerful touch sensory experience of engaging artwork is fully lacking in traditional visual museum experiences.

Students from Lavelle School for the Blind explore Roxy Paine’s sculpture “Maelstrom” through touch. (Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

John Falk, Professor of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University, spoke about his research on the museum visitor experience. What I took away most from his talk was that different people at different times use museums in different ways for different purposes. He went on to categorize types of visitors into five main categories: Explorers (those who are already interested in the museum and think they will enjoy going); Facilitators (those that come because they want to share an experience with others); Experience Seekers (those that want to be able to tell others they went); Professionals/Hobbyists (those to which the museum relates to their work or hobby); and Rechargers (those that go to help them feel refreshed through a new set of experiences). Professor Falk’s research suggests that understanding the motivations of museum visitors can help understand how to create positive and meaningful experiences.

Overall, we should continue to recognize our constructed limitations and allow ourselves to brainstorm ways to break free of these constructions in order for information to become increasingly accessible in both the museum experience and beyond. An effective way to achieve this is by reaching outside of ones own discipline and by talking with those who are effected the most, such as individuals who experience disability. As Prof. Saerberg said, in regards to asking those with disabilities about multimodal approaches, “use us [i.e. individuals who are blind] as a way to liberate yourselves.”

The Multimodal Approaches to Learning conference takes place every two years. The 2012 conference was organized by Art Beyond Sight and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A PDF file of this years programming can be found here.

Jamie Walsh is a graduate student at the University of Oregon, studying Arts Management with a focus on community arts, and, in particular, inclusive art opportunities for artists with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. She also facilitates the website and magazine “Quickest Flip”, which showcases artists both with and without disabilities together in one inclusive space. Visit the website at or contact her at

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One comment

  1. […] very happy to have Jamie Walsh blog for us again. This time, she’ll be telling us more about her awesome project, the Quickest Flip. Be sure […]

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