Today, we hear from Harma van Uffelen, curator of education at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. She shares about a multi-sensory program that the museum has developed to make the art of Van Gogh more accessible to individuals with visual impairments.
Feeling Van Gogh is a program developed by the Van Gogh Museum for visitors with visual impairments. The program was introduced four years ago and has proved to be a success. We organize guided tours and ‘touch sessions’ eight times a year, in both our permanent collection and our temporary exhibitions. These events nearly always sell out. Participants report that the program finally gives them the opportunity to experience Vincent van Gogh’s art together with their family and loved ones in a similar way to sighted visitors.
When we developed the program at the end of 2014, equal participation was one of our primary goals. The program needed to offer participants the opportunity to visit the museum together with their friends or family. This is something that may seem like a matter of course, but that is certainly not always the case. There was actually no good reason for this target group to visit the Van Gogh Museum, as – except for the booklets printed in a large font – no resources were offered to make the artworks and the underlying stories accessible to them.
In addition to the aforementioned goal, we formulated three additional program goals:
- To increase accessibility to the life and work of Vincent van Gogh to visually impaired visitors and facilitate their enjoyment of the art.
- To reach a new audience: to connect to a group that isn’t familiar with paintings in particular, because of their impairment.
- To actively approach the blind and partially sighted, cooperate, and develop the program together.
Planning and Try-outs
In order to develop a program like Feeling Van Gogh, for a target group that was completely new to the museum, we needed more than our expertise as curators of education & interpretation. This is why we wanted to work directly with members of the target group. After all, they are best positioned to tell us what they want to do in the museum.
We approached an organization dedicated to making art and culture accessible to the blind and partially sighted. The majority of staff at this organization are themselves blind or partially sighted. They offered input, helped us consider the best approaches and were part of the test public for the pilots of our program.
The responses during the pilot sessions suggested that we were moving in the right direction, but there was still room for improvement in some areas.
A few responses to the pilot program:
‘The group is often varied. At the beginning, take the time to assess what everyone’s ‘impairment’ is’.
‘It was great to get so close to the paintings. The combination of a guided tour and a touch session was effective’.
‘The length of the guided tour could be improved, discussing 3-4 paintings is sufficient’.
We subsequently worked together to develop a definitive program. Finalized in March 2015, this program comprises:
- An interactive guided tour of the museum galleries with a trained museum guide
- A multi-sensory session in the educational studio.
During the guided tour, our guides do what they always do: use the paintings to tell the story of Vincent van Gogh and his art. The guides are trained to provide excellent visual descriptions of the works, in order to make them tangible to the participants.
This is followed by a session in our educational studio. One of the challenges facing the Van Gogh Museum is that the majority of our collection comprises paintings, and of course, these cannot be touched. The development of lifelike 3D replicas of Van Gogh’s paintings (our so-called Museum Editions) meant that we could let visitors actually feel Van Gogh’s unique, expressive brushstrokes.
The touch session focuses on these Museum Editions. However, we also use a range of other materials (some of them developed especially for the program), such as smells of elements in the paintings (e.g., sunflowers, tobacco), a model of Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, along with relief images and quotes from Van Gogh’s letters. This allows us to create a multi-sensory experience, introducing the participants to Van Gogh and his work via all of their senses.
Reactions from our participants
And… it works! By working together with the target group, conducting comprehensive testing of the program and monitoring progress once it had launched, we have successfully created a program that makes a difference for our target group. Experiencing art together and discussing it is what particularly appeals to participants.
In participants’ words:
‘It was really cool to experience the intentions of the artist. When I go to a museum, I depend on the stories. Someone tells you what’s on the painting. This time I could ‘see’ it myself’.
‘I had visited the Van Gogh Museum before, but it was mainly something that the other members of my family enjoyed and I was simply dragging my feet. This time I felt I was also participating and that was fun, because you really experience the museum a lot better’.
Once the program had been running successfully for a couple of years, target group research and feedback from the participants indicated that greater variety was desired. We also did not have a physical location within the museum where we could make Van Gogh’s work accessible on a permanent basis.
A Feeling Van Gogh wall was therefore introduced at the museum in 2016. Here, all visitors are not only invited to touch Sunflowers, but also to smell and hear them thanks to scents and music specially developed and composed for the wall.
In 2018, we launched guided tours of our temporary exhibitions. In order to retain the multi-sensory aspect of the program, we always add smells, touch elements or sounds. Of course, we once again encourage participants to experience the program together with family or friends.
Feeling Van Gogh has been running for a couple of years, and several positive impacts are evident. Not only for the participants themselves, but also for other visitors and our museum staff.
For the blind and partially sighted:
- Positive experience with art and the museum.
- Experiencing a sense of equal participation.
Outside the target group:
- Positive influence on awareness amongst other museum visitors: ‘On days like these, our disability is understood by sighted people. We are not scary people’.
- Exemplary role for other museums follow.
- Expertise grows within the Van Gogh Museum and its employees.
The program has also had an impact on me personally. Before I joined the Van Gogh Museum, I barely considered the fact that museums are by no means equally accessible to all. What makes this more poignant is that, as a burgeoning curator of education & interpretation, this was precisely what I aspired to do: make art accessible and appealing to all. My involvement in this program has helped me to realize that if you really want to be an inclusive museum, it’s not enough to simply offer an intelligible and interesting story in the form of gallery texts and audio tours. Truly working towards being an inclusive museum requires long-term efforts, and it is vital that you work together with the target group to discover what works for them and what makes them happy.
When we started the program, we hoped to make the work and life of Van Gogh more accessible to a target group for whom a visit to an (art) museum is not a matter of course. We are delighted that participants indicate that they have not only had a positive museum experience, but that they also have the feeling that they can experience the museum in a similar manner to sighted visitors. As a museum striving to be inclusive, this is exactly what we hope for.
It is a misconception that the blind and partially sighted are not interested in art because they cannot see, or have impaired vision. Losing their sight does not mean that they have no interest in theatre, fashion or art, to name just a few things. Understanding that they can have the same interests as sighted visitors is key to inclusion.
In the years ahead, we hope to further build on the success of Feeling Van Gogh, to introduce even more visually impaired visitors and their loved ones to Van Gogh, his art and his fascinating life story.
About the Author: Since 2014, Harma van Uffelen works as a curator of education for the Van Gogh Museum. In this position, she always looks for the best way to connect art and audience. Over the last few years she worked on the Feeling Van Gogh programme and also on exhibitions like On the Verge of Insanity. Van Gogh and his Illness (2016) and Hockney – Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature (2019). Harma studied Art History at the Universiteit Utrecht and Museumstudies at the University of Amsterdam. Want to talk further or ask some questions? You can reach Harma by email: firstname.lastname@example.org