An image of the painting Massys Susanna and the Elders

Touching Art: Multi-sensory Museums

Cultures of Disability Blog

An image of the painting Massys Susanna and the Elders

Margaret Bell, Assistant Curator at the Norton Simon Museum, California explores how the experiences of disabled people offers a new perspective to art in a recent exhibition, The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire (1450 -1750).

My early art-historical training was grounded in “close looking,” or using one’s eyes to carefully observe composition, form, colour, and line. However, developing the exhibition The Expressive Body: Memory, Devotion, Desire 1400-1750 at made me question the traditional primacy of vision in understanding art.

sighted people have much to learn about art from blind museumgoers and scholars

In early-modern Europe and the Americas, artwork wasn’t produced for museum spaces as we know them now, where multisensory engagement is largely forbidden. On the contrary, touch was integral to understanding these objects. Collectors used their hands to appreciate the texture, contours, and weight of sculptures, and devotees caressed and even kissed representations of holy figures, such as this New Mexican painted wood crucifix from the 18-19th century.

An image of Christ on the Cross
Christ on the Cross, New Mexico, 18th-19th c, Gift of Mr. W. Jarvis Barlow, © Norton Simon Museum

One of my favorite paintings from the Expressive Body exhibition  is The Sense of Touch by Jusepe de Ribera (c. 1615-16), which was part of his series depicting the five senses. In the period, touch was considered the “lowest” sense, in contrast to the “rational” sense of sight. Here, however, Ribera depicts touch as an intellectual enterprise. A blind man observes a carved head, running his fingers over smooth marble profile. While it may seem that he’s missing out on the painting laying on the table, his tactile understanding of the sculpture is equally beyond the viewer’s grasp.

Far from being a relic of the past, for many touch remains essential to understanding art. I was privileged to interview Georgina Kleege, Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley, who has written brilliantly about visiting museums as a blind person. Her recent essay, “The Art of Touch: lending a hand to the sighted majority”(Journal of Visual Culture, 2021), proposes a toolkit of strategies for touching art, observing the lack of such training in the traditional art history. Kleege offers a refined vocabulary of touch, arguing that sighted people have much to learn about art from blind museumgoers and scholars.

An painting of Jusepe de Ribera
Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, 1591-1652), The Sense of Touch c. 1615-16 © The Norton Simon Foundation
An image of the painting Massys Susanna and the Elders
Jan Massys (Flemish, c. 1509–1575), Susanna and the Elders, 1564, Oil on panel ©Norton Simon Art Foundation

Professor Kleege’s writing, alongside conversations about disability and accessibility in museums, which since 2020 have become more mainstream, led me to rethink the public presentation of Expressive Body. For the first time, we produced an audiovisual online component, which offered recorded meditations based on works in the exhibition. Regrettably, we were unable to offer in-gallery tactile tours due to Covid concerns, though we suggested household objects that listeners could use to imaginatively access depicted materials like fabric and stone. This was a good step that set a precedent for such programming at our museum, but it is only the beginning.

even in the 19th century, there was this idea of allowing blind people to touch art

Georgina Kleege, University of California

I was pleased that for some visitors, Expressive Body offered a new framework for thinking about art through the body, which is by no means a novel consideration. It is my hope that continued exploration of the diverse modes of art engagement, historically and in the present, will push institutions towards sustained inclusivity in scholarship, programming, and infrastructure.

All images are reproduced with the kind permission of Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California, USA. You can read more about the exhibition The Expressive Body here.

An old image of man purging the soul

Perceptions of Madness

Cultures of Disability Blog

An old image of man purging the soul

For many people with schizophrenia and other serious mental disorders, the people who initially identify something wrong are not medics but family members.[1] A quick internet search reveals numerous websites and fact sheets providing information and advice for family and friends concerned that a loved one has developed a serious mental illness.[2] We can trace the idea that human beings instinctively recognise the mental disorder in others back to the early modern period. In the seventeenth century, the perceptions of friends and family were as important in identifying mental illness as they are today. An excellent example of this can be found in the autobiographical writings of Oxfordshire gentlewoman Dionys Fitzherbert (c.1580 – c.1641)

Between 1608 and 1610, Dionys described an extended period of significant emotional and psychic distress.  She writes of an hallucination, imagining that ‘Charterhouse Yard … should flow with the matter that came out of my mouth, and did assuredly think all the bed and clothes were as wet with it as might be’.[4] She suffered delusions in which she believed that she was not her parents’ child, but was the long dead-sister of a friend.[5] She encountered suicidal thoughts and at the same time she feared that her family would have her put to death.[6]


Her thoughts were confused and fractured. Just like many people who suffer from severe mental illness today, Fitzherbert did not recognise that she was unwell. In fact, she believed that she was suffering from a spiritual affliction.[7] Her family and friends, however, were frightened by her behaviour, and believing her to be mentally ill placed her in the care of doctors.

But how did Fitzherbert’s family know she was mentally ill? After all, as Kate Hodgkin tells us, the seventeenth century was a time during which there was only a fine line between madness and religious despair.

human beings instinctively recognise mental disorder in others

It was the family’s perception of Fitzherbert’s behaviour that was key. Knowing her as well as they did, Fitzherbert’s relatives were able to identify her mental illness because they identified Dionys’s thoughts and behaviours as ‘bizarre’. In 1958 psychiatrist H. C. Rumke coined the phrase the ‘praecox feeling’, or the ‘praecox experience’, which referred to ‘a characteristic feeling of bizarreness experienced by a psychiatrist while encountering a person with schizophrenia’. [9] Although never formally made part of diagnosis, Rumke argued that the ‘praecox feeling’ was a central part of the diagnostic experience and this notion was echoed by psychiatrists throughout Europe during the twentieth century.[10] This feeling of bizarreness was also experienced by the non-medically trained. In the 1960’s psychiatrist Wilhelm Mayer-Gross said that the words ‘bizarre’, ‘queer’ and ‘absurd’ were often used to convey ‘the reaction of the non-schizophrenic towards the patient’.[11] Although use of the ‘praecox feeling’, has declined as a diagnostic element, it is still referred to by psychiatrists today, some of whom believe it to be ‘a real determinant of medical decision making in schizophrenia’.[12]


Is this the feeling that Dionys Fitzherbert’s relatives experienced? If so the idea that human beings instinctively know when a person is suffering severe psychic distress, and the way that it seemingly transcends space and time provides us with a clear link between perceptions of madness in the past and modern experiences of mental illness.


This research is part of a PhD funded by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP) 

An old image of man purging the soul

[1] Kim Runkle, ‘Psychosis: Responding To A Loved One In The Face Of Uncertainty’, Nami.Org, 2019 <; [Accessed 12 October 2021].

[2] ‘Are You Worried About Someone’s Mental Health? Fact Sheet’, Mindcharity.Co.Uk, 2011 <; [Accessed 12 October 2021], ‘Living With – Schizophrenia’, Nhs.Uk, 2021 <; [Accessed 12 October 2021], ‘Mental Illness – Family And Friends – Better Health Channel, Betterhealth.Vic.Gov.Au, 2019 <; [Accessed 14 October 2021].

[3] Unknown author Le médecin guarissant Phantasie [digital image] <; [Accessed 12 October 2021].

[4] David Booy, Personal Disclosures: An Anthology Of Self-Writings From The Seventeenth Century (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 309.

[5] Booy, Personal Disclosures, p. 310.

[6] Booy, Personal Disclosures, pp. 311-312.

[7] Kate Hodgkin, ‘Fitzherbert, Dionys (C.1580-C.1641)’, ODNB, 2019 <; [Accessed 15 June 2021].

[8] Katharine Hodgkin, Women, Madness And Sin In Early Modern England: The Autobiographical Writings Of Dionys Fitzherbert (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), p. 58.

[9] Tudi Gozé and others, ‘Reassessing ‘Praecox Feeling’ In Diagnostic Decision Making In Schizophrenia: A Critical Review’, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 45.5 (2018), p. 966.

[10] J. Parnas, ‘A Disappearing Heritage: The Clinical Core Of Schizophrenia’, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 37.6 (2011), p. 1125.

[11] Wilhelm Mayer-Gross, Martin Roth and Eliot Slater, Clinical Psychiatry, 3rd edn (London: Baillière, Tindall & Cassell, 1969), p. 276.

[12] Gozé et al, ‘Reassessing’, p. 966.