Touching Art: Multi-sensory Museums

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.