Birmingham Museum of Art Provides a New Way for Students to Experience Art

Birmingham, ALStudents experiencing a touch tour.

The Birmingham Museum of Art recently partnered with the Birmingham Alabama Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, and Phillips Academy teachers to engage Phillips’ students in a special tour designed to meet the needs of people with visual impairments. This opportunity served as an empathy experience and gave students a better understanding of how people with low or no vision can experience and enjoy art.

The Phillips Academy students are members of the JUNA of Alabama, a student-run Model United Nations Assembly for students in grades six, seven, and eight designed to increase awareness of worldwide issues, how the United Nations operates, and stresses the importance of diplomacy and problem-solving among countries. Each participating American school is assigned a country to research and paired with a classroom in that country. Philips Academy was assigned Liberia, and all the students in their paired classroom at the Liberian School for the Blind have a visual impairment.

The students’ advisors met with Education staff over the course of the fall to design a program to help them understand some of the physical challenges their Liberian counterparts might face. Their empathy experience at the Museum included a Visually Impaired Program tour, a debriefing discussion with the students, and a studio activity.

In a tour of the American and 19th-century galleries, student wore goggles, glasses, or a blindfold to simulate vision impairments so that they could understand what a museum experience might be like for their Liberian peers. Museum docents and assistants guided the students through the Museum, helping them safely navigate to and through the galleries, and to help with stools, seating, and gloves. At each artwork, docents used special techniques like verbal description of the artworks to help students envision the masterpiece before them. Students also participated in the program through touch, as they explored tactile models of the artworks. A particularly rewarding component of the tour is the ability to touch (with gloved hands and guided assistance) a bronze sculpture in the Museum.

Even though most later described a sense of wariness and helplessness during the tour experience, the students all did their best to immerse themselves in the experience. In the wrap-up discussion, the students spoke candidly about what they learned and how they felt. They developed empathy for people with visual impairments and can begin to understand what it is like to experience an impairment of any kind.

This is one example of how the Birmingham Museum of Art is exploring ways to help visitors develop empathy for others and change perspective via art. Many of the programs and interpretation efforts are designed to maximize personal connections between viewers and artworks. The Museum can tailor experiences like this one for other schools and organizations.

For more information, please call 205.254.2643.