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Smithsonian offers tours for visually impaired

Smithsonian offers tours for visually impaired. (ABC7)
Smithsonian offers tours for visually impaired. (ABC7)
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The Smithsonian American Art Museum is offering ways for people with different abilities to explore and enjoy the artwork, history and culture in Washington D.C. Docent-led tours for the visually impaired are opening new opportunities for locals.

People from all over the world travel to the Nation’s Capital. So far, more than two million visitors this year from around the world have walked the halls of the American Art Museum and got a peek in to the lives of Americans past and present. Some residents felt they were not able to enjoy the venue like everyone else.

“This collection is a reflection of who we are as Americans. It tells a history of our culture and our people and it does it visually,” said Carol Wilson, Lunder Education Chair at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

One Thursday afternoon, a small group started a docent-led tour. Some arm in arm, leisurely strolled down one of the halls.

“When we walk into that gallery, we will be surrounded by people staring at us because these are portraits,” explained museum docent David Weisz.

Exhibits for sight alone can cause some visitors to feel isolated.

“I would go into a museum and I would feel lost, many times depressed. Like, this is not for me. They don’t want me here. And now I leave and I have these images in my head which I can refer to many times for weeks, even years later,” said Kilof Legge.

Legally Blind Legge is not alone.

“Kilof, what do you see? Because I just see a bunch of colors,” said visually impaired visitor John Guzik as he looked at a painting.

“At this point I can’t drive, read, recognize people,” explained Legge.

“I tell people, it’s like I see one piece of a 1,000-piece puzzle,” said Jane Stanley.

“If your vision is a circle, I have an M&M in the middle,” explained Guzik.

In the monthly tour at the museum, all the participants are visually impaired. Stereotypical canes and blacked out sunglasses are nowhere to be found. While the group does walk slower, they travel with confidence and help each other out.

“Surfaces change, so be careful. And it’s a little bit, slightly downhill,” Weisz said as he was leading the group out of a doorway.

“I look like I can see a lot more than I see. I guess I just want to see more so I try,” said Stanley warmly.

The tours have specially trained docents that use colorful and descriptive words. They pass around touchable object like marble.

“Even though it’s cold, it’s not the hardest rock. It’s a soft rock compared to a lot of others,” said Weisz as the participants were passing the white block around.

At the next artwork, Weisz took out a painter’s palette with multiple 3D painted brushstrokes and pointed out which one resembled the painting they were studying.

He also played music inspired by piece.

“All the spectacular things going on and you’re going to hear in a minute the waves. The wind and the waves,” Weisz said over the orchestra music coming from his phone.

Some paintings and sculptures have foam-board cutouts for fingers to follow along as it’s being described. It brings the unseen piece to life.

“In this area here, we have some trees. They are dark, very beautifully painted, very detail painted. And in the background, I’m going to move you up here, this is a combination up here of sky and mountains,” Weisz described to Stanley as he helped guide her hand around the foam board.

“Having somebody describe what you’re seeing, I think is an amazing service that the museum provides,” said Guzik.

While many visitors spend a few moments looking at a piece, this group gets to experience more than what’s on the surface.

“The beauty of a work of art is you can experience it even if you can’t see it,” said Wilson.

Artwork so often creates a space for discussion, learning and community. For the visually impaired, that faded away until now.

“It’s stimulating and it adds an extra dimension to my life that was missing,” said Stanley.

“Now I leave and I have these images in my head which I can refer to many times for weeks, even years later,” said Legge.

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The Smithsonian American Art Museum offers tours for the visually impaired and tours in sign language. For more information click here.

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