Commentary: A Different Way of Seeing Museum Exhibits

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is commemorating the anniversary with Sight Unseen, an exhibit showcasing works from photographers who are blind. Patrons with vision loss can enjoy the exhibit thanks to 3DPhotoWorks, an organization that makes tactile renderings of pictures and paintings. They’ve also enhanced the experience by including special sensors on the photographs that will give users more detailed audio descriptions when they run their hands across the photos.

I often see news stories about things museums and other cultural institutions are doing to make their facilities accessible to people with vision loss. By providing audio description or tactile representations of artifacts, these places are striving to make sure everyone can enjoy and learn from the various exhibits. I am particularly impressed with the Sight Unseen exhibit because of the technological approach being used to make all aspects accessible.

I have gone to museums and art exhibits that claim to be accessible, only to find that accommodations are minimal at best. While I might get somewhat of a picture by tracing my hands around statues or sculptures, I still cannot fully appreciate all the details. Museum staff does their best at describing key features, but I would still love to have the freedom of exploring artifacts on my own like everyone else. The inclusive nature of the 3DPhotoWorks technology allows people who are blind to do just that.

If more museums adopt this or similar technology, it will benefit both patrons with and without disabilities. Those of us with visual impairments could enjoy and appreciate exhibits more fully thanks to the audio and tactile components. People with 20/20 vision might be able to appreciate previously overlooked details if they could feel paintings and sculptures. Simple things like feeling the smoothness of a marble sculpture could help them get a better picture through their other senses.

There is much more to the Sight Unseen exhibit than the accessibility features. The fact that it showcases work by blind and visually impaired photographers communicates a very important message to the general public. When people talk about photography, blindness or photographers with vision loss are rarely part of the conversation. I hope this exhibit will help demystify the persisting misconceptions about people with visual impairments.

It is very fitting that the exhibit is part of the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This is a powerful way of conveying the important message that everyone has a right to equal access. It also gives the general public a better understanding of what can be done to make things accessible, and how everyone can benefit from it.

Kudos to 3DPhotoWorks for their innovative approach to making exhibits more inclusive and accessible. As someone who is blind, I believe this approach has a great potential in cultural institutions throughout the world. While people like me might not be able to appreciate visual details of paintings and statues, the audio and tactile enhancements will definitely allow us to see a better picture in our minds.

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