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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Emily Powell
IU Art Museum

Last modified: Thursday, August 24, 2006

Hands 'on' the art: IU Art Museum offers new ‘touch art’ program for people with low vision

Aug. 24, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- As a young girl growing up in Crozon (Brittany, France), Indiana University Bloomington graduate student Marie Clapot rarely went to museums or performing art shows. The reason: her father suffered from a degenerative eye disease that eventually caused him to go blind, and she, herself, is afflicted with the genetic condition. (She is currently partially sighted.)

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Marie Clapot touches a replicated piece of art at the IU Art Museum.

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It wasn't until she went to Greece in middle school that Clapot realized the importance of using all senses to experience the arts.

"It was striking to me to finally be able to see and touch, smell and listen to what I read about and taught," she said. "I'd entered another dimension; I understood another layer of the artworks."

She wanted art to become a multisensory experience. This desire to make art more accessible for people with disabilities led her to secure an internship at the Indiana University Art Museum, where she helped design and coordinate a new program at the museum -- to be launched next month -- that will allow visually impaired patrons to touch and feel selected objects from the museum's collection.

The program features two types of tours -- a tour that includes audio description of selected pieces in the museum's galleries and a touch component that provides people with low vision guided, physical interaction with selected artwork. To date, the touch art tour is mostly limited to sculptures, though the museum plans to explore ways for people to touch other objects, such as paintings.

Touch tours are limited to people with low vision, while audio description tours are available to the general public. Depending on an individual's needs, audio description and touch tours may be combined. All tours must be scheduled in advance, with a minimum of three weeks notice required for touch tours.

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The IU Art Museum's new touch art tours will allow people with low visibility to touch and feel objects from the museum's collection.

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An inaugural audio description tour will take place at the museum on Sept. 2 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Those who would like to participate in the first audio description tour or schedule future tours should contact the museum's Education Department at 812-855-1045.

Ed Maxedon, the Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Education at the IU Art Museum, supervised Clapot's internship and collaborated on the program design. He said that the museum's docents or tour guides, area curators and conservators have been involved in specialized training. Their goal is to encourage patrons to engage all of their senses when exploring the museum's galleries.

"[The tours] will give us the opportunity to learn how to cast our language to describe a piece of art, how to translate visual language into words," Maxedon said.

Touching pieces of art is typically prohibited at museums, though some larger museums, such as New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, have recently instituted programs for patrons who are visually impaired. Museum officials believe the IU Art Museum is the only university art museum to offer such hands-on tours for people with low vision.

Clapot completed a three-month internship at the IU Art Museum last summer, but has continued working as an access coordinator for the museum -- and for several other artistic venues in Bloomington, including IU's Mathers Museum. Last fall, she, the IU Art Museum and the Mathers Museum earned a community service award from the city's Council for Community Accessibility for their contributions toward the advancement of opportunities for people with disabilities.

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New audio description and touch art tours will become permanent fixtures at the IU Art Museum.

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Her work for the visually impaired began in 2004 when she met an access coordinator, who also was partially sighted, at an art museum in San Francisco. Clapot participated in a workshop being conducted with people with visual impairments and marveled at how the participants interacted with the art.

"I will always remember how their faces, torn between apprehension and excitement, lit up while touching the replicas as they realized they could enjoy visual arts as anybody else," she said. "Some of these people had never gone to the museum because they couldn't see. They'd forgotten that they have other tools of sight, touching, hearing and smelling."

She hopes that the IU Art Museum program, which will become a permanent fixture at the museum, leads to new and additional programs for people with visual impairments as well as those afflicted with other disabilities, such as low hearing and mental retardation.

"There's a real need," she said. "We have to adapt for the speech and behavior of different visitors."

For the moment, though, she is pleased with the progress the program has made. And she is confident it will go a long way toward integrating the sighted community with the low vision community.

"Having an interactive experience with arts helps build individual values such as self-confidence as well as community values," she said.

To arrange to speak to Clapot or Maxedon, contact Ryan Piurek, IU Media Relations, at 812-855-5393 or, or Emily Powell, IU Art Museum, at 812-855-8978 or

To learn more about the IU Art Museum, go to