Making Art Hands-On

Making Art Hands-On

Last month we hosted our first round of Tactile Tables in the Cover Story textile gallery. It was such a delight to finally watch visitors touch and interact with these objects, after months of planning. The development tactile programming is unique; here is a peek into the process.

Phase 1: Brainstorming After selecting the theme or gallery for our Tactile Tables, I closely examine the objects included in the show, with an eye for how they would translate into 3-D relief board or fabric reproductions. Objects that include familiar symbols can facilitate the process of “looking with your hands." It can be helpful to feel recognizable elements such as the hands and feet on a person, or the long nose and tail on a horse. I also consider the story and context of the object. Was it used for a sacred ceremony, or made in a unique way? Is there a hidden meaning or compelling story being told? Whether the visitor is seeing with their eyes or their hands, the same holds true: the richer the content, the better the experience.

Phase 2: Collaborate with the Artist Fabricator Once the inspiration objects are selected, I meet with the fabricator to talk through the concepts for the objects. This is always a learning process for me. In my last meeting with local blind and low-vision artist Ann Cunningham, I learned that when it comes to the touch sensors on adult’s hands, any tactile element smaller than the pad of the thumb will simply feel like dots. In this collaboration, we discuss the content of the objects, and the best way to convey their shape, size, color, design, and layout through touch. For the Cover Story objects, we elected to create two fabric reproductions with seamstress Bree Angela, and two 3-D tactile boards with artist Ann Cunningham (example of one below).

Phase 3: Training the Docents After the tactile objects are completed and arrive at the museum, we gather our specially trained access docents to review the objects. We discuss the tactile components of the objects and how tactile exploration can be facilitated with visitors. We also review the context of the objects, how they relate to the rest of the exhibition, and any unique content that would enrich the visitor experience. Sometimes we’ll even try out the objects. After the training, docents are familiar with the objects and encourage their visitors to interact with the fabrications. The visitor in the photo sees the tactile reproduction of the image inside a Japanese fireman's coat with his hands.

Phase 4: Implementation and Evaluation Finally, the best part: visitors getting hands-on with art! The Tactile Tables are set up directly in front of the corresponding object in the exhibition, and are facilitated by one or more docents. The audience is usually a mix of visitors who are blind or who have low-vision, children and families, and curious visitors who happen to walk by. No matter the reason they came to the Tactile Table, they almost always tell us they so enjoyed the opportunity to “feel” the art and gain deeper enrichment with the museum’s collection. In the lifecycle of a tactile object, the final implementation phase is also just the first of several iterations. Through observations, evaluations and conversations with docents and visitors, we gauge what worked well and what needs improvement with these objects, in order to make them better the next time around. Our next set of Tactile Tables will take place on September 14th from 2-4 pm in Cover Story. They are a drop-in format and free with admission.

Stay in touch! For questions, email Sally McCance at If you would like to be updated on these and other access programs at the museum, please sign up for our Access Art Mail here.

Sally McCance is the coordinator of access programs in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Sally has been at the DAM since 2013 and her favorite artwork that has been on view here is Spiritual Messenger by Francis Nnaggenda.

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