A multi-sensory museum experience: co-creating with blind audiences

Since I work with blind visitors I can really see and understand the visual artworks better. I’m Marleen Hartjes, accessibility manager and education developer at the Van Abbemuseum, museum of modern and contemporary art, in Eindhoven The Netherlands. And I’m the proud coordinator of our Special Guests programme.

I would love to share some ideas on what we can learn from working and co-creating together with our blind and partially sighted visitors and what the added value of inclusive programming is. Because we strongly believe that everybody should have access to our museum and collection, even if you can’t see the artworks. The multi-sensory tours and tools we co-created with our blind visitors, not only opened up the museum for blind and partially sighted visitors, it deepened and broaden the museum experience for every visitor.

We are the first museum in the Netherlands that hosts a programme that focuses on accessibility and inclusion for all: the Special Guests programme. The Van Abbemuseum has a radical and hospitable approach to both art and our visitors. Together with visitors that are blind or have low vision we’ve developed a method for multi-sensory interactive tours and museum experience that are accessible for both the blind and visitors who can see. By touching the real artworks or a touch-replica, using smell, taste and sound, embody the artworks by re-enacting the artworks or touch a tableau vivant, using poetry, music and performance in our museum and tours, we share different perspectives of the artworks and we’re deepening the art experience for everyone. These tours are also accessible for deafblind visitors.

We worked together with 28 blind and partially sighted artists from the Netherlands. They’ve made an artwork inspired by our museum collection and the works were exhibited in the Van Abbemuseum. This multi-sensory exhibition was an eye opener for our ‘normal’ visitors, as it was an inclusive experience for blind and partially sighted visitors. Everyone could find their way by a floor track on the ground, texts were available in braille and the artworks could be touched, smelled and heard.

Together with Dedicon and Oogfonds we launched the RAAK Stimuleringsprijs. With this yearly incentive we want to stimulate museums to open up their collections for blind and partially sighted visitors.

We collaborate closely with guests from our audiences and several interest groups to make sure the museum meets their needs and together we’re opening up the museum for everyone. We’re researching the role of the museum in order to improve the conceptualization of people with disabilities. Together with our audiences we’re building an inclusive and holistic museum where we can share stories and learn from each other.