The conference addresses inclusive and multisensory learning environments and strategies, particularly in relation to the arts and museums. Our discussions will focus on experiences that involve sound, touch, movement, drama, olfactory and modes of proprioceptive learning. Multimodal learning and creative experiences are meaningful to all audiences including people with disabilities and people with different learning preferences.
Since 2005 this conference has become a forum for cross-disciplinary creative thinking and the exchange of ideas. We will continue to foster dialogue between such diverse disciplines as neuroscience, cognitive psychology, education, museum studies, disability and cultural studies, technology, architecture, product design, and media art. Conference participants and organizers aim to define a framework for engaging diverse audiences through multimodal experiences, and identify new trends and innovation in learning and museum practice.
The trademark of this conference has been its diverse cross-disciplinary audience that includes: Museum staff, art educators, teaching artists, special education teachers, therapists, new media artists, researchers, computer engineers and technology specialists, Universal Design advocates, architects, exhibit, and product designers, and graduate students
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By Jamie Walsh
As a graduate student at the University of Oregon, I am studying Arts Management with a focus on community arts, and, in particular, inclusive art opportunities for artists with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. The Multimodal Approaches to Learning Conference in New York sounded like an excellent way to meet and interact with a variety of individuals also interested in museum accessibility and inclusion. However, this conference proved to be much more than individuals interested in museum accessibility; instead it brought together artists, art historians, neuroscientists, scholars, curators, educators and museum administrators to engage in cross-disciplinary discourse regarding issues of accessibility, learning methodology, the role of the museum to a community, creating experiences for museum visitors, engagement of all human senses, and the overall meaning of art. Peggy Fogelman, the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described the conference as an opportunity to learn from one another, to foster dialogue among fields, and to think outside of ones own discipline.
The conference started off with a speech by renowned Theater, Opera and Festival Director, Peter Sellars. Mr. Sellars, who quickly became a highlight of the day, began his speech with the quote, “The giant lie is that there is a normal and art is here to prove that there is not”. He spoke about the presence of disability creating the presence of patience and, in turn, a “zone of deep attention”. Sellers argued that this zone of deep attention is what artwork is all about. It allows viewers to actually stop and look, hear, touch, smell, taste, and think. It will be impossible for me to recreate the passion and enthusiasm that exuded from Mr. Sellars throughout his entire speech. Proving to be a gifted storyteller, the audience remained enthralled as he spoke about “zones of profound equality”, the visible world vs. the invisible world, the interrelation of all senses, and the fact that all humans are different and incomplete. This speech set the tone for the reminder of the conference, where I soon learned that multimodal approaches to learning and exhibition design reaches past accessibility for individuals with disabilities and creates accessibility for the full inclusion of every individual.
While at the conference I feverishly took extensive notes for each panel discussion, lecture, and roundtable discussion I attended. The caliber of expertise of the 68 speakers and the 200+ attendees was both impressive and intimidating. Therefore, processing the connectivity between all of my notes may take me a few weeks to fully digest, but in the meantime, I'd like to report on some ideas and experiences that stood out to me the most.
The museum culture of “don't touch and don't make noise” makes attending a museum a purely visual experience. What does this mean for people who are blind or visually impaired? For the weekend I was fortunate enough to be an assigned guide for Siegfried Saerberg, curator and Professor of Sociology and Disability Studies in Germany. Professor Saerberg is blind and has curated shows that take place in total darkness, creating a strictly touch experience of art objects. He spoke of individuals coming into contact with a large figurative sculpture in which they had to bend down to the floor to touch the base and reach up above their heads to touch the top of the figure, in turn, manipulating their bodies in a similar way to the sculpture itself. This powerful touch sensory experience of engaging artwork is fully lacking in traditional visual museum experiences.
John Falk, Professor of Free-Choice Learning at Oregon State University, spoke about his research on the museum visitor experience. What I took away most from his talk was that different people at different times use museums in different ways for different purposes. He went on to categorize types of visitors into five main categories: Explorers (those who are already interested in the museum and think they will enjoy going); Facilitators (those that come because they want to share an experience with others); Experience Seekers (those that want to be able to tell others they went); Professionals/Hobbyists (those to which the museum relates to their work or hobby); and Rechargers (those that go to help them feel refreshed through a new set of experiences). Professor Folk's research suggests that understanding the motivations of museum visitors can help understand how to create positive and meaningful experiences.
After this talk, Volker Kirchberg spoke about his research on the museum visitor and arts participation. Mr. Kirchberg, Professor of Cultural Distribution and Cultural Organization in Applied Cultural Sciences at Leuphana University of Lueneburg. worked in a team of artists and scientists on a project that “investigates the psychogeographical effects of the museum on the museum visitor.” You can learn more about this project here: http://www.mapping-museum-experience.com/en
Rachel Herz, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, then spoke about “Life (and the Museum) Without Smell”. This presentation on olfactory dysfunction and anosmia exemplified the point that all senses work together to create deep meaning for each individual.
I then attended a session on interactive art featuring multimedia artists using software, computer processors, microcontrollers, and 3D modeling machines. This was an exciting session featuring artists using new and innovative technology. I recommend checking out R. Luke Dubois' project called “Heidsight is Aways 20/20”, Daniel Rozin's “Weave Mirror” and “Wooden Mirror”, and “Nervous System”, a website and project of Jesse Louis-Rosenberg and Jessica Rosenkrantz.
Another stimulating discussion revolved around the topic of the evolving technology of description. In this sense, description means providing access to the visual experience in the museum. Stephen Landau, Creative Director at Touch Graphics, Inc., showed an amazing talking campus map for the blind at the Perkins School. This panel pointed out that the biggest challenges in making museums, and other facilities, fully accessible is that they are not “born accessible”. It can be hard to make changes to spaces when the space does not begin with personalizing the experience for each and every user. Another issue that arose was that of BYOA (Bring Your Own Accessibility), in which museums and other facilities make it possible for people to bring their own devices and technologies to allow for their own accessibility. This, however, should never be a substitute for also providing options for accessing information. In short, the main point is that if you design something well, it works for everybody.
Day two began with an introduction by Jacqueline Terrassa, Managing Museum Educator for Gallery and Studio Programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ms. Terrassa referred to Peter Sellers' notion of “zones of attention”. In the desire to be more accessible, she spoke about creating zones of attention for different types of attention. She then listed different types of attention, including: creativity, debate, contemplation, activity, and discussion. Creating different modes of interacting with artwork is both an issue of design and also an issue of insight into how people connect with objects.
Olga Hubard, Professor of Art Education at Teachers Collage, asked us “What kinds of spaces do we want to create for the museum visitor? Not a physical space, but a space for experience”. She also spoke of the role of “multimodality”, which are systems in which we can make and communicate meaning. What I gained most from this discussion was the fact that different senses gather different sorts of information and evoke different types of emotional responses. Touching an object provides us with very different types of information than just looking at an object. Those of us who are sighted, often forget about the importance of other types of information that we are missing out on by primarily relying on just one of our senses.
In reflecting on this conference I am leaving out so much. It was an experience in which every interaction and lecture felt important and meaningful, and because of this, I feel grateful that I was able to attend. Overall, we should continue to recognize our constructed limitations and allow ourselves to brainstorm ways to break free of these constructions in order for information to become increasingly accessible in both the museum experience and beyond. An effective way to achieve this is by reaching outside of ones own discipline and by talking with those who are effected the most, such as individuals that experience disability. As Siegfriend Saerberg said, in regards to asking those with disabilities about multimodal approaches, “use us [i.e. individuals who are blind] as a way to liberate yourselves”.