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published: March 2004
Re-assessing practice; visual art, visually impaired people
and the web
Interpretation for visually impaired people in art museums is dominated by an emphasis on the tactile and the physically immediate. In practice, this seemingly logical approach often keeps blind and partially sighted people at an intellectual distance from art works and their artistic context. For over-reliance on a tactile approach has the effect of making sculpture the primary vehicle for accessing art, despite the fact that "touchable" sculpture represents only a tiny fraction of Western art as represented in museums and galleries. Moreover, in this display context "touchable", by definition, means robust, indicating traditional materials such as bronze and stone. Yet like traditional narrative and figurative subject matter, bronze and stone cease to hold sway in twentieth century art. How then can someone who is congenitally blind be given intellectual access to non-tactile artworks that are not artefacts, that do not have clear descriptive relationships to objects and experiences from the lived world and that refer to and are of an about themselves only?
This was the starting point for research that began four years ago at Tate Modern, London's new national museum of modern art. The latest development to come out of this on-going research is i-Map art resources for blind and partially sighted people that are delivered online. Currently i-Map explores the work of Matisse and Picasso, their innovations, influences and personal motivations, as well as key concepts in modern art. Aimed at partially sighted and blind people with a general interest in art as well as art teachers and their visually impaired pupils, i-Map incorporates text, image enhancement and deconstruction, animation and raised images. Importantly, i-Map transformed a gallery-based practice that involved intensive 1:1 delivery, into an entirely new way of deconstructing art online and one where the user has the necessary tools to work independently. Moreover, i-Map goes beyond straight description, attempts to simulate purely visual experiences and the usual focus on "what?" in favour of exploring the "why?" of art so that visually impaired users can make their own critical judgments.
Visually impaired people use the Web in conjunction with screen reader software to obtain information, visually impaired people often find travel complicated and stressful, visually impaired children are usually in mainstream education and all schools in the UK are online. The process of reassessing the parameters and definitions of art education for visually impaired people revealed the Web to be an ideal vehicle for increasing intellectual access and delivering effective interpretation in a format that offers autonomy of exploration. However, in order for a project such as i-Map to confidently defy received Web design wisdom and develop tailor made solutions, it's content needs to be the product of successful methodology and focussed research. It is possible to provide blind and partially sighed people with intellectual access to any artwork and the Web offers enormous potential to do assist in this process. In attempting to achieve this, i-Map can provide useful practical and pedagogical pointers.