It was in March that Spain’s national art gallery, the Prado Museum in Madrid, mounted a unique exhibition for the visually impaired. From Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to works by 16th and 17th-century masters like Correggio and Velázquez, visitors could touch and feel the paintings specially recreated in the form of 3D models.
But few know that while the Spanish exhibition was being put together, something bigger was taking shape back home. Experts at the National Museum in Delhi were brainstorming alongside representatives from Unesco and volunteers from an NGO to create a permanent art showcase for the visually impaired in the capital.
Almost an year in the making, Anubhav: A Tactile Experience was finally thrown open last week to mark the museum’s 55th foundation day. Replicas of 22 rare exhibits have been specially created for display here, besides an audio guide with details about each artwork and neat labels in Braille.
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“The exhibits were carefully selected by our curators to interest visitors of all ages and offer them a good representation of our huge collection spanning centuries and mediums,” said Vijay Mathur, curator (lecturing and education), National Museum.
“Also, the idea was to select art pieces that could translate into a good tactile experience,” he added.
“Museums have come a long way to accommodate the disabled. Wheelchair access has improved and many museums offer tours in sign language for the deaf. But what about the visually impaired who can’t experience art because even touching artworks is strictly prohibited at museums? This gallery might offer an answer,” said a spokesperson for the NGO Saksham, which works with the visually impaired.
According to the spokesperson, the visually impaired “are generally excluded from experiencing art, barring the Louvre in Paris, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s National Gallery, which offer guided tours with audio and Braille”.
At Anubhav: A Tactile Experience, 3D replicas of various artwork have been created by the museum’s modelling department, with a special emphasis on dimensions. For instance, a mid-19th century coin from the Awadh region has been recreated in 23-inch diameter and 2-inch thickness to offer a detailed sensory experience.
“The amount of magnification will help them understand each and every detail properly,” said Joyoti Roy from the museum’s outreach department, who was involved in the project’s inception.
Among the exhibits is a 1634 AD Malwa painting of Lord Ram with a golden deer that has been recreated in 3D.
Besides, there’s the famous Sarnath Buddha statue, shields, busts, sculptures, archaeological finds and several landmark paintings — all have been recreated in the form of 3D models that visitors can feel and experience.
Inaugurating the gallery, Narendra Kumar Sinha, secretary, Ministry of Culture, said, “The museum-going experience in India until now has been largely for persons with sight. The importance of this multi-sensory and multi-disciplinary approach to engage with art and the museum is yet unexplored. This is going to change now.”
Besides Saksham and Unesco, organisations such as Open Knowledge Community, IIT-Delhi and National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled have been involved in the project. “Group bookings can be made three days in advance so that guides can be arranged to help the visitors. The museum’s own staff have also been trained to offer a guided experience for walk-in visitors,” said Roy.
Said Mathur, “This was actually a long-pending project. We held many workshops, we realised that we needed to install displays along a straight, unobstructed path, an audio guide and 3D paintings.” There is also a separate, wheelchair-enabled access ramp.
As of now, though, the museum is not mulling any additions to the gallery owing to a shortage of space. “The commitment has been to expand access into our museum for all visitors. While this is a learning curve, we will continue to make efforts to make the museum open and accessible to all,” said Sanjiv Mittal, director-general, National Museum.
Mathur added, “We should not think of this gallery as strictly for the specially abled. In fact, people with sight can simply close their eyes and feel art in a new dimension.”