Victoria & Albert Museum exterior

Award-winning journalist, Selina Mills, who is visually impaired, pays a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Touch-Tour and is delightfully surprised.

Running your hands up and down a large male torso is not exactly what you expect to be doing in public on a Friday morning in late October, but when the torso is made from bronze and has been created by Auguste Rodin, and is standing in the Victoria and Albert Museum, somehow it seems perfectly natural.

This rather exciting event happened because I was part of a ‘touch-tour’ arranged by the Access department at the V&A. These tours, available to any blind or visually impaired person who asks (they say you can ask if you walk in, and if someone is available they will show you around – but I booked mine), aim to give an opportunity for blind visitors to have a tactile experience of this world-class collection by feeling and touching statues, china, silver and other objects that bulge in the galleries of the V&A.

It works like this. You meet the tour guide in the lobby, are given a pair of soft polyurethane gloves. You then float off with the guide, spending a glorious whole few hours feeling ancient Ming Vases, Rodin statues and marble fountains from Italy. Without resorting to hyperbole, or even bawdy nuance, I can only say it was thrilling, marvellous (in the true sense of the word) and exhausting. The only moments of respite came when guards grumbled at you for touching the exhibits. Our guide waved a magic piece of paper from a senior curator, and the grumblers fled in fear.

Renaissance Galleries V&A
1. Renaissance Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
in which the fountain on the Touch-Tour is located

(photo: © V&A Museum, London & Alan Williams Photography)

Our tour began in the Renaissance Galleries at an Italian fountain (fig.1). Not only did we get the history of the piece, but were invited to move 360 degrees around it, and run our hands over its cool smooth surfaces. Our guide, called Elizabeth Hamilton, says she tries to balance her tours with history as well as the craftsmanship of the object. She offers, for example, a wide knowledge of the methods and craftsmanship involved in creating each artefact. ‘It’s at the heart of our education remit in the museum’ she says, ‘so we like to show how different marbles feel, under different circumstances, or how an artist created the folds of a marble dress.’ Touching different objects makes the learning even more vivid. Each tour, she says, is original, and can feature new objects or old, and because of the small numbers involved, can follow whatever pattern she feels like sharing.

This type of knowledge became even more entrancing when we moved from sixteenth-century Europe to Room 44, the T. T. Tsui Gallery, which houses one of the most important Chinese art collections in the world dating from 3000 BC. Our task was to feel a tubular Ming Vase, and find the seam in the porcelain. Interestingly, the man who funded this particular gallery insisted there be a touchable vase for blind people and a Braille label beside it, giving its history. Elizabeth was not sure what led Mr T. T. Tsui to want to include this, but she says that many blind people have enjoyed the gallery so much more because of the touch experience. As I touched the Vase, it was striking how I could create both a ‘touch memory’ but also learn from the stories and history of objects at the same time. It is audio, touch and imagination all flung together, and the result is mesmerising.

We then moved over to the twentieth-century galleries, and were introduced to French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Age of Bronze and the other sculptures he donated to the museum in November 1914 during World War I (fig.2). The collection is unique in that Rodin personally selected the sculptures and gave them to the museum himself. He described the collection as ‘one he had been making all his life’ and it provides the most amazing retrospective of his works. Most of the sculptures are bronze, but there is one terracotta and marble works as well. The Times reported that the collection was astonishing: ‘The gift of sculpture which M. Rodin has made to the British Nation is a piece of generosity without parallel. Others have given precious collections of works of art to England and other nations, but this gift is all the work of the man who bestows it and it is the work of the greatest artist living in the world.’

rodin age of bronze
2. Auguste Rodin, The Age of Bronze, c.1876, bronze h. 180.3cm.
(photo: © V&A Museum, London)

I must say I agree. Not only because of his creativity, but also as my guide explained because of the quality of workmanship in how the bronze was cast, and how it was polished. Having visited the Rodin Museum in Paris, these were aspects of Rodin’s work I had not considered before. And how do the guides deal with the moving of hands over delicate bits of the human anatomy, I ask tentatively. ‘I do get sniggers sometimes when I take people down the ceramic staircase which is part of the original V&A museum’ says Elizabeth, ‘People feel all sorts of lumps and bumps on the cherubs I am always worried that the old doddery people might fall over because they are so busy giggling.’ But the giggles soon pass when people begin to think about the craftsmanship involved and the amazing history of the museum.

Other museums around the world also offer accessible tours for blind and visually impaired people to learn and feel their collections. Last month, the Prado Museum announced it was displaying some its major works of art in a raised 3D tactile format using a technique called Didu that adds volume and texture to 2D art. In addition to the three-dimensional images, the display includes Braille and audio descriptions. At the Louvre in Paris, there is a special ‘room’ where you can go and feel replicas of sculptures, but you are not allowed to feel the original objects themselves and there are only a few touchable objects. In Florence, I have been guided by a curator, who chose key works at the Uffizi for me to learn about, but left me no room to explore or ruminate.

The Metropolitan in New York also goes out of its way to find you a guide, and runs workshops specifically aimed for blind and visually impaired people, including children, but you are made to feel rather ‘special’ (aka disabled) rather than simply a person who wants to learn more. You also have to book ahead, which precludes the spontaneous Sunday afternoon visit. Friends tell me the Smithsonian in Washington is very hands on, and has a tactile and an audio guide element in almost every room. Yet what is glorious about the V&A is while we can’t touch every object in the museum, because some are on permanent loan, (and we can’t obtain permission from the owners) in the main, curators are very happy for us to spend time touching and contemplating the permanent collection.

After I returned home, it was as if I had read a long history book and I found the sensations of the various stone, ceramic and marble stayed with me long after I left. And my head was brimming with stories. It was fascinating to consider, for example, that the marble Leda and the Swan had been bought by the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir John Everett Millais on the basis that it was a Michelangelo original. This is now questioned and it is attributed to Bartolomeo Ammanati, but the story describing the statue, of how Zeus seduced the young woman by disguising himself as an elegant swan, took my mind far away to a world of Mount Olympus and the Gods. Having touched the statue, and felt the immense fragility, lightness and detail of the swan’s marble feathers.

For those few moments, I was swept away into another world, and to be quite truthful, did not know or care if I was blind or not. I just melted into the experience.

Main image: Exterior view, Victoria and Albert Museum , London SW7 (photo: © V&A Museum, London)