NO-MA ARCHIVE(ノマ アーカイヴ)

A Universal Way of Appreciating Art: Reaching the Heart Through the Body

Kojiro Hirose

(Associate Professor of the Department of Globalization and Humanity, National Museum of Ethnology)

This article was contributed to the document book (2019) of the Project to Create a Borderless Area in Omihachiman. In the project, an exhibition was held on the theme of the body, titled Try Starting with Body ISHIN-DENSHIN. In parallel with the exhibition, the project also developed a program to enable visually impaired people to enjoy artworks. Hirose contributed to the program by sharing his ideas and giving a lecture at the event. The professional titles mentioned are those at the time of writing.

Last December, I was in charge of a learning program for people with intellectual disabilities at the National Museum of Ethnology. In this program, I emphasized the potential of the senses of touch and hearing. I ensured that participants actually touched various folk materials, such as musical instruments and toys, and take their time in savoring the tactile sensations of the objects. I also held a quiz session where participants listened to a CD of “Soundscapes of Japan” and tried to figure out what sound they were listening to. Interaction with visually impaired people who frequently use their tactile and auditory senses in their daily lives must serve as an opportunity for the participants to become aware of their own senses of touch and hearing. In the program, I made sure to allow time for them to interact with me, a completely blind individual, by introducing themselves and shaking hands with me.

The last activity of the program was to create clay artworks. First, the participants were asked to touch fruits and vegetables and choose the ones they liked. You always discover something unexpected when you touch and smell vegetables and fruits, even if they are familiar to you and you eat them often. Once the participants chose their favorite fruits and vegetables, I instructed them to keep them close at hand and work with clay. Some tried to faithfully reproduce the real objects, while others focused on the details instead of the entire object. The quality of their creations was not important, as the program was intended to help the participants give shape to their impressions of the real objects in their own style.

My program was well received by the intellectually disabled participants, and the questionnaire answered by their parents indicated generally favorable feedback. In the future, it will be necessary to enhance the relationship between the program and the main and special exhibitions at the museum to facilitate participation by people with intellectual disabilities. The program also leaves much room for improvement to be developed as a “learning” program. Nevertheless, I think it was quite a success for a first attempt.

When I was planning this program, I was inspired by the idea of body-to-heart communication. I had a series of meetings with the staff prior to the exhibition at NO-MA on November 23. These meetings provided a valuable opportunity for me to reconsider the concept of museum. From my position at the National Museum of Ethnology, I have been engaged in practical research on Universal Museums (UM). Originally, UM refers to “a museum that anyone can enjoy.” Recently, I often use the following two definitions of UM: “a museum that respects the diversity of senses” and “a museum that encourages buzzing dialogue with objects and people.” Let me explain these two definitions below.

As the word “visit” implies, traditional museums are lifelong learning and social education facilities focusing on and emphasizing visual perception. Vision is undoubtedly superior to the other senses in terms of its ability to receive large amounts of information instantaneously. In addition, visual arts such as painting should ideally be appreciated through heart-to-heart communication between the viewing subjects without the mediation of words.

Visual perception is certainly a powerful means of expression and communication for any museum exhibition, regardless of time and place. The problem is how easily we rely on its convenience. There are things that cannot be understood by visual observation alone. A typical example is the heart. The essence of the UM movement is to question dependence on visual perception in museums, and by extension, in society itself. Inevitably, UM emphasizes a method of appreciation “through the viewer’s own experience” rather than through observation. There is a clear connection between the exhibition of NO-MA and the concept of UM in my mind.

In order to respect the diversity of the senses, increasing the number of exhibitions that can be enjoyed through touch and hearing is essential. In the exhibition at NO-MA, not only could the works be touched, but tactile graphics in three-dimensional copies and an audio guide with interviews with the artists were also provided. In general, it is difficult to understand artworks by touching tactile graphics. There is a limit to the process of converting visual information into tactile perception. To overcome this limitation, an active experience was introduced at the exhibition held in November.

Line drawing in which the artist reproduces the impression gained by touching a tactile graphic is an experiment to connect the hearts of the artist and the viewer through tactile sensation. We also tried to expand our imagination (fantasy) by moving the cut-out parts of the tactile graphics with our hands as in a puppet show. The highlight of this method of appreciation is being able to feel the distance between the figures depicted in the work in conjunction with the time spent manipulating the parts of the tactile graphics with our hands.

In addition, I also commend the attempt to adapt paintings, which are difficult to perceive through touch, into a radio drama-like audio play as an innovative approach. In the world of waka poetry, there is a technique called honkadori—a method of composition where the poet alludes to or quotes one or more lines from a poem by a different author. By applying a similar repetition of trial and error to art appreciation as well, we may improve our understanding and empathy for the “diversity of the senses.”

The idea of UM also overturns the common sense that museums and art galleries are places for “quiet appreciation.” When perceiving artworks with multiple senses, it is important to share our impressions with each other. The viewers are free to communicate what they feel—sight, touch, hearing, as well as the sixth sense in addition to the other five. A UM is characterized by lively conversation. I intentionally use the expression “a museum that encourages buzzing dialogue” because I want visitors to make full use of their antennae like insects do. It is a rather poor analogy, but it should feel like having thousands of hands extending from every pore of your body. Humans have many unused or dormant sensors (antennae). By stimulating our auditory and tactile senses, we awaken the antennae of our entire body. This is the true intention behind my choice of the word “buzzing.”

The emphasis on accommodating the visually impaired in the exhibition Try Starting with Body ISHIN-DENSHIN is noteworthy as a new project development of NO-MA. As a visually impaired individual, I am grateful that NO-MA has become an accessible museum, and I would like to express my respect for the efforts of the staff. The impact of the idea of adding more auditory and tactile features is not limited to the visually impaired. Many able-bodied visitors who came into contact with the “heart” of the works at the exhibition in November surely experienced the excitement of having their senses unleashed and the appeal of interacting with objects and other people.

How can we balance the preservation of important artworks with tactile appreciation? How much of the complex visual information in paintings and photographs can be conveyed through tactile graphics? We must continue to discuss these issues to achieve universality. For now, however, I would like to rejoice in the fact that, in collaboration with the contributors to the development of NO-MA, we have been able to take a powerful first step toward the creation of a new museum.

Source: Document Book of the Project to Create a Borderless Area in Omihachiman (published on March 31, 2019)

Project to Support Creative Activities of Art Museums and Historical Museums in Collaboration with Local Communities by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, 2018

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