Space, place and social justice in education

Friday 13th July 2012
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK


Simon Hayhoe
Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology, United Aarb Emirates

An examination of virtual museums and cultural inclusion: An ethnographic study of blind Californian school students visiting museum websites

Abstract:The paper to be presented discusses the results of a study of blind students' access to museums through the web and in person. It forms part of a greater study of blind visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, conducted during a Fulbright Fellowship at the museum in 2011. The research project was conducted through participant observation and interviews with organized groups, classes and individual visitors of all ages and had lived as an impaired person for a significant proportion of their lives.

The main aim of the research was to understand:

  • the problems these visitors encountered when trying to gain access to the museums
  • how they understood paintings or other non-tactile exhibits
  • their understanding of visual culture, and
  • whether visitors who are born blind relate to exhibits and the museum differently from those who become blind later in life.

This paper focuses on case studies of three students at the California school for the blind. All were native to California and had lost their sight in childhood after having severe visual impairments previously. Two students never visited an art gallery or a museum in person but all three had accessed information about museums, downloaded pictures for projects and even conducted virtual tours of museums via the web. The school students had also had a broad experience of the visual arts at school and through their home environments, and all three elected to take art classes at school.

The students' case studies showed that they related to museums, exhibits and visual culture as an abstract concept as they had little experience of experiencing art works in a real environment. Unlike the adults who participated in the study of The Metropolitan (to be published elsewhere), these students also held the institution of the museum in lower esteem or as a "palace of high culture". They also appeared to regard the use of artifacts as a more mundane, educational exercise than older blind people, regardless of whether they had lost their sight in childhood or later on.