Here we are in mid-May, and I am working on putting together the next installment of our VAM Voice member newsmagazine. If you read the Voice, you know that we pull together topics and issues affecting Virginia and D.C. museums and synthesize them for you. We also do our best to highlight some of the amazing things going on throughout our state's (and D.C.'s!) museum community.
I have been corresponding with Sharon Celsor-Hughes, docent coordinator for the University of Virginia Art Museum in Charlottesville, about an incredible project - and partnership - they've been working on. The program is called "Eyes on Art" and it is geared towards people with early or mid-stage Alzheimer's disease. Below is a short excerpt - a "whistle-wetter" if you will - of the interview I conducted with her. Learn more about how museums are engaging underserved, special-needs audiences in the Summer 2011 VAM Voice newsmagazine. It'll arrive in member inboxes in early June.
HW: Tell us a little about the "inquiry method" you use to elicit discussion around the art.
SC-H: The Inquiry Method is based on docents asking questions that are aimed to involve the viewer in gaining visual literacy. As this method lends itself to starting conversations and engaging the viewer, it works well with programs designed for people with Alzheimer’s. However, the goal for our Eyes on Art visitors has less to do with gaining visual literacy and more with the use of art as a means for engaging and stimulating conversation. Visitors who are in the early or middle stages of the disease are limited in their ability to recall information, especially those everyday details such as what they ate, who visited them, or what they just watched on television. Frustration often occurs when asked these types of questions—both to the person with the disease and their caretaker(s). However, by stimulating conversation based on what is in front of them at that moment and knowing there isn’t a specific answer being sought, allows the person with Alzheimer’s a venue for positive interaction.
HW: What advice would you give other museums considering programs for special needs audiences?
SC-H: The best advice I have for other museums interested in developing a program for any special needs group is to reach out to other museums with like programs. Ask to observe a program and learn what has worked for them, as well as, what their challenges have been. Find out if their program has undergone changes and if so, why. No two programs I researched were exactly alike. Some used themes and others chose to go without themes in favor of choosing works they felt would elicit the most responses. Some held these visits during regular museum hours, while others scheduled them for non-public hours. Most included caretakers; however one museum sent caretakers to the coffee shop. Many decisions will be based on the uniqueness of the institution. Finally, start small and see what works before expanding and involving more partnerships. Recognize that no two groups will have the same dynamics.
- Heather Widener
Communications Director, VAM