Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind Comes to a Close

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Case of historical materials related to mathematics and natural history in the nineteenth-century education of the blind. Complements Teresa Jaynes, Gift #5, 2016. Photo by Concetta Barbera.

Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind Comes to a Close

View of the gallery exhibition Common Touch

Over five years in the making, Common Touch: The Art of the Senses in the History of the Blind closed last month. After opening in April, over 2800 visitors attended the multi-sensory exhibition curated by artist-in-residence Teresa Jaynes. Exploring the history of the blind during the 19th century and the nature of perception, the project drew some of our most diverse audiences. Common Touch  immersed high-school students, disability studies scholars, artists, and groups from the Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired into a space in which history and new forms of tactile expression harmoniously intersected.

Profiled and praised on artblog, the Broad Street Review, and WHYY TV’s Friday Arts, the innovative exhibition produced by the Library Company’s Visual Culture Program (VCP at LCP) invited visitors to challenge their understanding of what it means to see and perceive. And in turn, they were to touch, hear, and breathe in the lives of a 19th-century blind artisan, musician, mathematician, as well as 18th-century surveyor. Jaynes’s art works that included tactile sculptural letters, geometric forms, an embroidered map, and embossed artist’s book evoked awe, contemplation, and a new understanding of our printing for the blind collections that inspired and accompanied them.

Created in partnership with Art-Reach, Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, Philly Touch Tours, and Jaynes’s Vision Council of advisors, Common Touch also represents our ongoing efforts to make the Library Company accessible. Labels printed in Braille, an audio tour scripted with verbal description, and a project website designed with tools to enhance the experience of those who are visually impaired were essential elements in the creation of and outreach for the exhibition.

Equally essential for our outreach was the rich slate of Common Touch programs. The events, rooted in aspects of the overall exhibition theme of the interrelationship between art, disability, and history, were often arranged in collaboration with peer institutions. In April an eager crowd at the Gershman Y experienced the award-winning performer, writer, and director Terry Galloway perform her one-woman play, You Are My Sunshine, about her cochlear implant. In May acclaimed scholar and author on disability Stephen Kuusisto talked to an equally rapt audience about the history of the blind, art, and his experience with the exhibition as someone who is visually impaired. And in September world-renowned master percussionist Pablo Batista and his Latin Jazz Ensemble enthralled over 100 attendees at a jazz concert co-sponsored by the Library Company, Philadelphia Jazz Project, and Free Library of Philadelphia.

Although the exhibition has ended, the accompanying catalog allows the Visual Culture Program project to live on. Designed with different textures of paper and an insert bookmark printed only in Braille, the catalog documents visitors’ experience with Common Touch, the dialogue it evoked, and the collaborations formed to create an exhibition where sight did not predominate. Through Common Touch, the Library Company continued its premier role as a research library at the forefront of creating new ways for our patrons to learn about and touch the history of our collections.

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