Art for everyone

Austin museum's inclusive new tour encourages visitors to please touch

Austin museum's inclusive new tour encourages visitors to please touch

Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum
The Umlauf now offers an inclusive tour for the visually impaired. Photo by Studio Uma

It’s been more than 30 years since the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum opened to the public, but its mission has stayed the same: to provide educational experiences that encourage the appreciation of art.

On any given day, Austinites from young to old meander throughout the peaceful gardens, guided by the orchestrated ebbs and flows molded of alabaster, marble, and brass. Tours are always popular, as well as events like Family Day, Umlauf After Dark, and summer camps. But recently, the Umlauf expanded its mission to make art more available to everyone with the creation of touch tours for the blind and visually impaired.

Director of programs Sarah Athans began working at the Umlauf in November 2017, and has since forged a relationship with the Texas School for the Blind, which has historically partnered with the museum on an internship program for six weeks during the summer.

In working with the school and its students, Athans began to recognize the need to find inclusive ways for everyone to experience art, regardless of ability. “When I started, touch tours weren’t consistent ,and I didn’t feel like we were offering the best we could be, especially because all of our sculptures are already touchable,” Athans says.

Umlauf had an opportunity that most museums didn’t, Athans says, but was lacking the necessary tools. So, she reached out to the Texas School for the Blind to organize general sensitivity training on how to work with different groups of people. Together with funding from the Texas Commission for the Arts, the program quickly came together.

“We walked their outreach coordinator, Scott, and their art teacher through a tour, and they followed along and took notes,” explains Athans. The pair offered suggestions and brainstormed alongside Athans for things she may not have considered. 

“We have some sculptures that you can’t just walk up to,” she says. “There are some things you don’t think about [as a sighted person] unless you have an expert there to point them out.”

From there, the Umlauf received a guide of best practices on how to best update their tours and began hands-on training with volunteer docents.

“One really impactful thing we learned is how you physically guide someone,” she recalls. “Moving someone’s hand to touch something can be aggressive and can frighten someone without sight. Instead, you are supposed to guide them with your hand under their own.”

During tours with children, many of the guides already encourage their groups to touch the sculptures, especially some of Athan’s favorites: the animal sculptures.

“The way Umlauf textured the fur and the hides is so interesting,” she says. “Kids find it fun and compelling and it’s a highlight of the tour.”

Another thing that has changed is how volunteers choose to format their walks, either talking about the sculpture before walking up to it or making it more of an exploratory experience by allowing each guest to feel around first. With an array of permanent statues in the museum’s collection and ever-changing exhibits, there is plenty to learn from an Umlauf touch tour.

The Umlauf is currently offering touch tours by request only, but Athans says they hope to make them a regular occurrence for all interested. Because of how popular the museum already is, she is confident that there will be more to come in the future, including tours for those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

The Umlauf was founded to enrich the lives of all Austinites, and over the years it has continued to do just that.