Sometimes, you wonder why something hasn’t been done before. Sometimes, your realize things haven’t been done for a good reason.
Sometimes that good reason isn’t good enough.
Many museums like to offer sensory kits – usually with fidgets and tools. But the Eiteljorg, where I have been doing my Museum Studies Master’s internship, did something a little different a few years back by offering sensory bags with a twist. For their Jingle Rails exhibit, the Eiteljorg developed sensory bags where the materials were those that were being featured in the Jingle Rails exhibit itself. This, of course, was intriguing to me. One of the largest potential problems for people with autism is the lack of touch at many museums, especially art museums, and that so many museum objects simply can’t be touched for both the safety of guests and for the objects.
Why had nobody done it before?
So, I developed what I am terming “sensory art.” Essentially, this is very simple art, focused on providing a variety of textures to compensate for the art itself not being able to have direct interaction with the objects.
The result is paintings that can be easily cleaned by staff, while preserving their texture, as well as clay art that guests are able to touch and can be easily cleaned.
If you’re curious about how I put it together, see below for more information!
Part 1: Theory and Practice
The first step in developing this concept came out of what other museums were doing. In my earliest days in the program, I was able to connect to a number of museums who were doing excellent work to include people with autism. Those that included bags included a number of sensory tools – information on which I have been able to use for a number of projects. In developing the sensory bag kit, I used this to develop the non-art accoutrements: fidget spinners, Whatzit fidget tools, tangle texture tools, stress balls, cheap sunglasses, ear plugs, and a museum map gave me a variety of sensory inputs and potential options to help people with autism better enjoy their experience. Most importantly, save the disposable earplugs and museum maps, all could be very easily treated with Clorox wipes or Lysol – incredibly important with the COVID-19 pandemic.
This left the question of art. As any artist knows, deciding what to do is always the toughest step.
In this case, I went to the galleries for inspiration.
Throwing away my museum professional reservations, I went into the galleries to think about something I had never considered: touching the art in a museum.
I looked through the art with the eye of someone who would be seeking textural difference. What would someone want to touch the most? A number of art pieces came into mind, and I recorded which pieces, and which textures were intriguing to me from this perspective.
Part 2: Making Art
Then it came to the question of actually doing it. I am not an artist, but I am a researcher. To the internet I went, investigating artistry techniques to put texture into painting. I settled on five primary techniques for this:
1. A thin coat of paint to let the canvas’s texture shine through
2. A thick coat of paint to let the texture of the paint’s smoothness shine through
3. Scraping away sections of paint with a plastic knife I happened to have on hand to provide contrast between the canvas and paint itself
4. Putting down a thick coat of paint, and using the brush to sort of “pull up” on the excess paint, creating a textured feel
5. Not painting at all, leaving bare canvas
This was to give a number of separate textures. I also decided to use a textured piece of clay art I had previously made to give an element of three-dimensional work, as well as putting the final pieces in a frame to give guests their own frame to touch instead of an object that at times is as important for understanding art as the painting itself.
The next step, once planning was done, was to paint. I decided to use acrylic paints in purple, blue, green, red, and gold. The cooler colors have been vaguely theorized to be calming to people with autism, and, more importantly, I like the colors personally. To give a variety of textures in one painting, as well as decrease the size of the painting to be able to be used for this purpose, I used a ruler to segment a canvas into four quarters, with diagonal lines running across them. Then, I set to painting, color by color.
The end result was beautiful.
I had to destroy it.
I took a Xacto knife to the rear of the paintings, cutting it out of the frame first, then into four sections. Once this was done, I put one section into a frame, and celebrated: I had made sensory art.
Part 3: Cleaning Complications
At least, until my mentor told me that I would need to make sure they could be cleaned. That’s when it hit me: the reason nobody else was doing this was because cleaning sensory art like this would destroy the art. This was confirmed by the application of a Clorox wipe to the first piece of art I created, effectively ruining it texturally. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to regroup and figure out what to do.
So I did an experiment.
I determined that a spray protective coating would be the most effective for protecting the art and preserving the texture. The Eiteljorg had three on hand, so it was time to dust off my science fair chops and run an experiment. I was off to find out what coating would make my sensory art a cleanable reality.
I cut one of my frame-sized canvases into three parts, and sprayed each with Kamar Varnish, Low Odor Clear Finish, and Clear Polyurethane coatings that we had on hand. I then waited for it to dry, and touched each painting with a comparison to the non-finished painting. The clear polyurethane was superior to the other coats, but I determined that the others would still be acceptable. But, preserving the texture was only one part of the equation. The paintings had to be cleanable.
Phase two of the experiment was started by cutting each painting strip into three parts, to text three cleaning methods: Lysol dual action wipes, Clorox spray applied to a paper towel first and then to the paintings, and for the doomsday scenario, Clorox spray applied directly to the paintings.
The wipes ended up with the result of the Kamar varnish losing some of the color, but very little, with the other protectants losing none.
The Clorox on towels ended up causing the varnish to lose a bit more color, with the low odor clear finish losing about the same amount of color as the first test, and the clear polyurethane losing none once more.
For the “doomsday” scenario of spraying the painting with Clorox spray directly, all three lost some color, with the clear polyurethane losing the least.
The end result was that the clear polyurethane coating was the best for this purpose. It was then also applied to the clay art.
While this will need to be tested, the first conclusion would be this is a success. The art has texture, and can be touched. It provides a number of textures and also offers more traditional methods of stimulation through the additional sensory tools in the bag. While evaluation will need to be done on this once community partners can be found, I think this is an excellent way for any museum to develop programs for people with autism.