Story at the MNAC (National Museum)
S. starts to explore the first sculpture: Lucrecia, of the artist Damià Campeny.
So close to it, she looks tinier than ever. Rather than of a grown woman, her hands seem to be the ones of a child.
I decide no to overload her with all the information I have prepared for putting her into context with this piece of art, because with her hands alone she now needs all her concentration to try to explore the bronze figure that stands in front of her. The latex gloves she is wearing are slightly too big and do wrinkle whilst she touches, with the help of V. (her intervener), one of the arms. The existing museum norms do oblige to touch this piece without movement, so that her interpretation of the figure is necessarily following step by step the arms, the hair, the face…
“What do you think it is, S.? A man or a woman?”
“I don’t know”, is the answer by signs.
I try to make V. clear to let her touch the breasts; this will help her out of doubt. But I’m wrong. For S., her fingers do transmit something round and outstanding, but she does not achieve to understand which part of the human body she is touching. V. now brings her hand back to her own face, then to her neck and finally to her own breast. And now she understands immediately: this is a woman!
The intervener’s job is fantastic; where one stagnates or doubts, V. knows how to go on. The intervener V. herself is deaf. Somewhat later I come to the conclusion that a deaf person is the most suited intervener for deafblind people; her command of the sign language is impressive.
And I say to myself that, although we told S. that we were going to touch a human figure, the fact that it is made of bronze does not help at all to recognize at once its characteristics, particularly when one cannot slide the fingers through it. Indeed, touching a woman’s breast has nothing to do with the cold and rigid reproduction in bronze.
We continue by exploring the backside of the sculpture, although the proper pedestal makes it impossible to reach the stomach, thighs and upper part of the legs.
Then we decide to continue the visit by going to the figure of Cleopatra, represented by a lifeless body of someone who just died from a bite by a snake. She is sitting in a chair, with her head inclined, her arms fallen down the body and her legs somewhat separated.
S. is touching the snake, and V. explains her that Cleopatra died from the snake’s venom. I’m not sure that she understands it, but anyhow S. utters as a signal that she more or less follows the lesson.
We go upstairs.
Whilst we cross the oval hall, S. signs to V. telling her that she has been in the museum before. How can she know? Before planning the visit, I urged V. to ask S. if she has visited one in the past, and the answer was “no”. When we then asked her if she had an idea of what a museum is, she used symbols related with saints and paintings. It seems to be that she has a general idea of what it means, but she could be confused with a church. Anyhow, even if she was there before, no doubt she could not have touched anything and consequently her experience must have been confused. At least, that’s what I think. Nonetheless, S. continuously surprises me by what she knows.
Before we arrive at the next floor, S. wants us to tell her how many more sculptures she is going to explore. Upstairs, she faces the second piece: another nude body of a female. It’s Eva. This time, the pedestal is offering a better access for exploration. This time S. can closer approach the sculpture and since it is made of marble, she is allowed to touch it without wearing the gloves. Anyhow, still without sliding. Besides, S. is so cautious, that it is impossible that she could damage the figure.
After a few minutes, T. (an employee of the museum who wished to be present during the visit), decides to help her with the exploration. It is an emotional experience to watch how T. is guiding her hands. Their fingers are sliding over the piece, allowing a continuous lecture of it. Then V. explains to her the pose of Eva, by achieving that S. adapts her own body approximately to the same pose of the one of the sculpture.
Next, we tell S. that she is going to touch the body of a male. I think she likes the idea, because when we first go to a different hall in order to avoid to coincide with another group of visitors, S. is making a couple of times the signs “man” and “touch”.
We now come at the piece Cap de Montserrat of Juli González. We explain S. that it is woman who suffered the terror of war, and that’s why she is screaming. She is furious, because she has lost her son, hungry and grieved.
I ask V. to find out if S. does know what “war” means. Her answer in the form of the sign “France” reinforces the idea that as a matter of fact, she knows more than I did expect.
V. tells her about Franco. “Yes, yes, Franco. Franquism. Many dead people”, is her answer.
The head of Montserrat is covered with a kerchief. “There is no hair”, is the reaction of S. Of course, she only “sees” what her fingers do tell her. I ask V. to do something similar with the cap she was wearing this morning: “your head was covered with a cap, but nonetheless your hair still was there”. Another theme to give a good thought. And as a matter of fact, indeed Montserrat does not have hair, just because the artist did not reflect it. Now I’m facing the doubt if I have to explain what the sculpture is representing to the visitor, or how it was really made. The second option I don’t think it opportune for today’s session.
Whilst we are crossing the different halls, V. goes on telling S. what the contents are: paintings, doors, furniture, display cabinets with vases…
S. “talks” a lot, but she does not ask many questions. Almost no questions at all.
Personally, I understand very little of what she tries to make clear. I sign to V. and V. at her turn communicates with S. Fortunately, V. understands everything I “tell” her by my signs. She is also reading my lips. I’m speaking and making signs simultaneously, but I don’t know if my sign language is good enough. And when S. is “talking”, V. does translate everything for me.
Finally, we arrive at the sculpture of the nude male: Els primers freds, of Miquel Blay. Here we change the intervener; it’s now J.’s turn, a perfectly hearing person.
J. starts by explaining to S. the difference between the chest or breast of a man and the one of a woman. In order to provide her with a reference, J. lets her touch his breast. Exploring the piece, S. stays with the bottom of the figure. The figure itself is slightly bent over, which makes that the vertebras are quite pronounced and perfectly suited for an exploration and the recognition of an important part of the human skeleton with the help of the fingers.
S. explores the figure of the child at the nude man’s side. “Their bottoms are different”, she is making us clear. Perfect. The wrinkles and respective sizes have told her the difference.
In the workshop we have planned to reshape a piece of clay. Contrary to what the coordinators of the association have told me, she does not seem to recognize the material. She does not dare to pick it up with her hand. She first touches it carefully. “It’s hard”, she says. I cut it, in order to achieve a piece which she can take into her hands. Then I help her to press it, to make long rolls, to smash it up, to make a print with her hand and fingers. She begins to like it. We reproduce the snake of Cleopatra. I try to explain what and where the mouth is, by guiding her hand first in touch with the snake, and then to my own mouth. I do the same with the tongue, and yes: I put her finger in my mouth. She does not seem to care. At the end surges a magic moment when S. discovers she can change from a plane piece of clay, that to a tablet, and then to a hollow cylinder and again to a small ball. Her face, showing a big surprise, causes me great satisfaction. I just have given her something to think and to rethink.
I now stop the session. S. seems satisfied, or that is what I interpret. Although her face and body use to be little expressive, she is making signs of “happy” when V. asks her if she has enjoyed the visit. Fantastic!