Ellen Lupton, co-curator of the exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, provides a descriptive audio tour through two dozen projects in the exhibition, with step-by-step guidance for visitors with blindness or low vision. Approximately 30 minutes.
Part 1: Getting Started
Part 2: Shaping Sound
Part 3: Tactile Library
Part 4: Wrapping Up
(Also available on Soundcloud).
PART ONE: GETTING STARTED
Welcome to Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. I’m Ellen Lupton. I helped organize the exhibition The Senses: Design Beyond Vision. This descriptive audio tour was created especially for visitors with blindness or low vision. This tour features two dozen projects to touch, smell, or hear.
I’ve just gotten off the elevator onto the third floor of the Cooper Hewitt. I’m standing in front of a monitor that explains our Accessible Exhibition Design (0101) features.
Hanging to the right of the monitor is a handset. Similar handsets are located throughout the galleries, wherever a video is on view. The handsets are T-coil enabled, and every video has audio description. Under the monitor is a long, horizontal label explaining how our label system works. It is located about 30 inches off the ground. Every label in the exhibition is installed at this height. On each label, the title of the project and a unique number is printed in visible text and in braille. To learn about ANY object in the exhibition, download our accessible smartphone app and type in the project number. Download at CooperHewitt.org/channel/senses.
Let’s start the tour! In the first part of the tour, I’ll bring you into the gallery and describe six projects for you to experience.
To leave the elevator area, I turn to my right, away from the sound of the monitor. I turn right right again to enter the main exhibition space. The first room is about 20 feet square, with ceilings that are ten feet high. Beyond this room, a long central gallery stretches ahead about 80 feet. Imagine a big shoe box marked into three long zones: one in the middle, and two on either side. Curving room dividers lead from the central zone to spaces on the left and right. We’ll be moving in and out of these spaces on our tour, making a big loop counterclockwise through the galleries.
In the first room, I turn to my left to find a small pedestal holding a plastic pump container of Ritual Cleanse Hand Sanitizer (0102). This custom-made product contains naturally antimicrobial essential oils, including geranium and lavender. I like cleaning my hands before entering and leaving the exhibition, since there is so much here to touch.
I continue past the hand cleanse station. On my left, I reach out and touch a wall covered with black synthetic fur. This piece is the Tactile Orchestra (0103). As I stroke it with my hands, I hear the sound of different string instruments. I can lean my whole body against it to play different sounds, and more people can make sound with me.
I’m now turning away from the furry wall and crossing over to the other side of the gallery, around 20 feet. Here, six low white pillars glow with light. The pillars are about 10 inches square and 30 inches high. This piece is called Dialect for a New Era (0104). The top of each pillar is inscribed with a text naming a unique emotion. Here’s what the first says, “The feeling for someone once loved but no longer.” This text also appears in braille on the back of each of pillar. On the right side of the pillar is a button. When I press the button, the pillar glows more brightly, and a delicate scent is released. I bend down to smell it. Think about it. In daily life, we often associate a smell with a special place or person, and that smell becomes a part of our memory. This piece invites us to build new memories.
After exploring some of the pillars, I turn around and walk back past the pillar installation. To the left of the first pillar is a doorway.
I pass through the doorway and enter one of the side galleries that runs parallel to the central hall. Curving wall dividers break up the gallery into smaller spaces. The dividers are made of metal frames woven with blue and green thread.
I enter a small curving blue space about 10 feet in diameter. Hanging from above are 150 snowballs made out of wool. This installation is called Snow Storm (0604). I reach out and touch a snowball, bringing it close and gently smelling it. The snowballs have a scent inspired by memories of winter, such as wool mittens and frozen trees. A tiny chime inside each snowball makes a delicate sound.
I leave the Snow Storm and turn to my left. The curving wall is now behind me. I’m facing two black wooden chairs and a large black box with a pillow on top. This project is called Seated Catalog of Feelings (0602). I sit down in one of the chairs. To my right, a headset is hanging on the wall right behind the chair. When I put on the headset, I hear a woman’s voice naming a series of strange, impossible experiences, such as “being inflated into a balloon animal.” Vibrations are coming through the chair along my legs and back. The vibrations are designed to match the funny experience described in the headset. The piece cycles through dozens of different experiences, each with its own vibration. The text is also projected on the floor in front of me, so that someone who doesn’t want to use the headsets or can’t hear the messages can experience the piece visually. A visitor in a wheelchair, or any visitor, can pick up the pillow and hug it for a similar experience.
I walk away from the vibrating chair installation. The curving blue wall partition is on my left. I move into a brighter, more open space. I’m standing in front of a large tabletop display called Pulse, Drift, Ping, Echo (0501). This artwork is made of hand-blown glass. In front of me, the left half of the table is covered with a big plexi box; I can’t touch the objects inside. The right half of the table is open, however, presenting objects that I can touch. The piece is making a beautiful sound. I listen carefully and hear delicate pinging sounds, like a cocktail party without the people. Tiny metal spheres are rolling around inside a dozen or so glass vessels. An electromagnet installed under the table is causing the little spheres to roll around and ping against the glass. To the right of the plexi box, part of the table is open and covered with textured carpet. I carefully reach out and feel pieces of hand-blown glass, which are attached with wire to the carpet. The pieces are curvy and organic. They feel like smooth, hard body parts or the curving spines of undersea creatures. I can feel a gentle pulsation passing through the glass from beneath the table.
PART TWO: SHAPING SOUND
In this part of the tour, I’ll describe seven projects about how we experience sound.
To leave the glass display, I continue past the right edge of the table for about eight feet. To my left is a table presenting a series of displays about sound and touch.
The first piece is Vibeat (0406). This music player translates sound into a vibration you can feel on your skin. Go to the right end of the table to find Vibeat. Attached to the tabletop are a small push button and two round, black pods, about the diameter of a soda can. A headset hangs on the front of the table to the left of the pods. I put on the headset and then press the button to play some music. Now, I gently rest my hands on the pods, and I can feel the music as a vibration. I’m hearing the music in the headset, and feeling that same sound vibrate through my palms.
I move around to the other side of the table, where three more sound projects are presented. The first, called Sound Spheres (0402), is located at the left edge of the table. Two blue spheres mounted to the table are the size of small melons. I gently touch the a sphere. It is covered with horizontal ridges, and each ridge has peaks and valleys. The peaks are sharp, so be careful. The sphere is a three-dimensional translation of music. The horizontal ridges represent time, and the peaks and valleys depict the loudness of the sound. Attached to the table in front of each sphere is a handset that lets you hear the music.
The next display on this table, moving to my right, is Laba Speakers (0403). There are four buttons near the front of the table. When I hold down a button, music plays. The music is coming from four small white speakers sitting on a low shelf in the center of the table. The speakers are fragile, so I can’t touch them. Each speaker is made with a different material, such as smooth plastic or soft wool, so the music sounds different when it plays from each speaker. Press each of the four buttons and listen for the change in sound.
To my right is the last exhibit on this table. This piece is Ultrahaptics (0404), demonstrating a new technology that uses ultrasonic sound waves to create tactile images on your skin. Attached to the table is a box, about 6 inches tall, that is open on the front. When I place my hands inside the box—towards the top, not too low—I can feel air vibrating on my palms. The vibrations are created by a grid of ultrasonic sound waves. This sound can’t be heard by human ears. The ultrasonic pattern is designed to feel like bubbles popping against my skin. Shown on a video screen behind the box is a live animation of bubbles rising against my hands. The image reinforces the tactile effect.
I turn around and walk away from the table, about three or four paces. I hear some music playing. The music becomes more intense when I stand in a certain position on a small, round carpet. A spotlight is shining on the carpet. When I occupy the spotlight, the music is especially clear. It is coming from a speaker located directly across from me, about 10 feet away. This installation is called Sound Scene (0401). The speaker resembles an old fashioned Victrola music player, with a big round white dish mounted on a sleek wooden box with metal legs. The speaker sends sound to a specific location in space. When I leave the spotlit area, the sound gets quiet.
Now I turn to my left, leaving the side gallery and entering the central gallery. After a few paces, I turn left again, where I find a small pedestal surrounded by a curving partition wall. The pedestal has two buttons on top, near the front edge, and a headset hanging from the right side. This piece, called Alarm Fatigue (0202), presents two different sound compositions based on the sound of hospitals. I put on the headset. I press the first button and hear the chaotic, unpleasant sound of a typical hospital emergency room. Terrible! Now I press the second button and hear the soothing, peaceful sound of hospitals in the future. Much better! Gentle tones occupy the background. A patient’s vital functions have been translated into lovely musical elements that never sound urgent or scary. A voiceover explains how the system works.
I turn around. The Alarm Fatigue exhibit is behind me. I cross over to the other side of the central gallery, about 10 feet. I’m inside another small, curved, semi-enclosed space listening to a piece called Portal_Soundscapes (0201). The sounds, which are coming from above, were recorded in seven different cities around the world. Each recording transports me to a different place with a unique sonic environment. A voiceover tells me where I am.
PART THREE: TACTILE LIBRARY
I will describe seven tactile designs in this part of the tour.
I turn around and leave Portal_Soundscapes; the sound is behind me. I turn left and proceed to a table called Tactile Library (0300), presenting projects created for and with people who have low vision or blindness.
The first exhibit on this table, at the left edge, is the Smithsonian Institution Audio Tactile Map (0301). 3D models of museums in Washington D.C. are attached to a tactile map layered onto a computer screen. If I tap a building, I hear its name. If I tap twice, I hear more information. I can also trace a sonic path along the textured map.
Moving to the right, I find the Tactile Picture Books Project (0302). This organization creates open-source, 3D books that can be printed on any 3D printer. Presented here are three pages from a popular children’s book called Penguin’s Big Adventure. Each page of the book has a tactile illustration and a braille caption. The first page depicts Penguin and his map. The second page depicts three different textures that Penguin encounters in his adventure. The last page shows an igloo made of blocks of ice, and below it, a whale spouting water.
The last display on this side of the table presents two different tactile wrist watches. First, we find the Bradley Element eOne Timepiece (0303), a watch with a tactile metal dial. A small, round ball travles in a groove on the face of the watch, aligning with the tactile number markings to indicate minutes. Another ball bearing travels around the outside of the dial to indicate the hour.
Next to the Bradley element is the Dot Watch (0304). This watch has a dynamic braille pin display. It shows the time in braille or in a tactile numeric system for people who don’t read braille. The Dot Watch can also receive braille text messages. This is the first braille smartwatch. A video mounted next to the watch has more information about this technology; use the handset to hear audio description of the video.
I move around to the other side of the table, where I find three more tactile exhibits. The Braille Magazine Layout (0305) is a tactile print mounted to the table. It is bright red. A grid of black dots covers the surface, and a poem is printed in braille and in visible English text. The poem was written by Vincent Bijlo, a Dutch magician and writer, who is blind. An original printed edition of the braille magazine is protected inside a clear plexi case.
Moving to my right, I find two tactile prints from the TMAP Tactile Mapping System (0306). Two panels are presented here, each the size of a standard US letterhead. The first panel is a key. The second panel is a tactile map showing a grid of streets in New York City. The TMAP system was developed by Joshua Miele, a scientist and designer who is blind. He worked with the San Francisco LightHouse for the Blind to create an online mapping system that can quickly create a map of any neighborhood in the world. This map is the neighborhood around Cooper Hewitt. The dot at the center of the map is the museum.
The last exhibit on this table is the Elia Frame Tactile Writing System (0307). This tactile writing system is an alternative to braille. The square-shaped characters are based closely on the roman alphabet. They are easier to learn for people who lose their sight later in life.
PART FOUR: WRAPPING UP
I will conclude our tour with nine projects that involve many different senses working together.
I’m turning away from the Tactile Library table and moving leftward along another curving, woven wall. I arrive at an exhibit called Scent Fountain (1401). In front of me is a pedestal with a ridged, textured top. I run my fingers lightly across the ridged surface. On the left side of the pedestal, the ridges feel curvy and smooth. On the right side, the ridges become sharp and jagged. Scented air flows through tiny holes in the ridged surface. I bend down to smell. The scent on the soft, curvy side is called Volatile Marilyn. This fresh, clean scent is inspired by Marilyn Monroe and her billowing white dress. The scent on the jagged side is called Fear, inspired by an underground torture chamber in London. It smells dark, cold, and sharp.
I turn around to leave the Scent Fountain. Across the gallery, I hear a woman’s voice coming from the Sensory Theater (1500). The theater is an open space, roughly 20 feet square. A large video projection fills the back wall. The woman’s voice provides audio description for a series of short animations and films that interpret different sensations visually and with sound. In the center of theater are two low benches. I sit down on the bench to the right. A handset is installed to the right of this bench, allowing me to hear the audio description more clearly.
After listening to some videos, I stand up, walk around the bench, and return to the central gallery. The woman’s voice is behind me. I turn to my left. After about ten feet, I encounter a pedestal against the left wall of the gallery. On the pedestal is Ostrich Pillow (0204). This pillow is designed to be pulled over a person’s head like a mask, for napping. The pillow is attached to a mannequin head. I touch and pinch the pillow. It is filled with tiny beads, which have a crunchy sound and feel. The piece covers the face of the mannequin, with an opening where the mouth and nose would be. The eyes are covered! At the top are two openings big enough to put your hands inside. This pillow is designed to shut out sound and light, creating a comfortable, portable way to nap while putting your head down on a desk or table and tucking your hands inside.
I continue moving leftward, walking through the central gallery. (I can hear the urban sounds of Portal_Soundscapes on my right.) After about twenty feet, I turn right into another side gallery. Directly in front of me is a large table surrounded by a curving woven wall. On the right side of the table sit five glass domes. These pieces are called Emerging Objects (1201). Inside each dome is a dish, bowl, or pot. These vessels have been 3D printed out of different kinds of food: sugar, wine, grape skins, curry powder, coffee, and tea. On top of each glass dome is a small round opening for smelling the products inside. I bend down and smell the different objects.
Lined up along the other side of the table are five objects whose texture resembles a knitted sweater. These are called Loopy Tiles (1202). Each one is shaped like a barrel vault or a Quonset hut: rounded on the top, and flat at the bottom. They are 3D printed out of different materials, such as ceramic or plastic. The knitted texture is the same, but the material is different, so each one feels different when I touch it. As I move from right to left along the table, the first two materials are smooth and shiny. The third one is rough. The last two are made from soft plastic.
As I turn around to leave this area, the curving woven wall is on my right. Now I’m entering a larger, more open space, roughly 20 x 20 feet. This space is near the exit of the exhibition. There are three walls here with exhibits attached to them, and a group of chairs in the middle.
On the wall to my left are three large panels that extend from floor to ceiling. The panels are covered with wallpaper made from real rose petals. Come close and smell the roses! This material, called Organoid (1203), has a deep pink color and a rough, grainy texture.
In the middle of the room are five plastic chairs in different colors. These are the Tip Ton Chairs (0606). I sit down in a yellow chair. It has an angled base, kind of like a rocking chair, that lets it tilt forward or backward. The chair is designed to help students feel more active at school. A student can lean forward when working and lean back when listening to the teacher.
I stand up and continue past the chairs. I find a long countertop running along the gallery wall that is opposite the rose-petal wallpaper. I will conclude this descriptive tour with two projects displayed here.
The first project uses a video and two tactile graphics to explain a system of textured sidewalks, called Tactile City (1303). This proposal was created by students and faculty at the Cooper Union here in New York City. While tactile walkways have been used in other countries, including Japan, this proposal uses unique textures to point out features along the street, such as a trash can, signage, and entrances to buildings. The walkway also guides people through temporary construction barriers, which are a common nuisance in New York City.
To the right is the last project in this tour. Shown here are elements from the architectural design process for the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco (1304). The LightHouse interior was designed by Chris Downey, an architect who is blind, with Mark Cavagnero Architects and Arup, an engineering firm. The first part of the display is a video explaining how Chris Downey worked with a sound engineer to plan how the LightHouse interiors would sound. The video helps us understand architecture as audible form. Use the handset for listening.
To the right of the video are two tactile floor plans with raised lines and a braille key. These floor plans are similar to those used by sighted and non-sighted architects to share their design process. Moving to the right, the countertop ends and a wall begins. Mounted to the wall are four prototypes for hand railings designed for the main staircase inside the LightHouse. I grip each railing sample with my hand. Moving from left to right, I compare three prototypes and the final design. Each one has a different shape and feel.
Mounted on the floor in front of the railing prototypes is a low pedestal, about six inches tall and ten inches deep. Four prototypes for stair treads are mounted to this low pedestal. I use a mobility cane to explore the different stair treads; the cane is attached to the wall to the right of the display. Chris Downey helped develop these different stair treads, seeking one that would feel right with the cane, providing appropriate audio and tactile feedback.
To leave the exhibition, I follow back along the countertop. At the end of the countertop, I turn left towards the exit. A wall is on my right with a door to a staff room and a staff elevator. I continue to the end of this wall and turn right. Here is the public elevator. Restrooms are on the ground floor, and the museum cafe, shop, and exit are on the first floor.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour. There’s so much more to explore in The Senses: Design Beyond Vision. You can learn about every project by using our iOS app, our web-based exhibition site, and our free ebook. Download these resources at CooperHewitt.org/channel/senses.