Creating Meaningful Exhibitions for Visitors…And Staff

Andreas Heinecke, creator of “Dialogue in the Dark”

Andreas Heinecke’s family has a complex background.  His mother’s family was victims of the Holocaust while his father’s family was supporters of the Nazi regime.  These opposing connections to the regime led Heinecke to ask two questions: “What is the process of marginalization and exclusion?” and “How and why do we judge people as inferior or superior?”

Heinecke’s quest to answer these questions gained momentum while working with a German radio station.  One assignment involved creating a rehabilitation program for a colleague who had lost his eyesight in a car accident.  At first, Heinecke struggled to develop the program, but soon realized that this was due to his own lack of perspective about living with a disability.  To his surprise, Heinecke’s colleague taught him ways that he dealt with his impairment and, eventually, how to cope with fundamental changes in life. [1]

This experience led to the creation of “Dialogue in the Dark,” a traveling exhibition designed to stimulate conversations and understanding between people without visual impairments and people with visual impairments.  Guides with visual impairments lead groups of eight through a completely darkened space.  Scents, sounds, textures, temperatures, and wind replicate the characteristics of familiar environments, including a park and café.  The visitors must use a white cane, their non-visual senses, and the guide’s assistance to navigate the spaces.  In essence, the one-hour tour acquaints visitors with the everyday experience of millions of people with visual impairments.

A group waits to enter “Dialogue in the Dark”

Since its introduction in 1988, over 4 million people have experienced “Dialogue in the Dark.” [2]   Testimony from visitors underscore the positive impact of “Dialogue in the Dark” on those who have no visual impairments.  A survey of comment books that accompany the exhibition found that 80 percent of the visitors who wrote in the books said that the exhibition helped improve their attitudes about disabilities in general.

The exhibition is not, however, merely for the benefit of the visitors.  During the work with his colleague, Heinecke learned that only fifteen percent of Germany’s population living with a disability had a job.  Therefore, he developed “Dialogue in the Dark” as a way of providing jobs for and empowering those with visual impairments.  The exhibition has created jobs for over 6,000 people with some visual impairment. [3]  One guide who led a tour said, “For the first time, I was paid for something that was useful, not just answering the phone.  [I was] paid to give something to others, give emotions, experience.” [4]

At the end of the exhibition, visitors are invited to ask the guide any questions about living with a disability.  These exchanges challenge the way people perceive disability because the guides assume an authoritative position.  Furthermore, by learning from someone with a disability, visitors come face-to-face with their own assumptions about how they define “normal” or “able.”  Just as his assignment at the radio station transformed the way he viewed disabilities, Heinecke hopes that these discussions at the exhibition’s end can turn marginalization and pity into respect.

Guides from the Buenos Aires, Argentina exhibition

When considering museum programs or exhibitions that address disabilities, I immediately thought of “Touch Tours” that allow visually-impaired visitors to experience museum collections and exhibitions through their sense of touch.  But, Heinecke’s work demonstrates that developing meaningful exhibitions and programming does not begin and end with the visitor.  “Dialogue in the Dark” should serve as a model for museums hoping to diversify their staffs with people with disabilities.  Ultimately, hiring people with disabilities will allow museums to develop exhibitions and programming that stimulates understanding between those living with and without disabilities.






2 thoughts on “Creating Meaningful Exhibitions for Visitors…And Staff

  1. I love this: “For the first time, I was paid for something that was useful, not just answering the phone. [I was] paid to give something to others, give emotions, experience.” What an amazing task, turning something that was a determent to a marketable job skill!

  2. This is really great and I think useful in so many different ways. Loss of vision is something that I think everyone will deal with either as one loses their own vision or as a friend/relative/caregiver to one who has vision loss. I really like the idea that “these discussions at the exhibition’s end can turn marginalization and pity into respect.” That is a great idea and goal.

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