The sense of touch deeply affects us and evokes ancient, visceral sensations. It is the first sense to develop and the last one to leave us, thus an always open expressive and relational possibility. Along with sight, it is the one sense that can grasp the shape of an object and its spatial orientation. But unlike sight, that immediately grasps a form in its entirety, touch is an analytical sense that proceeds its exploration in successive stages, in a temporal development.
I would like to invite you to a short tactile walk, starting from the Museo Omero, a special art museum located in Ancona, Italy.
The uniqueness if this museum consists in the possibility of touching all the art works on display. On the ground floor, there are architectural models and plaster copies in reale size of some of the most important classical sculptures, from ancient Greece to the Renaissance, with many works by Michelangelo; on the first floor, original sculptures of contemporary figurative and informal art.
In this way, art is accessible to blind people and at once this has become a new opportunity of experience for all those who normally use sight to know. At the entrance of the museum, the staff invites “sighted” visitors to walk through the rooms in pairs, alternately wearing a mask to obscure the view and explore the works with touch. Looking at the sculpture after knowing it through hands is a truly amazing experience.
Continuing our walk, the next stop is the tactile forest, an idea of Bruno Munari that is usually loved by children.You can easily build it, just hanging many transparent nylon threads on the ceiling of an empty room and attaching various materials to the threads with clothes pegs. Pieces of fabric, ribbons, shoe laces, pieces of jute and pannolenci, wool, cotton wool, cords, organza strips, doilies and lace, straw, fur scraps, wooden or metal rings, keys , padlocks, belt closures, pieces of bark… Every kind of material suitable to be touched while crossing the forest.
After going out of the wood, our journey leads us to the discovery of tactile books. A book is usually considered a conceptual thing, consisting mainly of words (and sometimes images). However it is also a concrete object and its phisicality plays an important role, even if we are not aware of it. A book communicates through its material, color, size, shape, smell, texture, hardness or softness, weight. Thus a book, before its reading, is an object to be discovered in itself. For some inspiration, you could have a look to “The prebooks” by Bruno Munari: twelve little books in the same squared format (10 X 10 cm), each one made of a different material (paper, cardboard, fabric, transparent plastic, wood) and with a different bindind. Through the pages children can find some surprises – a wooden thread, a button, holes, a drawn insect… Thus, a child is supposed to enjoy the first encounters with a book as it was a very interesting object.
A tactile book is a recommended experience for every age, speciallyteachers, parents, curious adults. In the photos above, you can see some books made by Simona Piovaticci (a pre-school teacher) during my tactile-book workshop for teachers. Some time later, a group of those teachers repeated a similar workshop with parents, who then gave the books to the children. It was a very significant experience, in order to share an educational approach of active learning by making something concrete. From words to action on the matter.
“Today I have a very special thing for you: a book to read keeping closed eyes…”. Children were surprised and amused by my words. We sat around a table, I closed my eyes and solemnly opened the special book. It was made of two cardboard pages with a composition of various materials. While slowly touching these pages, I began to tell a story inspired by the tactile sensations I felt. “I’m going through a forest (crepe paper), the grass stings my bare feet because I lost my shoes… here is a small ice lake (a CD)… I can’t swim, how will I cross it? It’s better to go around it… The chilly fishes live in the lake, they are always very hungry”. After the story, I gave the book to one child at a time, inviting them to “read” it. “Would you like to create a book that you can read with your hands and closed eyes?” They all agreed.
I had already prepared several materials, neatly organized on a table, ready to be touched, chosen and eventually cut in different shapes and sizes : fabrics, papers, plastics, ribbons, threads, small objects. It was a small group of five children, from three to five years old. Each child was given two cardboard pages where placing the materials. Once the composition was ready, children glued the materials on the cardboard, using vinylic glue and a brush. Finally we joined the two pages with adhesive tape on the external-central side (taking into account the thickness of the materials). Everyone “read” the pages of the books, touching the materials and inventing stories, evoking images.
And now, let’s go from a workshop to a simple game born by chance, while my mother liked to touch some stones I gathered near the sea. They were all similar but so different from each other, with their own personality. Here’s how to play:
- the stones are placed on a table
- one of the players closes his/her eyes and receives a stone (chosen by another player) that she/he will have to explore carefully with only hands
- once the exploration is finished, the stone is put back in its place
- the player opens his eyes and, looking at the stones, tries to guess which onee he touched
Of course, the more the stones are similar, the more details become significant… What other materials could we use to play? In how many other ways can stones be placed on the table? Or maybe on the floor?
Some properties of materials, such as weight, solidity, temperature, are exclusively perceptible through touch. The infinite qualities of the surface of the materials, such as smoothness or roughness, porosity, graininess and all possible physical textures, are also perceptible through the view but belong in a privileged way to tactile perception. The sense of touch helps us to perceive tiny details and differences, to enrich the exploration of the material world. Touch has got its own memory. I wish you will keep it always alive.