*This photo was taken when I viewed the permanent exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnology. However, viewers are not allowed to touch the art.

[Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, exhibitions at The National Museum of Ethnology are postponed until Autumn 2021.]

By Yoko-Sonya

In November 2019, I attended a symposium on the current status and issues of the universal museum in Japan at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan. According to one of the organizers, Associate Professor Kojiro Hirose, the definition of a universal museum is a museum which is designed for a variety of visitors in mind such as children, elderly people, the persons with disabilities and foreign visitors, as well as the development in tangible aspects like equipment and facilities. It was organized by The Universal Museum Research Society which was started in 2006. Their focus is on practical research in historical collections and art appreciation through a sense of touch at museums for everyone, including the visually impaired.

I am very excited to participate in “Seeing by Eyes and by Touches — The Universal Museum Makes this World to be One“,  one of two special tactile exhibitions at the museum that will coincide with the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. The shows are curated by Associate Professor Hirose, who is visually impaired.

This project is a dream come true for me. I have been dreaming about collaborating  with other professionals to create an art scene together.

My name is Yoko-Sonya. I am an artist.

I’ll be honest with you- I’ve never paid much attention or noticed if people who were visually impaired appreciated art at any museums before 2018. I didn’t even think about how they could enjoy art pieces without being able to touch the art or have any support from museums.

All of a sudden, I was very curious, and my brain was filled with many questions- WHY are we not allowed to touch any art pieces at museums? Since WHEN did we attach importance to ‘visually’ appreciate art at most art  galleries and museums? HOW can I make my art show more tactile?  And more importantly, HOW do the visually impaired feel colors and art?

Strike while the iron is hot! The beginning of autumn 2018, I started to learn more about the perspective and culture of the visually impaired, as well as learning braille.  Meanwhile, I prepared art pieces with fabrics that people were able to touch for exhibits at a gallery and a public space in Thailand and Japan in 2019.  The shows were accessible to everyone who wants to share the joy of creativity with others, including people with vision loss. It was not only for people who are visually impaired.  I wanted to make my art universal with a sustainable process.

My first tactile art exhibitions in Thailand and Japan turned out well. However, the audience hesitated to touch the art pieces, even though I explicitly said: You can touch and enjoy it! Some audiences even refused (nicely though) to touch any of the art work at my exhibition.

Physically experiencing something is very often much stronger to understanding it than just seeing pictures.   And yet, we rarely touch or feel things in our daily life nowadays. Perhaps, we are insensitive with a touch and about a touch.

When art pieces are made tactile, the gate of experiencing art is open wider for the visually impaired, who are often excluded from this experience. However, there needs to be a new understanding and a system initiated by museums and art galleries.

The symposium in Osaka was an amazing event. There were many different kinds of professionals, such as workers from museums, professors from universities, teachers from blind schools, high school teachers, social workers, designers, archaeologists, conservators, artists, as well as people who are visually or hearing impaired from all over Japan. Over two days, we all gathered together to share our ideas and to discuss the special tactile exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnology 2020 and how we could develop and establish more universal museums in Japan.

I learned a lot during those two days. It must be not only myself that felt that way. Every moment, I wanted to absorb every detail within me and reflect on my art.

There are still many unresolved issues in each field. In my case, I am struggling to figure out what kind of textile to use and how to make it tactically safe….

One thing that stood out for me  was a speech by an elderly lady who was  a former teacher at a  blind school.  She said:  Do not expect blind people to understand everything sighted people  explain to them with details. It’s just OK that they don’t understand something we see.  There are also many things they understand and feel, and we cannot understand it. Just share what we see and what they feel, and respect it. That is enough.

It could be the same as relationships between different backgrounds, cultures and religions.   For me, getting to know how the visually impaired see this world is perhaps the same as getting to know another culture. Maybe, trying to be open with respect for differences and a curiosity for a new world could be the key to open a gate between the visually impaired and sighted person in a new art.

When I create art, such as for my upcyling art project, I always have a message in mind for my audience. And hopefully they understand my message and act upon it. However, telling people what to do (even if it is good advice), doesn’t lead them to do an action. On the other hand, inviting people to be involved with the solution by experiencing something fun and creating something beautiful will take root in people. Hopefully my art takes on this role. I want the visually impaired to enjoy art at museums! It would be great if both the visually impaired and sighted person come to the museum together and talk about their experiences of art! Because I believe that art is universal.

I am just in the middle of the creative process of  producing artwork for the exhibition. I am very excited about how my art will turn out.

If you are planning to visit Japan this year for the Olympics and the Paralympic games in Tokyo, why don’t you go a little further to Osaka to visit our two special exhibitions running from September to November at the National Museum of Ethnology.

The two special exhibitions:

The Universal Museum: TOUCH! An exhibition of touches.

-Special exhibition in the annex at the National Museum which will be in dim lighting.


Seeing by Eyes and by Touches — The Universal Museum Makes this World to be One.

-Special museum in the main museum building which will be in regular lighting.


Place: The National Museum of Ethnology  in Osaka Japan  – Annex for Special Exhibitions/Special Exhibition space in the main museum building.

Dates: 3 September 2020 〜 1 December 2020

For more information please look on the website: http://www.minpaku.ac.jp/english

Yoko-Sonya received her BA in Ceramic Product Design from Aichi Prefectural University of Art in Japan in 2000. Then, she was a guest student in the MA program in Industrial Design Department Glass and Plastic in Burg Giebichenstein University Of Art and Design, Halle, Germany for 2000-2001. She earned her MA in Ceramic Art and Handicraft from H.D.K. Göteborg University in Sweden in 2007. After graduating, she specialized in slip casting mold and method for manufacturing while working as an artisan at the Art Bronze Casting Sculpture Studio in Malmö, Sweden. At the same time, she blossomed as a conceptual artist. In 2012, she established a fair-trade fashion and accessory brand, “Mhong Tree“, with her partner in Thailand. She participated in the MIT -SOLVE- Global Challenge 2019 -Circular Economy, in the US, with her current art project on upcycling art and fair-trade with local women. In recent years, she participated in art exhibitions and talk shows in Japan on a regular basis. She is currently working on a new art project on tactile art in parallel with upcycling art.

You can view her artwork on her website http://www.yokosonya.com


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