As the DMA’s senior curator of arts and design, Sarah Schleuning masterminded “Speechless: Different by Design,” a new exhibition that bucks the status quo

Not only are there no signs that prohibit contact, but there are also videos that encourage participation. For her, the idea was to create an immersive space that posits how art—and the galleries and museums that house it—doesn’t necessarily have to depend on reading labels to get a message across. There are other senses, particularly touch and sound, that stimulate brain activity; that are better suited for those who may not have the capabilities to fully comprehend something solely on optics.

“Everything we’ve done was always about the least conventional choice,” she says. “Like, what happens if we try not to use words; what happens if we don’t do interpretive text, but use pictures or videos; what happens if we make sensory, deep impression spaces somewhere in the museum.”

This intense focus on new forms of communication came when she saw her then two-year-old son, who has a motor planning disorder, have difficulty speaking. Schleuning expressed how he was completely uninterested in words, and being part of a visually industry that relies on speech, she started to think of alternatives to transmitting ideas. “It just changed the way I thought about things,” she says. “I really wanted to explore how to use art in a different way.”

To accomplish this, Schleuning enlisted seven designers to create six unconventional installations that are rooted in providing attendees a new, more empathetic outlook on the world around them. In 2018, after getting the necessary catalyst grant and the go-ahead from the DMA and High Museum of Art (her former employer, where she initially came up with the exhibition), she contacted Ini ArchibongMisha KahnYuri Suzuki, Laurie Haycock Makela, Matt Checkowski, and brothers Steven and William Ladd.

Initially perplexed, yet intrigued by Schleuning’s idea, they convened as a group in Dallas, Texas with scientists and doctors. Here, they were lectured on the brain’s functions, and how the exchange of concepts could be better accessed and comprehended by those who may suffer from certain learning impediments.

“I tried to keep my presentation to basic science, and tell them some critical things to make art,” says Dr. Daniel Krawczyk, a professor in behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas. “The brain is organized heavily around the intake of information from different modalities, especially vision and sound. Taste and smell are less represented. They are all different parts of the nervous system, different aspects where you can receive those inputs. Out of that, we’re always building some impression. When you have one sense more activated, it can really change your thinking. And I tired to focus on that.”

With a better understanding of how the mind works, each designer set out to create a space, paying close attention to how it would appeal to everyone. For some, the exercise reaffirmed what they always believed great design to be—a way to express abstract theories in tangible forms to the masses. While others were enlightened, having been unaware of how their works may not have been completely accessible.

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Published on Forbes Nov. 11, 2019