Museum Musings: on improved access for blind folks

This post inspired by the many references I’ve gotten to the article Philadelphia Museum Allows Visitors to Touch Ancient Artifacts . I’d first heard of this via the Serotalk Podcast, and a few followers have tweeted it to me since.

Before reading it, I thought that this museum would only let folks maybe put their hands on things with a pair of latex gloves on, and then only for a second. Such has been my experience when allowed tactile access to an exhibit. I was presented with an object, able to just graze it, and didn’t even get enough time to discern details. Not to mention that the people who were letting us do this practically yelled at us the whole time, definitely making one and all sufficiently uncomfortable as to limit enjoyment. In fact, the sighted individual with whom I had been partnered while walking through decided she would let me get an extra, bare-handed feel, and she and I were reprimanded for so doing.

Now, I do understand that much of this stuff can’t really be touched, for all sorts of reasons from transmission of bodily and other fluids onto the objects that may weaken their ability to be preserved, to the possibility of breaking or otherwise mishandling valuable works of art and the like. But truthfully, standing in a hall while listening to someone attempt to render something into description is just not the same. So, I am glad that this particular institution is taking such an approach, and with things that might actually be interesting to grasp and, I think, changeable with time.

Of course, a “museum” doesn’t have to be what typically comes to mind when one thinks of the word, anyway. Some of the most interesting installations I’ve encountered have been of old homes with rickety floorboards that once housed historical leaders. They really demonstrate the utility of hands-on education, and perhaps transmit a bit of the power to me that most get by looking at things. It’s just a sense of encountering the environments that brought to bear national treasures like Martin Luther King, and also finding out that some locals lived in and were influenced by unusual, often difficult circumstances to move for change.

Speaking of entering an environment that changes one, I think the most moving museum to which I have ever been is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I went here during my formative college years, and along with my blind cousin, was given a specialized tour of the building with an individual who said she was a descendant of some who were effected by this sad time in human history. They really built the building in such a way that it would try and represent the horrors of that experience, using materials taken straight from concentration camps, Jewish ghettos, and the like. We could not only touch, but also hear sounds from this era and examine a specific record of an individual who had been taken to a camp. I was truly shaken to the core by these encounters, and learned far more than I ever could have in a textbook.

And this is why I agree that it is important to come up with unique, tactile ways to expose people who are blind to the artifacts contained within the walls that are designed to preserve information on the changing human condition: so that we can grasp the significance of archeological finds, feel the presence of past visionaries, and understand and contemplate some of humankind’s darkest hours. In my small way, I may actually be doing something soon that continues to expand this kind of access to information for all. Stay tuned.

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