The Braille Monitor                                                                                                  June 2005

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Beyond Vision: Integrating Touch into Museums
The Tactile Museum of the Lighthouse
for the Blind in Athens, Greece

by Amalia S. Levi

A visitor to the Tactile Museum for the Blind in Athens examines a copy of Venus de Milo (original on view at the Louvre), circa 130 B.C,E.
A visitor to the Tactile Museum for the Blind in Athens examines a copy of Venus de Milo (original on view at the Louvre), circa 130 B.C.E.

From the Editor: Judging from the comments whenever we publish articles about museums or access for blind people to sightseeing venues, a number of our readers are interested in the subject. I recently received the following article from Amalia Levi, who is originally from Athens, Greece. She wondered if we would be interested in a piece about accessible museum collections. She is an archaeologist and art historian and has worked in museums in Istanbul, Turkey, and Florida. She is currently the curator at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C. She is clearly well informed and knowledgeable about making museum collections accessible to blind visitors. Perhaps this article will be a valuable resource when chapters and individuals approach museum officials about improving access to their collections. In her original text Ms. Levi was scrupulous about always referring to both blind and visually impaired people. Since we recognize everyone with a significant visual impairment as legally or functionally blind, I have simplified these references. Those who are not used to grouping people with significant vision loss into a single category should understand that all people who experience difficulty in seeing museum displays are included in this discussion. This is what Ms. Levi says:

                                                                   

                                                                    Introduction

People tend to think of art as a matter of visual appreciation. For blind people, enjoying cultural heritage and artistic creation is not always simple because ours is a visual world, where nearly everything is made by and for sighted people. Although important steps have been taken to bring about more universal participation in the arts, cultural life generally, and technological advancements, museums remain notably behind the times.

Accessibility for blind people, as opposed to people with mobility impairments, depends not so much on the ability to cope with obstacles in the physical environment as on the ability to find one's way or orientation in an unknown space. It results when access requirements are considered during initial planning so that blind people can freely share, enjoy, and participate in social and cultural life.

Beyond physical accessibility, museums seriously lack exhibit development, concept layout, and educational programs intended especially for the blind. Human assistance is still the most efficient method for orientation in nearly every cultural institution. Exhibits are off-limits to those who must touch in order to appreciate artifacts because the objects on exhibit are too old to be examined tactilely and because museum educational programs generally do not take visually impaired people into consideration. Many blind people are therefore reluctant to go to museums because they do not feel welcome. This feeling may be accentuated not only by lack of relevant exhibits but also by untrained or insensitive staff. The situation is even worse for blind people living in small communities. Not only are there fewer museums than in densely populated cities, but those few are even less likely to have an effective program for serving blind visitors.

Museums, the most important cultural and educational institutions in today's world, can encourage individual participation by the blind through making their collections accessible. Here are some categories of institutions devoted to breaking the barriers:

a) Museums that tell the story of institutions related to the advancement of blind people, featuring artifacts that show their educational history or advancement. For example, the Marie and Eugene Callahan Museum of the American Printing House for the Blind includes tactile books, maps and globes, mechanical Braille writers, and displays showing APH's pioneering activities.

b) Museums that are testimonies to the past, such as the Otto Weidt Museum Workshop for the Blind, affiliated with the Jewish Museum of Berlin. Nearly unchanged since the end of World War II, it was, till the day of their deportation, a working place for Jewish and non-Jewish blind and deaf people who under the protection of manufacturer Otto Weidt produced brooms and brushes for army use.

c) Museums, specially designed for blind people, with exhibits that consist mainly of reproductions of original artifacts or small-scale copies of monuments. Examples are the Museum of Tactile Antique and Modern Painting, Anteros, in Bologna, Italy, and the Tactile Museum for the Blind in Athens, Greece.

d) Tactile departments in large, mainstream museums such as the Louvre in Paris or the Touch Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, available by appointment only.

e) Temporary exhibits that include material suited also for blind people such as "Earth from the Air," a photographic exhibit by Yann Arthus Bertrand, exhibited in London's Natural History Museum. Along with 160 photographs, Bertrand has added thirty tactile images produced with a special technique developed with the help of French eyewear designer Alain Mikli.

f) Special programs and tours for blind people such as the Touch Tour or Verbal Imaging Tour in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One problem with tactile museums and collections is that because of space limitations the exhibits can deal with only a limited subject of reduced scope. Touch tours and programs with unrestricted tactile examination of selected artifacts, although an excellent way to enjoy art, can be frustrating because they are often cancelled for low participation. In addition, because they are usually scheduled at set times, they do not lend themselves to unplanned visits.

But despite the disadvantages tactile museums and exhibitions and their educational programs are important because they teach blind people art history and art. They can make a difference in a blind person's academic and professional success. Involvement with the arts fosters self-confidence, manual dexterity, and pride in one's achievement; and it enriches life. It helps blind people overcome the social integration, mobility, and employment barriers they face every day. Special courses in art history can be organized that help blind people develop tactile perception and interpretative refinement through discovering their imaginative and cognitive potential.

Theoretical and practical arts programming can also foster social integration for both blind and sighted people. Bringing people together to explore, discover, and make art can bridge the gap that sometimes exists between visually impaired and sighted people, mostly because of ignorance.

Learning through touch about the formal values of art history such as perspective, composition, and three-dimensional space can also be a revelation to sighted visitors, who discover that touch (a sense often neglected) can give them a deeper understanding of art. For sighted museum-goers used to enjoying and appreciating art only visually, touching an object--examining its surface, understanding its form, recognizing the artistic work through these qualities--is an extraordinary new dimension in the traditional ways we perceive the world around us.

Though copies can be important when an object is too fragile to be touched or when an object no longer exists, nothing can compare to the feeling of "old" that an original artifact offers the visitor. I believe that museums should take objects that are not unique out of their storage rooms and present them to their visitors, especially the blind. It is time to break the taboo of touching in museums. Touch gloves, used in some museums, can be thin enough not to obstruct sensation while protecting sculpture or other artifacts from direct contact with the natural oils and dirt of hands. But these gloves, although solving the protection problem, are an unsatisfactory solution for the visitor because they do not allow people to feel the texture of the object and the patina of ancient things.

Copies of objects (such as those made of organic material) that cannot be touched can be displayed with original artifacts and clearly labeled. Labels for the objects should be in both Braille and large print. Audio recording devices can also be used, but aural descriptions by trained staff must be an integral part of a visit to the tactile department of a museum because it complements the sense of touch and enhances the experience of a blind. Museum staff and docents, educated in accessibility as well as in attitude and sensitivity towards people with disabilities, should be available before, during, or after the visit to give details, answer questions, and discuss the experience. Depending on space availability, a part of the room could be converted into a small library with Braille or audio material from which visitors can learn more about the objects.

Other issues are security and conservation. Displayed objects should be regularly cleaned and their conservation assured. Although larger objects and statues are secure, smaller objects should be fixed on mounts or partly embedded in polyester. A museum staff member or docent can supervise a station set up in the room to display small objects that must be examined individually to be fully appreciated. An alarm embedded on the backside of the tag with the bar code (listing the accession number and other information about each object) will sound if anything is carried beyond the magnetic door of the room.

Beyond three-dimensional artifacts that can easily be touched, tactile drawings, pictures, maps, and every other two-dimensional artifact that can be exactly rendered in bas-relief are an excellent way to add variety to collections aimed at the blind. The problem with these is that those who have lost vision later in life cannot easily interpret them. These visitors can decipher simpler bas-reliefs more easily, yet the simplicity also means sacrificing detail. It is crucial that blind people be trained in pictorial literacy, i.e., how to understand and read such drawings. An example of such training was a seminar held by the "Cité des Sciences et de la Technologie" in Paris in 2001. Any museum can offer such educational programs to its special-needs visitors as well as the general audience

                                                                  

                                                  Greek Museums and Accessibility

Nineteenth-century Athens, the small, inconspicuous capital of the newborn Greek state, was one of the most picturesque European capitals of the Belle Époque and an exotic amalgam of ancient ruins (testimony to a great past), the provincialism of a nation recently liberated from a 400-year oppression under the Ottoman Empire, and the neoclassicism of the new German king's Bavarian architects. In the third quarter of the twentieth century, especially during the 1950's, the city was built over, virtually erased, by thousands fleeing a desolate countryside ravaged first by the Germans during the Second World War and then by a four-year civil war.

As a result Athens, splendid in the abundance and importance of magnificent monuments, a veritable open-air museum, was not built according to a plan; nor were handicapped citizens taken into consideration when the web of avenues, roads, parks, sidewalks--in fact, all the structures of a modern city--were being developed. Even museums or other venues of interest that may themselves be handicap accessible are located where disabled people must walk around parked cars blocking their way or cracked pavements--traps for people with mobility impairments.

With the Olympic and Paralympic games in August and September of 2004, Athens underwent an immense change in infrastructure and the accessibility of public buildings, including museums, that with luck will improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. But the most important gain of the twelve-day Paralympic games was a change in the popular perception of handicapped people. Until recent decades being handicapped in Greece was considered a matter of shame for the family. As a result disabled citizens lived with restrictions imposed by both prejudice and the hostile urban environment. The coming of thousands of disabled athletes instilled an increased general awareness of disability issues and accessibility, both physical and intellectual.

A museum visitor explores a copy of a Cycladic figurine, circa 2300 B.C.E.
A museum visitor explores a copy of a Cycladic figurine, circa 2300 B.C.E

In mainstream Greek museums accessibility features address primarily the needs of visitors with mobility impairments. The museums contacted during this research were the National Archaeological Museum, the Piraeus Archaeological Museum, the Cycladic Art Museum, the Benaki Museum, the Numismatic Museum, the Christian Byzantine Museum, the Museum of Folk Art, and the Gaia Center, all located in Athens. For blind people the situation is even worse. No museum has a tactile department or program, and blind visitors can touch objects only at the museum shop, except in the Museum of Folk Art, where the staff was eager to offer artifacts for examination, and the Numismatic Museum, which has good copies of coins that can be touched.

Housing a cultural heritage of 5,000 years, the majority of museums in Greece, operated by the state, are still considered official depositories of the past, and as such they act like institutions where objects are protected for eternity and visitors should approach in awe. Although storage rooms are overflowing with objects from digs around the country and only a small number are ever displayed, these objects remain sequestered, of no use or benefit to the public. Museums are overzealous in protecting the nation's cultural heritage. Their responsibility to safeguard these objects for future generations while making them available to museum visitors sometimes results in absurd rigidity.

Many of the objects in a museum's storage area are multiple examples of the same artifact. Ideally every mainstream Greek museum could have a tactile department or a small collection of objects that have already been studied and published but are not unique samples of their kind. It would be possible to designate some of the thousands of artifacts in storage rooms for blind visitors or even for sighted visitors. They could feel and understand better the aging of the object, for example, by touching an old, weathered marble instead of a clean, new reproduction.

Such a tactile department could be a marvelous advertisement for the museum both inside the country and abroad. Now that cultural tourism is on the rise, such a museum could be an appealing destination for blind travelers.                                                                  

                                                    The Tactile Museum of Greece

Part of the Lighthouse for the Blind, a nonprofit organization established in 1946 for the welfare of the blind, the Tactile Museum of Greece is the only cultural institution in Athens or the rest of Greece to address the need of blind people to enjoy art and culture freely and fully. The museum was established in 1984, and in 1987, in competition with seventy other museums, it received the European Museum of the Year Award. The building was badly damaged by the 1999 earthquake and was subsequently closed to the public. It was reopened in January 2004 after an extensive restoration. New amenities also made the building accessible to people with mobility impairments.

The museum is dedicated to ancient Greek art, which is presented chronologically. The artifacts exhibited are exact copies of original artworks found in other Greek museums. The majority of the exhibits are statues, bas-reliefs, and some vases. Mounts are used to raise small exhibits to touch level. Made of dark wood, they are functional and simple. The objects are easily accessible, except for two large-scale statues that require a small stage or ramp around them so that the visitor can examine them beginning at the top.

No special accommodations for orientation such as textured flooring are used. It would be advisable to have a tactile diagram of the museum layout near the entrance. In addition, each room should have orientation directions in Braille on rails at the wall. The museum lighting is strong to assist people with low vision. The walls of the exhibit halls are painted a vivid night blue, which provides an excellent background for the white artifacts.

No general large-scale murals or panels appear with information about each period, e.g., archaic, classical, Hellenistic. Rather such information appears on the labels of the objects on display. Rich information for each object is printed on a sheet of paper and presented on an inclined Plexiglas stand at touch level next to the object. Over the printed page is a transparent sheet of laminate with the same information in Braille. Informative Braille catalogues about the museum and its exhibits in Greek and foreign languages are among the plans of the museum.

Two exhibition halls are on the first level. The first consists of a small exhibit about the Olympic Games of 2004: various statues and bas-reliefs depict the athletic ideals of ancient Greece. A map of Greece in bas-relief shows the locations of the Olympic and Paralympic venues. The second hall houses religious artifacts intended to make accessible, especially to young visitors, the material side of Christian Orthodox rites: an exact replica in small scale of an Orthodox Byzantine church; painted and silver embossed icons; and a real-scale ikonostasis (a wall carved of wood, bearing icons and separating the sanctuary from the nave).

The upper hall is devoted to ancient Greek art. Its five rooms present chronologically its evolution through the ages. The first is dedicated to the art of the Cycladic and Minoan civilizations that flourished in the Aegean Sea during the third and second millennia B.C.E. It has Cycladic figurines and vessels and some of the best art of Minoan Crete. The second room presents the art of the Geometric Age, the Dark Ages of the Greek world, with samples from artifacts produced in mainland Greece during the centuries after the Trojan War. Here are samples of vases with the characteristic decoration of the times. The third room shows the transition from the archaic to the classical with famous statues and bas-reliefs. The fourth room is dedicated to the classical era. Along with copies of the masterpieces shown is a small-scale replica of the Acropolis complex as well as three free-standing columns (again small-scale) that show the three main orders of ancient Greek architecture: Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian. The fifth room has copies of statues and bas-reliefs of the fourth century.

The museum can be visited by appointment. Since the visitor can take the tour alone, an audio system is being developed that will permit each visitor to stroll through the museum at his or her own pace, listening to the recorded information about each object. In addition to blind or visually impaired adults and students, many schools visit the museum.

Before the museum closed because of the earthquake, it conducted a popular activity on Saturdays. Sighted and blind children together participated in a program called "Touching the Ancient Years." An archaeologist, a mobility specialist, and a master of casts were involved with this project. A box of sand with ancient objects buried in it was presented to the children to touch, search, and discover the objects. The mobility specialist would blindfold the sighted children and then teach them how to use touch to search. After having found an object, the child would go to the master of casts and learn how to make a copy of the object he or she had found.                                                         

                                                                     Conclusion

The Tactile Museum of the Lighthouse for the Blind is the only cultural institution in Greece created solely to serve the blind and visually impaired. With no permanent staff the museum relies on volunteers. It deserves the financial support of the state because it is an important feature in the cultural scene of Athens.

With funding and a permanent staff, the museum could become even more active, enrich its collections with more exhibits, and refine its display concept. It would be wonderful for Greece to host an international congress about tactile museums and have international experts available to offer their expertise.

Several small additions could enhance the overall impact of the museum. Sound could enrich the visitor's experience of art and evoke thoughts, feelings, and sensory impressions for the blind visitor. Ancient Greek music in the museum halls would promote a better understanding of the exhibits.

The museum should also include more architectural models of the famous buildings of ancient Greece. Produced in small scale, these models should offer the visitor the opportunity to explore the interior of a building as well as the exterior. Eventually the museum could house replicas of buildings from all over the world. One interesting idea would be to have a tactile map of Greece with all the important ancient sites marked. A tactile horizontal model of the city of Athens with the buildings placed in their exact locations.

By creating traveling exhibits for display in museums for the blind as well as mainstream museums, it could play an important role in education through art and in fostering awareness of blind people in the museum community in Greece and abroad. Among its educational activities the museum could produce small cases with representative exhibits covering different periods of Greek art. Informative texts or explanatory diagrams could accompany the cases, which could be sent to other parts of Greece or to institutions abroad.

In its displays the museum could provide tactile versions of diagrams, maps, and two-dimensional material generally that are otherwise inaccessible to blind and visually impaired people. For example, raised contours can make a huge difference in understanding ancient vases because visitors can perceive their shapes, but their decoration, which tells much about the era in which they were produced, cannot be understood without help.

One feature that could help visitors understand space and dimensions better would be small human figurines placed next to architectural models such as the columns or the temple exhibited in the museum. The columns should not be uniform: each column should reflect the size of various buildings to show the difference between huge temples such as the temple of Zeus and the temple of Athena Nike, both in Athens.

Finally, the museum can succeed more in its mission and play an important role in culture in general in Greece if, with necessary arrangements and funding, it is open to the public regularly rather than by appointment only.                                                                   

Epilogue

Consider the fun kids have in their museums. Children's museums are made to touch, pull, push, press, and climb on. Visitors can literally talk to the exhibits. Adults expect to see artifacts behind glass or other barriers, but children expect their museums to be tangible. A bicycle in a showcase doesn't mean anything to them. They need to get on it, ride it, and see how it works. Ultimately they need to be in dialogue with it in order to enjoy and learn from it. They are thrilled with all things secret. They love to seek and discover hidden things. Although creatures of imagination, they loathe having to imagine why something was made. Through trial and error they prefer to put its pieces together, literally as well as metaphorically.

Regrettably, in the name of being serious and professional, adults have lost the innocence of being able to freely enjoy art and interact with exhibits. Tactile museums are a priori interactive museums, even when they do not have interactive exhibits, because the visitor is in dialogue with the object. Because exhibits that address more than one sense are bound to be more appealing and educational, it is crucial to incorporate all senses when developing an exhibit so that visitors can have a more direct and vivid experience in the museum. This is the challenge that everyone active in culture and especially museum professionals have to address when creating cultural policies and developing new museums and exhibits.

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