Braille Monitor                                                    October 2009

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Braille in the Museum

by Geerat J. Vermeij

Geerat J. VermeijFrom the Editor: Dr. Geerat Vermeij is a professor in the Department of Geology at the University of California at Davis. He is a distinguished scientist who has contributed several articles to the Braille Monitor, so an article about a visit to a museum is not the sort of piece that I would expect to receive from him. But he was impressed by what he examined at the Nordiske Museet in Stockholm, and he thought others would enjoy his experience at second hand. In fact, he did what we should all do when we wish to commend an organization for making a successful effort at accessibility, he spread the word and did what he could to raise the expectations of all blind people for genuine access to public places. This is what he writes:

For blind museum visitors the situation is depressingly familiar and predictable. Displays are mostly hidden behind glass, and stern warnings not to touch those few objects that are out in the open all but eliminate the possibility of benefiting from the bounty that the curators and staff of the world's great museums have so lovingly studied, conserved, and selected for the public's enjoyment and edification. Excessive handling does indeed damage objects, and the appeal of paintings and many other treasures is wholly visual. Nevertheless, systematic efforts to make museums friendlier to the blind have on the whole been meager. In my visits to the public parts of museums around the world, the richness of my experience has depended entirely on the willingness of guards to bend the rules or on inside contacts with curators who can literally open doors and unlock cases.

But on a recent visit to Sweden I discovered that it need not be this way. I was in Stockholm in May of this year as an invited speaker at the Darwin Evolution Symposium, one of many scientific celebrations in honor of the bicentennial of Charles Darwin's birth on February 12, 1809. My wife Edith and I had come a day early to adjust to the nine-hour time change and to acquaint ourselves with a new country. Within walking distance of our hotel was the Nordiske Museet, a huge museum founded in 1888 to exhibit artifacts of Swedish culture and tradition. Although not especially close to my interests, the museum came highly recommended, as well it should have been. The staff were welcoming and quickly fitted us out with the wherewithal for a self-guided audio tour, which could be taken in any of five languages, including English. The sounds and narrations were excellent, and plenty of objects were available to examine without the threat of censure.

What really set this great museum apart, however, was the widespread use of Braille labels, illustrations, and text. Throughout the museum clear Braille signs identified objects and accompanied detailed raised illustrations produced on thick plastic stock. The page with the illustration could be lifted up, revealing some twenty lines of Braille text describing the illustration and placing it in the context of the overall display. Here were a bride and groom (a brudpar), dressed in seventeenth-century finery; there, the floor plan of a Stockholm flat from the 1920s; and in another display, household objects of a typical eighteenth-century dwelling, each clearly labeled in Braille. Knowledge of English, Dutch, and German enabled me to decipher substantial parts of the texts, which were all in uncontracted Swedish Braille; and, although my comprehension was far from complete, the written explanations hugely enriched the museum experience. For the first time in my life, I had available some of the material that sighted museum patrons take for granted.

Everything in this museum—the self-guided audio tour, the abundance of touchable objects, and the raised illustrations and Braille text—spoke volumes about the expectation that all visitors, notably including the blind, can profit from the cultural heritage that is so beautifully on display. Moreover, there is the unspoken and welcome assumption that the blind person will use Braille. The availability of Braille transformed a potentially sterile walk through museum galleries into a thrilling journey into Swedish cultural history, but even more it provided a degree of independence and self-discovery. Like print, Braille is an indispensable medium for expanding our horizons and enriching our lives; it educates, informs, and liberates.

The Nordiske Museet model can and should be adopted by museums everywhere. Museums have come to play an increasingly important role in public education as well as in the study and conservation of objects of natural and cultural history. They introduce visitors to new dimensions of our surroundings and our past, and they heighten our awareness of the richness and fragility of nature's bounty. As a Science Trustee at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, I have more than a passing interest in the well-being of museums as institutions of learning. Museums have an obligation to open the doors of inquiry to as large a segment of the public as possible. I am convinced that Braille, together with models, raised illustrations, and real objects wherever feasible, can be incorporated into many museum exhibits.

One reason why Braille is declining is that, unlike ubiquitous print, it is not widely available in public settings. It is therefore viewed by the blind and sighted alike as limited and indeed as a means of segregating the blind from the rest of society. The Nordiske Museet shows us a way of reversing this trend by elevating Braille to its rightful place of public prominence.

Dr. Vermeij can be reached at <[email protected]>.


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