This post is very subjective and I wouldn’t presume to echo the thoughts of all totally blind people but following a conversation with some friends on this subject over the Christmas holiday, I decided to write my thoughts down.
Imagine the scenario, you’re on holiday or spending time with friends or family and are looking for something to do. Someone then says, “I know, let’s go to a museum”. Great idea, a chance to see something interesting, to learn something, to be shocked or amazed, the possibilities are endless. Not for me though. Personally, with very few exceptions, I would give the museum a swerve in favour of just about anything else. I’ve even been known to sit in a café and people watch whilst others in my party visit a museum!
For me, going round a museum is a very passive experience if there is nothing on display which can be handled. I’m not very good at being read to for long periods of time and I often find my mind wandering to other things, particularly when there are other people around me having different conversations. I’m just too nosy! When I was a child, my father used to take time to meticulously describe everything we saw which was fantastic of him, but without anything to refer to that I could relate to it was difficult to maintain an enthusiastic and interested face! Having never had good sight, it is difficult to listen to descriptions and relate to things that I have seen so often descriptions hold very little relevance for me.
I even struggle sometimes at those museums where there is an audio commentary to listen to whilst walking around if there is nothing that I can directly experience myself. Don’t get me wrong, audio description is a wonderful addition and should only be applauded but it’s still a fairly passive experience. Sometimes I feel, however, that a nice quiet place to sit and listen to it would be preferable to traipsing round an exhibition and standing in front of things that might as well be in another room.
All is not lost though and as well as some very negative experiences I have had some positive ones too. Three stand out in my mind and I will describe them briefly.
In 2007 I visited Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. I went mainly to walk around the gardens which I enjoy but decided to tag along with the rest of my group and walk round the house. Each room had a volunteer in it whose job was to tell you about the contents and history of that room. They were very knowledgeable people who were more than happy to answer questions. The real deal breaker for me though was the fact that most of the furniture, and even the table ware and soft furnishings were replicas which meant that they could be touched. This meant that I could get a real feel for the size and splendour of the rooms. There was plenty of written information as well which was read to me, but along with the experiences I had, this served, as it would for any other visitor, to teach me more about the house in its hey-day when Queen Victoria lived there.
In the early 80s I visited the Natural History Museum in London as they had an exhibition for blind and partially sighted people. This was excellent as everything was there to be touched. I left that exhibition with the lasting memory of what a mole hill is like as they had re-constructed a cross section of one which I found fascinating, even down to the moles that could be found in its tunnels. I also learnt that day how large a full grown badger is, they’re a lot bigger than I imagined they would be! I also left, however, with the knowledge that this exhibition had barely even scratched the surface of what is available in the museum as a whole.
In the mid nineties I visited Lincoln and whilst we were there, we walked into the cathedral to have a look. At the time they were carrying out some renovations and we stumbled upon a small exhibition about these renovations with examples of the materials, stonework, glass, wood etc that they were using. These were all laid out on a large table and each one, as well as the printed information, had the same information in Braille. I was fascinated and loved the fact that I could walk around the table independently, taking as much or as little time with each exhibit as I wished, while my friends enjoyed the cathedral and the exhibition in their own time. That to me was a very empowering experience which has stayed with me, despite the fact that the exhibition itself was comparatively small.
In the future, I would hope that 3D printing might be a way for blind and partially sighted people to get a real feel for what exhibits are like. I am hoping that this technology will be more widely used as surely the price can only come down as it becomes more available. Some would argue that a replica should look and feel exactly like the original item which has often been the reason why such replicas are not reproduced. I would dispute this to a certain extent. A replica item merely serves as a starting point, a bit like a template from which the detail can be attached by way of the descriptions which are available for all exhibits. Another argument against using replicas is that they have to be the same size as the original and would therefore be far too difficult to house in museums with limited space. Once again I disagree with this. Scale models can be very useful, particularly for something that is too large to feel around in terms of how easy it is to reach. Once the shape of an object has been discovered, it is easy to relate this to a larger size.
In conclusion, the thing that will draw me into a museum over everything else is a more hands on or interactive experience. Audio description and Braille are fantastic but they are only part of the experience. Not providing anything that can be touched, for a blind person is akin to having a room full of information without any exhibits for a sighted person to look at