Penn Museum visitors ‘see’ history as part of tours for the visually impaired

Close your eyes. Tighter, so you see only black. Now, picture Ancient Egypt. None of us was there, but most of us can visualize the ancient civilization of northeastern Africa because we’ve seen photographs and drawings of its great pyramids, pharaohs, temples, monuments, earthenware, tombs, and hieroglyphics.

Museum tour-story

Darien Sutton

Singer, songwriter, and pianist Blessing Offor feels the Penn Museum’s Sphinx during a Touch Tour for the blind and visually impaired.

Now, imagine that you’re blind, and have been since birth. What does Ancient Egypt look like to you, with no visual references or imagery to rely on? In fact, what does history look like when it’s concealed in darkness?

A new set of Touch Tours at the Penn Museum offers blind or visually impaired visitors a chance to “see” Ancient Egypt through the sense of touch. The Museum contains the largest collection of Egyptian and Nubian material in the United States, with more than 42,000 items.

Trish Maunder, a consultant at the Museum, says the Touch Tours came about through an initiative by the Museum’s Education Department and Jean Byrne, director of community engagement. Working with conservationists and Egyptologists, Museum staff identified six objects in the Lower Egyptian Gallery that could be used to teach the history of Ancient Egypt through touch.

After using wipes to remove oil from their hands, blind or visually impaired guests on the Touch Tours are allowed to feel the artifacts, an act usually prohibited at the Museum.

The six objects on the tour are the stone slab Stela of King Qa’a (ca. 2800 B.C.E.); the Relief from the Temple Wall from Bubastis (874-835 B.C.E.); the Head of Tuthmosis III (1479-1425 B.C.E.); the Column from Ramesses II, Temple at Heracleopolis (1292-1190 B.C.E.); the Window of the Palace of Merneptah (1213-1204 B.C.E.); and the Museum’s iconic Sphinx (ca. 1293-1185 B.C.E.), the third largest sphinx in the world.

The artifacts impart “an interesting story across a couple of dynasties, learning about the kings and the pharaohs, learning some of the stories, learning some hieroglyphics, looking at language, and talking about what was the art life, what was some of the symbolism,” Maunder says.

The Touch Tours are led by the Museum’s volunteer docents, who went through several weeks of special training to prepare for the new endeavor. Jane Nelson, the docent coordinator, says the guides use more “verbal cues” to describe an object when they are working with the blind or visually impaired.

Blind or visually impaired visitors took the tour during the guides’ training sessions to help with instruction. Esther Payne, a docent in the Egyptian Gallery, says one of the first things the visitors told the docents was, “We’re blind, not deaf. You don’t have to scream at us.”

Payne says guiding the blind or visually impaired is a unique experience. “It makes us really pay more attention to detail,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for many years but I have never had to pay such attention to detail.”

Nicole Sardella, an audio describer who helped organize the Touch Tours, says one of the best things a describer can do is “describe exactly what they see—colors, sizes, shapes.” 

Blessing Offor, a blind singer, songwriter, and pianist, traveled from New York City to take part in the final Touch Tours training session on Sept. 24. He says the license to touch the artifacts is “unbeatable.”

“It’s like full-immersion; if you want to learn a language, you have to just jump into the culture and environment,” he says. “If you really want to learn about this stuff, you have to go touch it. Even for someone who can see, I think it’s way more valuable to actually be able to put your hands on something.”

Maunder says valuable insights about the artifacts have been revealed to the sighted through the hands of the visually impaired. She says many of the docents hadn’t noticed the anatomical correctness in the front paws of the Sphinx or its rib cage before embarking on the Touch Tours.

“It’s really enriching the experience for all of us,” she says.

Those interested in taking a Touch Tour must call the Museum at 215-898-4000 and schedule the tour ahead of time. The pilot program runs through mid-December.

Originally published on October 11, 2012