A blind girl examining some taxidermy birds (all images courtesy Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums)
Most museums are very much about seeing. But back in 1913, the then-curator of the Sunderland Museum in England imagined how to turn their collections into a museum of touch for those who could not see.
As Charlton Deas stated in his “What the Blind May ‘See’: Some Museum and Other Experiments in Tactile Sight,” there was a problem in evoking the idea of size for blind children, as “however carefully the children were informed that their small model of a cow was only one fortieth the size of the real animal, they were unable to think of the cow as anything larger than the model.” So working with the Sunderland Council Blind School he invited in the children to touch some of the collections, and the sessions proved so successful that he opened then to adults.
A talk and touch session on human anatomy for the blind
These sessions included paintings and drawings, where the touch of brushstrokes or pen pressed to paper evoked the patterns of art, as well as taxidermy animals that ranged from a polar bear to a crocodile to a blue shark to the museum’s prized lion named Wallace. There were also talks on anatomy followed by the examination of a human skeleton, as well as the touching of weapons like swords and pistols. The children even took a field trip to a hayfield to touch a real live cow, just one of the many experiences of the sessions that helped to give a more expansive experience with the world. Yet not only that, as this was one of the first museums to focus on the blind, it had a great influence on programming for the blind that came after, as approaching it not so much as a disability, but as a different way to interact with the collections.
The children also made models in clay of what they’d experienced, an exhibition of which was added to the museum along with photographs of the blind visitors. Below are some of these that show the blind children and adults interacting with the museum collection. As Charlton Deas said: “To them, their fingers are eyes.”
Blind children visiting the Sunderland Museum
The children with Wallace the taxidermy lion, and some lion cubs
Examining the new and old structure of the River Wear Bridge
Touching reptiles and sea creatures
Touching a model of a locomotive with sighted museum guides
Touching a walrus
Touching a taxidermy polar bear
Examining rifles and a column
Examining a copy of the Portland Vase
Touching a Buddha sculpture
Examining gas masks and military hats
The taxidermy animals used in the touch sessions
Models in clay by the children who visited the museum of what they touched