By Kristen Mulvihill
Scheie Vision Summer 2019
Generally, the first rule of any museum is no touching. This restriction severely limits the experience of visitors with visual impairments and vision loss. However, this same rule doesn’t apply at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum), during its “touch tours.” During these tours, the Penn Museum invites visitors with low vision to explore a wide range of objects through touch.
In partnership with Philly Touch Tours, the Penn Museum offers touch tours to visitors with visual impairments, wherein they are encouraged to touch ancient artifacts while exploring the exhibits.
Offered during regular museum hours, the touch tours are led by a Penn Museum tour docent and guides from Philly Touch Tours, a Philadelphia-based organization that provides accessibility consulting and designs sensory tours for people with vision loss.
“Philly Touch Tours helped us to train people on the best practices and etiquette for working with people with vision loss,” said Kevin Schott, Associate Director of Interpretive Programs at the Penn Museum. “The group has taught us how to serve as guides between the galleries and the objects, helping visitors guide their hands to find the important parts of the artifact.”
The tours are currently available in the Upper Egypt and Rome galleries. The ancient artifacts that are available to touch are made of unpainted stone, so tend not to degrade quickly from touch. Even so, the museum only permits 200 people per year to touch these artifacts to prevent deterioration.
One of the highlights in the Upper Egypt gallery is the seated figure of Ramesses the Great, one of the longest living Egyptian pharaohs who ruled Egypt for more than 60 years. Participants on the tour can move their hands over the statue, discerning the intricacies of the throne and the pharaoh’s name carved in hieroglyphics. Visitors can also detect an error made 3,000 years ago in carving one of the hieroglyphs, which the artist attempted to conceal.
While exploring the Rome gallery, visitors on the tour can glide their fingertips along a series of marble portrait heads that the Romans created to honor their ancestors. Visitors can feel their hairstyles and facial features to get a sense of what an ancient Roman looked like. Beyond touch, visitors can also smell samples of fragrances used in cleansing oils while learning about the bathing habits of ancient Romans.
“Everyone learns more when you engage the senses. We love that we are able to share the museum—its history, its artifacts—and the cultures of the world to as many people as possible,” Kevin said. “And for me, as an educator, the whole reason the museum exists is to share what we have with people.”
In addition to these touch tours, the Penn Museum also hosts “tactile events” for a more self-guided museum experience. During these designated days, sensory experiences are available in several other museum galleries, allowing visitors the opportunity to explore a broader range of topics.
For example, on a tactile day, visitors can wander through the China gallery to learn about Chinese history, and can touch a Qilin figure, approximately 1,000 years old. This mythical, chimeric creature was used to guard a tomb in southern China.
In the Middle East galleries, visitors can feel samples of some of the first textiles used by humans, including spun wool and obsidian. A three-dimensional (3D) touchable print of a rhyton, an ancient drinking vessel, is also on display.
“The tactile day is a great time to come with friends and family, so you can all have the experience together and explore the museum at your own pace,” Kevin said. “We wanted to create more of a free choice, mixed learning environment.”
Starting in 2012, these programs continue to expand and thrive. Looking forward, the museum’s staff intends to incorporate more sensory experiences into the exhibits. In several of the new galleries, curators plan to include touchable 3D replicas of untouchable artifacts, and display samples of materials used to create ancient artifacts for visitors to touch.
“As a long-term goal, we would like for all of our galleries to include sensory experiences,” Kevin said. “We want to ensure that a person with vision loss can come to the museum any day and have something to explore. And we hope this will benefit not only visitors with vision loss, but all of our museum visitors.”