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Hands-On Museum Experience

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia),March 10, 2000

Please do touch is the motto of an exhibition that brings archaeology to the blind, writes Susan Wyndham. Naguib Kanawati returned from his annual dig in Egypt more pleased than usual last year. The professor had seen an exhibition of Egyptian artifacts which revealed the world of archeology to the blind, and thought it should come to Australia

"It was an idea that obviously touched my heart," says Kanawati, the director of Macquarie University's Australian Centre for Egyptology. "Our dream is always to popularize Egyptian culture and this was one of the very rare occasions when you could make Egyptology a humanitarian subject."

The exhibition showed museum-quality replicas of everyday ancient Egyptian items from the Naprstek Museum of Asian, African and American Cultures in Prague, part of the National Museum of the Czech Republic. After being shown in Prague in 1995, it was donated to Egypt

Unlike most museum collections, this one was made for handling, with braille labeling and an audio commentary to explain the history and meaning of objects ranging from rough beer jars to statuettes of the gods. Kanawati reported on the exhibition to the Rundle Foundation, which supports the Centre for Egyptology and encourages public interest in its work. At that meeting was Val Rundle, an archeologist who had set up the foundation with her husband, a physician, since deceased, in 1981 and had recently been diagnosed with a medical condition that was gradually taking her sight

"I was told, 'You won't be able to see your friends' faces, you won't be able to read, but you will be able to see the hors d'oeuvres,'" says Rundle, a grandmother who has spent time at many of the world's major archeological sites

She could instantly see the value of an exhibition for the blind and visually impaired, especially after meeting people who were all desperate about losing their sight. "I realized other people didn't cope as well as I did," she says.

"How can you give those people something? That was my question." The answer was a request to the Naprstek Museum to make another set of the replicas, which Kanawati negotiated and Rundle bought for the university through the Rundle Foundation

Kanawati and Rundle unpacked the exhibition last week, the treasures emerging from their crates as if from a tomb. First out were a serene figure of a scribe with his papyrus scroll; a wooden headrest decorated with an image of the god Bes, protector of the family; weights used both for commerce and for judging the worthiness of the deceased; and a scarab, the sacred beetle

"It is not an exhibition of grand objects," says Kanawati. "Egypt dazzles people with its size and beauty, but in an exhibition like this the objects have to be small enough to handle. They are small, but intricate and selected with great care."

The curator of the Naprstek, Sylva Pavlasova, chose objects that would give a rich understanding of Egyptian life and funeral practices over 4,000 years from the predynastic to the Graeco-Roman period (circa 3000BC-AD200)

The Czechs have been involved in Egyptian archeology since the 18th century and were given a number of artifacts by the Egyptian Government after their specialists helped the UNESCO rescue of Nubian monuments threatened by the Aswan Dam

The replicas are good enough to fool an expert, says Kanawati, who spends part of each year at excavation sites in Egypt. Most are made from the same materials as the originals so that they have the right colour, weight and texture, and many of the materials came from the original sources

For example, a canopic jar, used to preserve the internal organs of the dead, is copied in Egyptian alabaster; other pieces are made of clay from Akhmim on the Nile

The exhibition is explained by a braille catalogue, and voice descriptions recorded by Radio 2UE which are activated when someone touches an object

"The marriage between arts and rehabilitation is very important," says Rundle. "This is another way to keep people learning."

Even for people who can see, it is enlightening to hold such beautiful objects. Kanawati expects the show to be popular with schools and to inspire other museums. "Imagine if the British Museum or the Louvre opened up their collections? Why not make the field open for the enjoyment of everyone?"