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Touching History Accessible Artifacts For Travelers Who Are Blind

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from Abilities Magazine, Issue 35, Summer 1998.

I have always loved being in the United Kingdom, but it had been 14 years since my last visit. On this trip I wondered what changes I would find. I was also looking forward to my first visit to the Republic of Ireland.

I am a history buff, and have an insatiable desire to examine the remains of the world's great civilizations. That's one of the reasons I feel so at home in the British Isles. You can't go very far without encountering history -- medieval castles, magnificent cathedrals, quiet local pubs, museums full of priceless artifacts and awe-inspiring structures like Stonehenge. Throughout my previous experiences as a traveler who is blind, I have had widely mixed experiences when it comes to touching items on display at museums or other historic sites. In the former U.S.S.R., I found most new museums had displays behind glass with no chance for examining their collections. At the Ni Carlsburg Glyptotek in Copenhagan, the huge collection was almost entirely open and all that staff asked me to do was wear a pair of light cotton gloves so the oils from my hands would not damage any of the items -- a most reasonable request. In Turkey, remains from its ancient sites were often displayed openly in museums where any visitors could touch just about anything on display.

Before leaving home, I always try to do a lot of research and planning. In an effort to maximize my enjoyment of the sites I intended to visit, I made advance requests for special tours. I felt that such tours might provide greater opportunities to touch displays and more time for questioning my guides - that assumption gained me access beyond my wildest expectations. I guess the British Isles is far ahead of Canada when it comes to providing tactile access! The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, where Greenwich mean time is calculated, presents a program of special lectures for visitors who are blind, where some models to touch are available.

The famed British Museum allows visitors who are blind to touch some of their wonderful items in only two of its galleries. Fortunately for me, these cover ancient Egypt and Greece. Both galleries contain some marvelous statuary, and their volunteer guide was very knowledgeable and interested in these areas. I asked her why patrons who are blind aren't also allowed to touch the other items in these galleries, but I never secured an answer to my inquiry.

At Portsmouth Harbour, Britain's naval history is proudly exhibited. Included are: the HMS Warrior, the fastest and most powerful battleship of the 1860s; the Mary Rose exhibition, presenting the hull and items from the "flower of Henry VII's navy"; the HMS Victory; and the Royal Navy Museum. The HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, was 69.2 metres in length, had a displacement of 3,600 tons, used 45 km of rigging, took 100 acres of wood to build, carried 100 guns, and had a crew of 821. My guide took down the barrier so I could explore the admiral's cabin in detail.

On to the Republic of Ireland: At the National Museum of Ireland, I was astonished at being invited down into the "crypt," an area which few individuals are allowed to enter. The crypt is where the museum stores items it is still studying or lacks space to display. This provided a unique insight into the running of a major museum. The U.K. Department of National Heritage is funding a three-year project that is reviewing historic sites for their level of accessibility to visitors who are blind. Individuals with varying levels of vision are doing the assessments.

By "access," the project means the ability for visitors to gain "a genuine and meaningful understanding of a site, rather than a mere patchwork of unconnected experiences." In addition to examining the physical environment of a site, the project will be looking at staff training, the availability of print guidebooks and leaflets in alternative formats, tactile diagrams and models, guided tours on cassette, and access for dog guide users. Reviewers are not expected to be "experts," just individuals who enjoy visiting historic sites. They range in age from 22 to 84, with most being in their 50s and 60s. Each reviewer is expected to report on that person's own experiences on a given day, so another reviewer may gain different impressions from visiting the same site at a different time. Although the study still has over a year remaining, Project Director Paul Sullivan can already point to some tangible results. "Several facilities have contacted us," says Sullivan, "for assistance in improving access, arranging the Brailling of leaflets, or training for staff to assist them in overcoming their fears."

Based on my experiences, the U.K. is far ahead of Canada when it comes to providing true access to historic sites and their collections for people with visual disabilities. While providing information in alternative formats, offering special tours and having models available will add greatly to a visitor's enjoyment and appreciation of a site, nothing can compare with having the opportunity to touch the remains of the past.