On Thursday I met with a group of around 30 visitors from Henshaws, a charity that provides support for blind and visually impaired people.
I confess to a little trepidation at the task of describing in sufficient detail objects that I am used to presenting in primarily visual terms – through photos or line drawings. We tend to speak of Egyptian ‘visual culture’ rather than ‘tangible culture’, and most museum displays assume that objects – because they are usually behind glass – are only viewed by sight. But what if you are blind or visually impaired?
The selection of objects for the session was dictated mainly by texture. Along with Conservator Irit Narkiss, Andrea Winn, the Museum’s Curator of Community Exhibitions, and I chose objects that provided a range of surfaces: part of a carved limestone block with a biographical inscription; a pre-Dynastic cosmetic palette, worn on one side; a small travertine kohl pot; a Late Period hard stone scarab amulet.
All our handling objects are accessioned pieces from the collection judged safe enough to touch. That sense of being able to touch the past was something that instantly struck a chord with our Henshaws visitors.
Usually I would discuss an object based on appearance, and this would invite questions about age or function immediately. However, in this case questions were more likely to arise once each person had handled the object. In that sense, engaging with the pieces was a much more individual experience than is usually the case in a museum handling session. The question of how certain objects were made – asked more frequently than how old they were or what they were used for – gave me a greater appreciation of how tactile objects can be, picking up details that I have otherwise missed.
Meeting the Henshaws group afforded a genuinely new perspective on how people experience ancient Egyptian material culture. Our new Ancient Worlds galleries will include handling objects as well as new Hapic technology that will allow users to experience the feel of objects too fragile to be touched regularly, but which can be simulated through advanced computer software programmed to control a stylus. This will enable visitors to trace the contours of an object remotely – a very exciting innovation in how we interact with museum objects.