I previously wrote about the Penn Museum’s close calls with visitors outraged because forbidden to paw at the granite sphinx. But when is it okay for a visitor to handle the artifacts? Exceptions are made, not only when you are famous, but sometimes because you are blind, and more rarely, when you are famous and blind. No, Stevie Wonder has yet to grace the museum’s hallways, but we have a picture of the most famous blind and deaf person, Helen Keller, closely examining a gorgeous bronze and silver candlestick from the museum’s collections.
The Penn Museum was a little out of the way for Ms. Keller, who is in fact attending “Six Thousand Years of Persian Art,” the first large-scale exhibition of Iranian art in this country, held in New York in 1940. On the right is Arthur Upham Pope, the curator of the exhibition, and a fanatic of Persian art.
Helen Keller is justly famous because of the way she overcame her deafness and blindness, but she was also a famous author and radical political activist. But for the less-well-known but nonetheless vision-impaired individuals, the Penn Museum established the Nevil Gallery for the Blind and Sighted in 1971, in which the objects on display could be safely handled by visitors. It was a big draw throughout the seventies, with a series of changing exhibitions geared to the touchy-feely among us, as well as exhibits by blind artists, but by the late 1980s the novelty had worn away, and the theft of a Sri Lankan mask in 1988 brought the effort to a close.