New Program for Visitors with Vision Loss

November 27, 2017

For over five years, the Penn Museum has been developing and offering programs for visitors who have vision loss. We started out by offering “touch tours” of the Egyptian galleries. Our Conservation Department identified real artifacts on display that our visitors with vision loss could touch with minimal impact to the artifacts. We were all amazed by the power of touch to share ancient history with a group of visitors who previously had been unable to access our Museum’s collection. As an institution dedicated to sharing our common human heritage, we could not be happier to say that this program is still thriving, offering 200 visitors per year the chance to engage with our collection through touch.Our programs have now grown beyond our original touch tours.

Rome Gallery touch tour participant touches replica strigil.
Rome Gallery touch tour participant touches marble bust of a Roman woman.

Programming for visitors with vision loss is still relatively novel in most museums, so we’ve dedicated ourselves to trying new options and approaches. Our touch tour partners, and constant collaborators, Philly Touch Tours, have been remarkably helpful with this. In the past few years we’ve experimented with audio description of lecture slides, artmaking activities, and pre-lecture “touch-in” experiences. Also, after years of doing tours of our Egyptian Collection, we realized that most of our visitors with vision loss had never traveled beyond the Egyptian Galleries, so we started offering a semi-annual “Tactile Trip around the World” where they could travel through all of the Museum’s galleries with a touch experience in each one. Thanks to a generous grant from the Albert B. Millett Memorial Fund, administered by BNY Mellon Wealth Management to support the creation of new programs, we are now working on a multi sensory experience that we’re tentatively calling “History in Every Sense.” For this program the Museum is creating a box of replica artifacts, ancient scents, and recipes that groups can borrow. Each box has activities designed to stimulate all the senses. For example, to understand Roman dining participants can:

  • Touch a replica Roman plate, cup, and grinder
  • Taste Roman bread (by using a recipe reconstructed from Pompeii)
  • Smell garum, a common Roman fish sauce
  • Listen to ancient Latin poetry that was recited at Roman banquets

We’re at an exciting stage now where we have begun to prototype the box and activities with real groups of people. We were excited to host a group of seniors from CATCH Inc. a few weeks ago. CATCH is a Philadelphia agency that provides services for people with behavioral health needs and those with developmental disabilities. Many people in their group have low vision. Before coming for their Rome Gallery tour, the group checked out a prototype box from the Museum. Their group leader, Valerie Angulo, threw herself into maximizing the group’s experience with the replica artifacts in the box! She ran several events using the contents of the box, and included several ideas of her own (such as using video). You can read about her experience in her own words below:

The groups ran with approximately 17-20 attendees. Facilitators assisted with reading and passing around artifacts. Traditional Roman music softly played in the background until the first video aired. Also, essential myrrh oil and water mist filled the air.

 The “History in Every Sense Rome” PowerPoint presentation was used as a guide to introduce each segment. A ring of the bell would precede each introduction (this bell ringing procedure was explained along with the group rules in the beginning). 

 We kicked off the group with a 10-minute video called “Daily Life in Ancient Rome,” found on YouTube. Afterwards we read (from information provided in the box), “Who were the ancient Romans?” “When were the Romans around?” “Where did the Romans live?” “What makes the Romans special?” and “A Day in the Life of a Roman.” At this point we opened for a quick Q&A. Next a ring of the bell precedes the next segment: Roman Food.

 The Roman Food section, including plate, clay cup, lamp, and garum, of the presentation were read.  The garum scent was provided right before serving the garum-like dip, bread and milk. Based on scent of the garum, everyone preferred my homemade dip (from recipe included in box)! Moreover, the section in the binder that explains what to wear, how to eat, and types of food were introduced here as well. The sound of the bell preceded the next segment: Roman Bathing.

 Roman Bathing started with a short 4-minute video, named “Roman Bath Houses.” Next the Roman Bathing presentation, including sponge, strigil, and frankincense & myrrh, were read. The artifacts were passed around, and a quick Q&A was allowed. Roman Homes was preceded by the bell.

 Roman Homes, including Altar of Venus, and Fibula, were read. These items were passed around, and two volunteers were asked to wear the stola and toga directly following the fibula part. The sections in the binder on Juno, Venus, cosmetic container, and scissors were read and passed around in this segment. Next a short 2-minute video on coins was played. Afterwards, the segment on coins was read, and coins were passed around.  And, the section on money involving cost and compensation were introduced briefly. Lastly, we read the Knucklebones segment, and played a 5-minute game.

When the group from CATCH arrived for their tour they were prepped and ready for the experience. Thanks to the experiences Valerie provided prior to their visit, they had interesting questions and lots of interesting observations. Thanks to her feedback we can further develop the experience and add some finishing touches, including braille text and tactile graphics. We hope to have a History in Every Sense experience for Rome, Egypt, and our upcoming Middle East Galleries in the coming months!

For more information about touch experiences at the Museum, please contact kschott@upenn.edu.

A visitor with low vision touches an ancient Egyptian stela. Her hand is guided by a sighted companion.