Harriet Go’s small, delicate fingers touched the ancient statue and traced the symbols carved into it. Simon Bonenfant’s teenage hand did likewise. And while his wife, Elizabeth, held his cane, David Goldstein followed suit.
The three members of the National Federation of the Blind were at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology on a recent Saturday afternoon, letting their fingers “see” the artifacts housed in the Egyptian Gallery.
After sanitizing their hands, they were allowed to do something most museum visitors would be reprimanded for: They ran them over the enormous feet of a 3,300-year-old statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II. Then they were handed a much smaller replica of the 8-foot-tall statue, to feel its head and body.
The visit was coordinated by Philly Touch Tours, which provides guided tours of museums and cultural attractions for people who are blind or have visual impairments. Since it was launched in 2014, the Old City-based outfit has led hundreds of adults and children on tours of beloved area attractions: the tangle of vendors and pedestrians in the Italian Market; the brightly colored blooms of the Philadelphia Flower Show; the topsy-turvy curves of Malvern’s Wharton Esherick Museum; and the rolling woods of Wissahickon and Cobbs Creek nature centers.
“Touch is the mother of our senses,” said Trish Maunder, creative director of Philly Touch Tours. An art educator, Maunder developed ways to help her own blind daughter, Katie, now 33, experience art and culture. When Penn Museum officials learned of her expertise in 2012, they asked for her input in helping those with sight disabilities take tours of the museum.
That led her to start Philly Touch Tours, which has ventured outside the Delaware Valley — leading tours in New York, New Jersey, and Hershey. In the five years since its founding, the small operation has expanded its work to training educators and curators, even giving demonstrations to visiting students from China.
When people sign up for a Touch Tour, they are asked: How do you see? What is your field of vision? And — in phrasing as polite as possible — would you like a guide? (As Go, president of the Federation of the Blind’s Keystone Chapter, is quick to note, “Independence is one of the skills we pride ourselves on.”)
Tour groups can include people with a wide variety of disabilities, from those who are totally blind to those with low vision who may need higher-contrast lighting to accommodate their needs.
Adapting a standard tour to a Touch Tour requires flexibility on the part of the host. In the Italian Market, the groups smell and taste cheeses at Di Bruno Brothers and sample products at Cardenas Oil & Vinegar Taproom; they taste and feel various fruits and vegetables and learn how different pastas are made. But some experiences are less tactile than others. In those cases, informational texts are provided in Braille or large-font type, or docents describe artwork and the choices involved in creating them.
As at the Penn Museum, special access is often part of the deal. The Mütter Museum has also allowed Touch Tour visitors to handle some of its artifacts, such as old medical instruments and a Civil War-era prosthetic leg. And when an object is off-limits, the Mütter has instead made replicas.
For each tour, the Touch Tours team works with curators or managers to figure out how best to adapt their attractions for those who cannot see them clearly.
Program director Katherine Allen has a visual impairment herself. While working as an art director in New York, she suddenly developed a type of macular degeneration. “I was hiding it. Afraid I’d lose my job,” she said. “I wouldn’t ask people for help. I would trip a lot.”
During a visit to Philadelphia, Allen met up with a social group for those with visual impairments and learned about Touch Tours. Now she works as the organization’s logistical coordinator, bringing insight from her own vision loss.
Maunder also checks out the logistics of the tours, with a careful eye toward safety. On the recent visit to the Penn Museum — which hosts up to 10 Touch Tours a year — the three participants all navigated with canes. Maunder told them how to maneuver through hallways, past potted plants and a water fountain, to the cavernous Egyptian Gallery; they could immediately sense it was a much larger, taller space using their sense of “echo location,” said Ron Bonenfant, who accompanied his son Simon on the tour.
Touch Tour-trained docents Carl Adamczyk and Gene Magee showed the visitors how to trace the hieroglyphics on the Ramses II statue. As Adamczyk explained their meaning, Magee said he, too, enjoys when the visually impaired come for a visit — giving him a chance to touch the statues, as well.
“I love it,” Magee said. “You really learn about the object more thoroughly with your touch.”
Go could sense the differences in the stones used to make the artifacts. “It doesn’t feel as cold,” she said, touching a second statue. Then she recognized some of the same hieroglyphics on one statue as on another. “I’m reading Egyptian!” she exclaimed.
Goldstein felt a depiction of the goddess Nut, arms upraised, on the inside of a sarcophagus lid. “She’s doing yoga,” he joked.
As Go guided Simon’s hand to a particular hieroglyphic, Maunder pointed out that those with visual problems develop “very lovely … closer communication” because they need to use their sense of touch so much.
When the tour wrapped up at the Penn Museum, Goldstein said he appreciated the opportunity to touch the artifacts that were thousands of years old. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Having someone describe what it is is not the same.”