Tactual Museum for Blind, Athens
Imagine what it’s like to travel to the most famous tourist sites in the world but to not be able to see them.
What it would be like to stand in front of the greatest artworks of human times but not be able to appreciate them? To try to understand the history of the world without images to put to the stories?
These are the struggles of the blind and the visually-impaired. Sightseeing is difficult if you have no sight and are unable to see.
The usual tourist behaviour of standing, looking, considering what is in front of you – it’s all a luxury that’s as foreign as the lands the sites are in.
One museum in Athens is trying to change all of that, though.
At the Tactual Museum, they’re trying to give people with sight problems a sense of Greece’s ancient history. Everything on exhibit can be touched and, not only can it all be touched, it’s supposed to be touched.
The rooms are filled with replicas of great Greek artworks – statues, frescoes, figurines. And with your hands, not your eyes, you can feel what they look like.
On the afternoon I visit, the woman working there hands me an eye mask. She explains that I should put it on before I look at each exhibit, then ‘see’ everything with my hands.
I’m the only person at the museum and it’s a strange sensation to put on the mask and feel blinded. Disoriented and confused, I reach out for the first artwork.
I know, from walking up to it, that it’s a statue of a woman but I can’t tell that from my first touch. I slide my hands around, use individual fingers, try to find something recognisable.
It’s hard to distinguish anything – it all just feels the same to me.
A nose. Finally, something that I can identify. From there I work my fingers around, finding the eyes, the mouth, the hairline.
It’s still difficult to really picture what I’m touching but at least I’m beginning to put together the elements.
It’s the same with all of the artworks. I cover my eyes with the mask and try to feel my way around the sculptures.
I’m almost caressing them, in the way you might explore a lover with your hands, trying to understand every part of them.
But I feel more than blind – I feel impotent, unable to appreciate what is in front of me. My senses are letting me down.
Is it easier for those who are actually visually-impaired? Is this an ability that develops over time or is it always this difficult?
I’m not sure how much you would get out of the process if it never got easier.
“We have some blind people who are coming here,” the woman at the front desk tells me. “But more it is school groups.”
School students who can see?
“Yes. We show them the Braille,” she explains.
“We show them how it is to walk with stick, how to feel your way with hands. It is so when they see someone blind on the street they know what to do, how to act.”
In that sense, the museum achieves its aim. It not only opens up the world of ancient Greece to the blind, but opens up the world of the blind to everyone else.