Touch Tours for Visitors with Low Vision at the Harvard Semitic Museum

Stepping expectantly into a museum gallery with a vast skylight overhead, the men and the Harvard student guide pause within six inches of a statue portraying a carefully coiffed Assyrian king. Emily Axelsen ’23 is leading her first Touch Tour at the Harvard Semitic Museum, a beta-test of the new free program for adults with visual impairments. The small group has already navigated the elevator, another 25 feet to the gallery, and over a sill, to enter From Stone to Silicone: Recasting Mesopotamian Monuments. Axelsen begins to describe the space.

We’re in a rectangular room with twelve resin slabs on the walls. There are freestanding statues throughout the room, and two glass cases with smaller artifacts as well as two video kiosks on the wall behind us. The skylight takes up much of the ceiling and provides natural light.” Axelsen explains that the 7x3’ resin panels on the walls are precise copies of 3000-year-old original stone carvings that once adorned the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud, near modern-day Mosul in Iraq. Throughout the tour, Axelsen’s visitors may touch the panels, and handle several models and a 3D-printed replica of the Ashurnasirpal statue, rather than the fragile original. She continues, “Each panel tells a significant story, and shows the key roles of kings at this time,” she says. “The first one is called Hunting Lions from a Chariot. Would you like to explore it first or would you like me to explain it first?”

Howard Sumner, a retired medical device executive who started to lose his sight at age 62 and now describes his vision as “extremely blind,” asks for an explanation first. Sumner is among the 38 million Americans over age 40 who are blind, visually impaired, or have an age-related eye disease. He and his sighted friend Bill Cooney are experienced museum visitors, having taken tours for visually impaired people at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The two men consider the panel as Axelsen vividly describes the armed guards, the king in his chariot drawn by three horses, and the wounded lion. “You can feel the arrows in the lion,” she invites. “May I move your hand?”

Axelsen is an experienced guide, having led New-York Historical Society groups for three summers, but she has never given tours for visually impaired people until now. Polly Hubbard, Director of Education for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology and the Harvard Semitic Museum, who is developing the Touch Tours, also lacked experience with the population, but was determined to learn. “Creating tours for visitors with vision loss benefits the growing population of elders and fits our mission to make the museums accessible to a widely diverse audience. Practicing these accommodations in one exhibit can help us get better at designing our next projects with this audience in mind,” said Hubbard. “Also, curator Adam Aja was committed to making this art available for people like his father who suffered from vision loss, so that was another important driver for moving ahead. He determined that the resin casts, which are not originals, can also handle gentle supervised touching.”

To develop a tour “script” and strategies, Hubbard sought guidance from managers of accessibility at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. She reviewed resources produced by Art Beyond Sight—a New York-based nonprofit that supports access to art and activities for all abilities—and sought beta testers through the Harvard University Disability Office.  “A super helpful piece of this process was learning from Susan McFarlane, a Harvard Extension School student who designed and carried out a research project in the museum about the way people with vision loss experience color,” said Hubbard. “Her paper and observations really helped.” Hubbard and Axelsen also received training at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. There, they were told to close their eyes and practice being led, and then practice their powers of description as tour leaders. “We learned a few necessary strategies,” says an appreciative Hubbard. “How to consider learning style along with ability, how to move through narrow spaces, what pace to walk with someone on your arm, how to guide someone’s hand to a relevant detail. We also focused on how much we actually use sight to inform our senses and how to compensate for sight loss with thoughtfully timed descriptions.  Many of these strategies are useful with sighted audiences as well.”

At the Semitic Museum, the two men visit five more objects in the gallery, including a panel depicting a dramatic escape: Assyrian archers attack three men swimming in a river. The escaping swimmers use inflated goat bladders to cross the torrential waters. To finish the tour, Axelsen leads the men to comfortable couches and offers sample molds and casts to handle as she explains the process for creating the art they have just experienced.

Sumner compared the quantity of art and specimens that sighted visitors might encounter at the Guggenheim or American Museum of Natural History, noting that a guided tour for people with vision loss might only feature six objects, “but those six things are described so vividly, you can see it in your mind.” He appreciates that the Semitic tour lasts about an hour, explaining that longer tours can be mentally exhausting. Asked to recommend improvements to the Semitic Museum’s tour, he first compliments Axelson’s performance—as befits a man who currently mentors MIT students—then wonders if a fabric sample might be available, similar to the king’s robe, or a sound sample of the musicians depicted in the art.  Based on Sumner’s recommendations, Hubbard located an appropriate musical excerpt, but identifying an accurate fabric sample was more of a challenge. Even at Harvard some things can not be confirmed.

In all, Sumner is pleased with the tour so far, and says, “It’s a good time to be blind, compared to what it must have been like fifty years ago.”

Harvard Semitic Museum Touch Tours will be offered to blind and visually impaired people during fall and spring semesters starting February 9, 2020. See website for blackout dates. Summer tours will be available upon request. To reserve a Touch Tour or to request information, please complete the online reservation request form. The reservationist will be in contact for additional information and to answer questions. Phone calls are also welcome (617) 495-3216.