A young girl wearing a white pinafore and boots, using her hands to examine various ornithological specimens in a museum gallery; from the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums uploads to Flickr Commons.
There have been several recent conferences on making museums accessible to blind patrons--and next month (October) is Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month--but the project of opening museum collections and art education to blind visitors, students, and scholars is much older than some might assume.
John Alfred Charlton Deas was curator at the Sunderland Museum in the 1910s. When he retired from that position, he looked into opening the museum's eclectic holdings to the students at the nearby blind school--and his efforts were met with enthusiastic encouragement. Soon, the museum was holding events that allowed the students to handle armor, zoological specimens, skeletons, paintings, sculptures, antique weapons, and vases, among other items. These sessions happened during times when the museum was otherwise closed to the public, like Sunday afternoons. Beyond the tactile experience, docents were present to give verbal information aloud, where the written labels were of little use. Lectures by local experts were arranged, for further information. Back at school, the students made clay figures based on what they touched and learned at the museum. The children's teacher wrote, "With minds better stored than their predecessors, they ought to be keener observers, better workers and more intelligent citizens." For some sessions, blind adults were also invited to participate. Deas published a paper on his efforts in 1913, but the idea didn't find many imitators at the time.
Natural History magazine ran an article on an American version of the concept in 1914. They reported that the American Museum of Natural History (in New York) started working with blind schools in 1909, by lending them models and giving guest lectures. In 1910 a fund was established to support field trips from blind schools and institutions to the museum, and to sponsor visiting exhibits from the museum to the schools.
A photographer recorded the 1913 tactile museum experiences run by Deas, and the Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums has made a set of 38 images available (with no-known-copyright status) on Flickr Commons.