New ROM Program Allows Blind Visitors to Touch Exhibits

Museum, which received $1.5-million gift from anonymous donor, also launching American Sign Language tours for the deaf

Ann Hui
Globe and Mail Update Published on Tuesday, Jun. 01, 2010

Anne Henderson crouches forward, running her gloved hand along the carved surface of the ancient burial tomb and feeling for the immortal God’s “little
tummy” that the museum worker tells her she will find. “It’s actually a big tummy,” Ms. Henderson says when she finally feels it, laughing. She reaches
her arm up, and the museum guide, Elsie Lo, pulls her back to her feet.

Ms. Henderson was at the Royal Ontario Museum Tuesday for the launch of two new accessibility programs: tactile tours for those who are blind, and American Sign Language tours for those who are deaf. The museum announced the programs after receiving a $1.5-million gift from an anonymous donor.

Before gradually losing her vision in 1995, Ms. Henderson says she was a frequent visitor to the museum. But after she could no longer see, she says “I
stopped coming because I found it frustrating. We couldn’t get close enough. We couldn’t see what was going on.”

Now, guided by trained museum staff, she’s able to touch and feel her way through the museum’s selection of eight artifacts on the tour, including the late Ming-era Chinese tumulus she’s standing in front of. All participants of the tactile tour are asked to don nitrile gloves before touching any exhibits,
to keep oils or fluids from the skin from damaging the artifacts. In addition, the exhibits selected for the tour are, for the most part, large ones like
the approximately 10-foot tumulus, and are at no risk of tipping over or falling.

“When I immediately saw someone touching the artifact, I wanted to say ‘Oh no! no!,’” says Shelagh O’Donnell, the museum’s head of communication. “But then I realized ‘Oh right, it’s okay.’”

Working with the museum’s Accessibility Advisory Committee, of which Ms. Henderson is a part, the ROM created the tours over the course of two years. Each tour is free of charge with museum admission and will run once a month.

“For someone with vision loss, being in a museum is like being in a black box if there are no experiences,” says Cheryl Blackman, who helped create the
new tour and is the ROM’s head of visitor experience. “We wanted to make the museum more welcoming for people with disabilities.” All museum staff will be trained in working with people with disabilities, she says, and the ROM will look into working with groups with other disabilities in the future.

The ASL tours will be executed in a partnership with George Brown College’s School of Deaf and Deafblind Studies, and students enrolled in the college’s three-year ASL-English interpreter program will work at the museum as part of their practicum.

“This brings a whole new level to accessibility,” says Jeralee Munro, one of the George Brown students who will be providing ASL interpretation alongside a museum docent. “It shows how advanced Ontario is, yet how far we still have to go.”

Other galleries across the country, such as Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada, already offer tactile and ASL-interpreted tours, but often only upon request. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has been offering similar tours since the late 1990s, says the museum’s access coordinator Rebecca McGinniss, which receive about 6,000 visitors a year.

Immediately after her tour, Ms. Henderson is delighted. “They’ve really gone out of their way to make this enjoyable,” she says, smiling.

As she takes off her blue gloves, she pauses for a moment and looks up with a grin before asking, “Do these match my outfit?”

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