Blind students get to touch antiquities at Penn Museum

Doug Trinidad, 20, touches a statue of Sekhmet with Nahfis Wright, 19. The tours are offered most Mondays.
Doug Trinidad, 20, touches a statue of Sekhmet with Nahfis Wright, 19. The tours are offered most Mondays.
Posted: October 23, 2012

Elizabeth Messaros beamed as she ran her hands over Egyptian relics thousands of years old at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

The sightless teen, a student at the Overbrook School for the Blind, had a similar experience once at an art museum - but had to wear gloves.

"There, we were relying on rubber!" she said. Not so at Penn, where blind and visually impaired visitors had only to wipe their hands clean in between the half-dozen artifacts featured on a "touch tour" designed by Trish Maunder, coordinator of special tours. They are offered most Mondays through Dec. 10.

Blind Overbrook teacher Rebecca Ilniski grinned as she circled the 12-ton sphinx, one hand touching the granite, the other holding the leash of her guide dog.

"Just being able to examine parts of history that you learn about in class, but you're not really able to see, is awesome," she said. "This brings it to life."

Maunder, a Moorestown art educator who has raised two blind children, consulted with focus groups and an Egyptologist to design the tour, which she expected to attract 200 visitors from as far as the Poconos.

The exhibit has already had about 60 visitors, including Elsie Watson of Upper Darby, who was so overcome by what she had experienced she had to sit and take a breath. "I can't believe," she said, "that I'm touching something this old."

Just taking the tour has inspired some of the students to continue their studies of Egyptian history.

Some have returned to their classrooms and created sculptures and prints inspired by the exhibit, Maunder said.

After each tour, participants have been asked what could be added to the program. Maunder recalled the response of one man who came with a group from Allentown: "A sleepover! We'd give anything to spend the night right here."


Contact April Saul at 215-854-2872 or asaul@phillynews.com.

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