Pick from the Past

The  American  Museum  Journal



By Agnes Laidlaw Vaughan

A new experience for sightless children: The American Museum furnishes an instructor for classes of blind children who are allowed to “see” with their hands the many interesting animals they read and talk about.

AMNH Photo

THE work with the blind in the American Museum began in 1909. Several members of the Museum staff had given lectures on natural history to clubs and gatherings of blind people and had been granted permission to use some of the Museum material for illustration. The experience was so interesting that it suggested to Dr. Hermon C. Bumpus, then director of the Museum, the possibility of special work for the blind in the Museum, and the trustees authorized the preparation of a room to contain collections of interest to blind visitors.

Casual blind visitors to the Museum are rare however, and after testing for two years the practicality of a special exhibit, we decided to remove it and make an arrangement whereby the instructors could meet blind visitors and show them specimens in the exhibition halls. In many instances the specimens were taken out of the cases for examination, and where this was not possible, as in many of the ethnographical exhibits, the visitors were taken to the storage study collections.

The Ziegler Blind Magazine, through the courtesy of its editor, Mr. Walter Holmes, published notices of the welcome extended to blind visitors and of the facilities for seeing the collections. The information was sent also to the Public Library for the Blind, to the public schools, and to all the institutions for the blind in or near New York. The response was slight as regards numbers but large in enthusiasm, and the comments of the visitors were often amusing as well as stimulating. One of a group of young women “seeing” a hippopotamus called, “My! Annie, just come here. This is the homeliest beast you ever saw! Why, he's a block long!” Another woman remarked, “I lost my sight when I was sixteen and I remember lots of things, but I never noticed till now that the knee of the ostrich was way up like this. I think seeing people don't half use their eyes.” One recalls this last comment frequently when showing objects to the blind, and notes the concentration and observation of detail which are often closer in them than in the sighted visitor.

During the first year the work with the blind was experimental and more or less spasmodic. In 1910 however, its development and extension were made possible through the bequest of Phebe Anna Thorne, and gifts in her name by her brothers, Jonathan and Samuel Thorne. This generous endowment, known as the Jonathan Thorne Memorial Fund, provides a fixed income which enables the Museum to supply transportation for the blind and their guides to and from the Museum; to send loan collections to schools in the vicinity of New York; and to give Illustrated lectures in the Museum to school children and to the adult blind.

The subjects of these lectures have included several on natural history and ethnology. One on ancient Peru consisted partly of readings from Prescott's Peru. The audience was deeply interested to learn that Prescott was blind when he wrote this famous book. Among the objects illustrating this lecture were some fine examples of Peruvian pottery. These were later reproduced in clay by one of the blind girls. A talk on the songs of North American Indians was illustrated by unique phonograph records taken among the Dakota, Blackfoot and other tribes, and by musical instruments and other related objects.

All of these blind-deaf had been taught to speak and they asked many intelligent questions during the course of the discussion and “finger-view” of the objects.

In the audience was a striking group consisting of a class of blind-deaf from an institution for the deaf. There were five pupils, two of whom could hear if they sat directly in front of the speaker, accompanied by two teachers, one deaf and one normal. The latter interpreted the lecture by finger language on the hand of one pupil and by lip movement, aided by the fingers of her free hand, to the other teacher, who passed on the words by means of her fingers to the other two girls. All of these blind-deaf had been taught to speak and they asked many intelligent questions during the course of the discussion and “finger-view” of the objects.

This year the plans for thorough organization have matured. We are now engaged in making a census of all the blind people in and near New York City, for which a mailing list will be prepared with the assistance of the New York Association for the Blind and the New Jersey State Commission. A letter has been sent to each person on this list, enclosing a post card to be filled out and returned. The data relates to the occupation and hours of work, whether the person is able to attend afternoon or evening lectures; topics of especial interest; and ability to secure guidance; This file will enable us to communicate directly with the blind people, and to get an idea of the topics that will be useful to them.

The work with the blind was made possible through the bequest of Phebe Anna Thorne and gifts in her name by her brothers, Jonathan and Samuel Thorne.

AMNH Photo

Two or three evening lectures will be given by notable persons; by explorers and scientists. Admiral Peary has consented to be the first speaker. The audience will pass from his lecture to an examination of relief charts, of the sledge that reached the North Pole, of fur clothing, Eskimo implements and Arctic animals, including the Peary caribou, the most northern of the deer family. The afternoon lectures, of a more informal character, will describe the Panama Canal, life and work among primitive people, and how animals care for their young. The blind children in the public schools have been coming to the Museum for informal talks on natural history and other subjects, such as stories told to Indian and Eskimo children; man and his tools—from the river pebble to machinery.

One talk had as its theme, “the struggle for existence” of the mouse, although we called it “Meadow Mice and their Enemies.” A mounted specimen of a meadow mouse was passed from hand to hand and we talked about the details of its appearance, its size, teeth and its likeness to other rodents. The meadow mouse destroys the farmer's crops and the farmer kills the mouse whenever he can. Whatever creature feeds upon the mouse is, in so far, the farmer's friend. We “saw” the creatures of the air that prey upon the mouse—the hawk and the owl; the enemies that hunt it in the grass—the cat, skunk, weasel, the silent snake; and learned how each one hunts its prey. To understand how the mouse manages to exist with such a host of enemies, we described its home in the grass, its habits, the young mice and the number of families a mouse-pair can raise in a season. And thus the hour had passed before a single child was ready to go.

The objects lent to the schools for the blind include the regular school collections and ethnographical specimens selected according to the request of the teachers. Indian or Eskimo clothing, implements and toys arouse such interest that several of the blind children write letters to the Museum during the school year to express their pleasure in the collections. The material is selected outside of its interest value, with regard to form, use and durability under use, although the care exercised by the teachers is effective in keeping the objects intact.

“The hippopotamus is a very short fat animal. . . . The corners of his mouth turn up and almost meet his eyes and make you think he is laughing.”

Suggestions for related reading often accompany the loan. These collections or things “seen” at the Museum are made the subjects of compositions, which are occasionally sent us by the teachers. Quotations from these essays show the observation and memory of the children, and their facility of expression:

Would you like to know what an idea the camel impressed upon my mind? His head is small in proportion to the rest of its body, his legs are long and its feet are flat so that he can walk over the sand without sinking. . . .

The hippopotamus is a very short fat animal. He has a big fat head and tiny little ears on the top of his head. His eyes are very small and are on the upper part of his head so he can stick his head out of the water and see what is going on. . . . His mouth is very big. It is like a half-circle. The corners of his mouth turn up and almost meet his eyes and make you think he is laughing. . . .

Another child writes of the hippopotamus, “He is so fat that he has a big rinkle in his neck.” The spelling however is remarkably good for children, rinkle being the only mistake in half a dozen compositions.

For the blind children the visits to the Museum will be recognized from now on as part of their school work and will be made during school hours. There are more than one hundred blind children in the elementary schools, too many to deal with satisfactorily at one time. One-half of the classes will come to the Museum on the second Tuesday and the other half on the fourth Tuesday of the month. The same lecture will be repeated, and will be given a third time to classes from Jersey City and Newark.

We agreed that the small model should not be used alone, but that it is valuable as supplementary to the examination of life-size mounted specimens of large mammals.

In addition to natural history specimens and ethnographical material lent to the schools, we have prepared several small models of large mammals. There has been a good deal of discussion on the use of small models with blind children, and in Mr. J. A. Charlton Deas's admirable paper on the “Showing of Museums and Art Galleries to the Blind,” in a recent number of the Museums Journal of Great Britain, he and his associates deprecate the use of small models of animals. I took his arguments to some trained workers for the blind, with a wide experience; and we carried the discussion further than it had gone in England, and agreed that the small model should not be used alone, but that it is valuable as supplementary to the examination of life-size mounted specimens of large mammals.

The child forms a better conception of the animal as a whole, and of the proportion of its parts from the model which he can hold in his hands. His adjustment to the conception of size may be trained, as is that of the sighted child when regarding maps, pictures or toys. The danger however of the first impression fixing an erroneous conception of size and texture is perhaps greater for the blind than for the normal child whose adjustments are more rapid and constant. We propose therefore, both the life-size mount and the small model. The child shall first feel the actual specimen, shall realize that it is large, hairy and so forth; then he shall take the model and study the appearance of the animal as a whole, and gain a more definite conception of its proportions. He may then study the mounted animal in detail.

The blind children of the city are pitiably lacking in “background.” The most common objects are unknown to them; teachers find that the appearance of domestic animals, except perhaps the cat or dog, is outside of their knowledge. The visit to the Museum means more than an hour's instruction, more than the mere viewing of new objects, it means a change of environment, a stimulation of intellectual expression, the appreciation of the socializing forces which go to produce public institutions for the distribution of knowledge and the betterment of life.

A blind man epitomized the labor and purpose of science when he laid his hand on the enormous meteorite “Ahnighito” brought from far Greenland, and exclaimed, “And they took all that trouble to bring this big thing down here so we'd know there are such things.”

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