If accessibility seems an unsolvable riddle, the Penn Museum offers an answer - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 25, 2021 7:02 am

If accessibility seems an unsolvable riddle, the Penn Museum offers an answer

From touch tours to multi-sensory traveling boxes to ingenious alternatives in online programming, the museum in the heart of University City makes anthropology and archaeology come alive for blind and visually impaired patrons.

The Sphinx at the Penn Museum.

(Photo by by Julianna Whalen, courtesy of the Penn Museum)

The pandemic forced many businesses to rethink their traditional models if they want to stay afloat. But the Penn Museum has long been revamping its programs, motivated by a commitment to making  it accessible to persons with disabilities.

Located in the heart of University City, the Penn Museum is the home of ancient archaeological and anthropological artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Despite the delicate nature of its collection, in 2012 the museum launched a series of touch tours for the blind and visually impaired.

“Insights Into Ancient Egypt” allowed blind visitors to experience through touch, selected objects from its Egypt collection. Trish Maunder, who has both a personal and professional passion of making art accessible, was hired as the program’s coordinator. So began the partnership between Maunder and the Penn Museum.

Maunder, who is sighted and the parent of a now adult blind daughter, spent a year building the program, getting input from the blind community and nonprofits that serve them. The weekly tours hosted no less than 20 blind participants — for whom this was more than just a social outing.

“It was an incredible and engaging experience, “ Maunder said. “People were telling me they had no idea of the power of touching ancient objects. I believe they had a more valuable experience than those of us who just look at things.”

The touch tour series was all-inclusive, including docents or tour guides who also had some form of vision loss. The program was so successful, the following year funding was doubled to continue and expand the touch tours.

While the touch tours helped visitors once inside the museum, Kevin Schott, associate director of learning and public engagement, noticed another barrier. Although the museum is near public transportation, station stops leave pedestrians (sighted or not) to navigate a wandering and potentially dangerous walk to the museum.

The Penn Museum. (Photo by Remy Perez, courtesy of the Penn Museum)

Shott said that even paratransit and rideshare drivers have often been confused about safely getting visitors to the museum entrance. He once had to rescue a blind person whose rideshare driver left her stranded in the middle of an intersection.

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So in 2019 Schott literally took the show on the road.

“The Box” as Schott calls it, contains portable replicas that he personally travels with to schools and nonprofits for the visually impaired. Schott added relevant oils such as frankincense and myrrh as additional non-visual engagement components. Schott said The Box lets participants “really take their time with the objects.” And having multiple copies of replicas allowed for more than a one-person-at-a- time experience.

When the pandemic temporarily shuttered museums and gatherings, many institutions switched to virtual programming. But during one of their regular check-ins Schott and Maunder agreed that the virtual tours were simply not an accessible option for a blind person.

That conversation led to yet another iteration — “Discovering Ancient Egypt in sound” — an audio-described tour. The dial-in tour is approximately one hour long, with Schott providing narrative and playing audio samples of the culture. Listeners will hear the history of the Arabic language and then hear samples of everyday greetings spoken in Arabic. There are audio samples of music, folktales, and prayers. And do you know the original name of Egypt? Take the tour to find out.

Schott says the dial-in feature levels the playing field in more ways than one.

Blind patrons get an audio description that allows for individual visualization. It also eliminates the technological challenges of using virtual platforms that are often inaccessible. Further, the museum is reaching people outside of Philadelphia. Schott is presenting the tour to a blind member nonprofit in a New Jersey city more than two hours away.

“In some ways I wish we had started with the audio tour,” Schott said. “It can be used to get people to want to visit us. And I think this is something that will outlive the pandemic,” he said.

David Goldstein is blind and has experienced each version of the museum’s tours. For him, the audio tour really is the next best thing to being there. “It was awesome! They made the culture come to life, “ he said.

Maunder left the museum several years ago to cofound Philly Touch Tours (PTT). Since 2014, PTT has provided touch experiences for  places like  The Italian Market, and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. The Penn Museum is one of their staple venues.

For now, the group stays connected virtually. Meanwhile, Maunder and her team are developing training programs for institutions. The Arden Theatre, the Museum of the American Revolution and the Science History Institute are just a few organizations that have requested PTT’s trainings.

“Our desire is training staff well enough so that it’s an integral part of their programming,” said Maunder.

Schott agrees there is a broad advantage to being an accessible institution. “When you make it accessible to one, you make it accessible to all,” he said.

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