The Blind in the American Museum

The Museum develops programs for the blind.

Blind children examining exhibit at the  American Museum of Natural History

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.

“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.”

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.

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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