The Blind in the American Museum

The Museum develops programs for the blind.

Blind children at American Museum of Natural History

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. 


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.

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.

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