Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Templo Mayor staff allows blind and visually weak visitors feel the history

The Templo Mayor archaeological site in Mexico City’s historic center is the result of a chance discovery. Electric company workers were digging in February 1978 and came upon the Coyolxauhqui Stone. The resulting museum, right behind the ruins of the Aztec Main Temple, only a block from the National Cathedral, was Mexico’s first post-Venice Charter site.

La Carta de Venecia (Venice Charter) was written and signed in Italy in 1964 and then refined and resigned in Ankara, Turkey in 1977. The Charter provides guidelines for all art and archaeological conservation. It favors consolidating ruins rather than restoring them and argues for on-site museums rather than sending artifacts to large national museums. The point was to allow visitors to decide what’s important and what’s not by giving access to a good sampling of everything archaeologists find on-site.

Architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, with the design of the National Museum of Anthropology under his belt, designed the space. In his travels he’d found a characteristic many museums share is a tendency to be user-unfriendly places. Immediately after the sign welcoming us we are usually given the list of “No’s.” Don’t touch, don’t eat, don’t sit, no photos.

Ramírez Vázquez suggested, “Let’s make this a friendly museum —  especially for children. Make display cases low so children don’t have to be picked up by an adult in order to see them … Yes, they’ll drag sticky fingers over glass cases while eating candy but you’ll be charging an entrance fee and will have money to pay a person to go through after a group of children and wipe the display cases clean.”

Museumographers included displays with captions in braille which the visually weak and blind are welcome to touch. This was put in place 35 years ago — before most of the museum security guards lives began. I’ve often wondered if they’d really allow a visually weak visitor to touch such a display.
Last week I was pleasantly surprised by the answer when I led a visit of students and faculty from Columbus, Ohio’s Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Seminarian David Young is visually disabled as a result of a bout with cancer and uses a cane to guide his way. When I asked a security guard if David could touch the life-sized sculpture of
the messenger god Chac Mool, he nodded his approval.

I expected David to read the braille caption and touch the sculpture with the tips of his fingers. Instead, he gave the braille only cursory attention and then sat beside the god. With both hands – fingers extended and palms spread – David ran his hands all over the sculpture. While he did that he described it to us in detail. From him I learned elements of texture and details of this Chac Mool I’d never noticed.

I timorously glanced at the security guard expecting to be told that David had gone too far. The smiling guard said, “That piece is a copy. There’s an original against the wall; he’s welcome to ‘see’ it too.”

Later David told me, “The fact that things I ‘saw’ with my hands gave other people new insights blew my mind. I guess I always think I see less than others and the fact that you got something out of my interpretation impacted me in a very emotional and meaningful way.”

David’s description of the piece I had seen many times made me recall a question I once asked an archaeologist, “Why do you have your workers make drawings of everything you find when you could take photographs of them?” “You see much more when making a drawing,” he replied.

After that I was on the lookout for other touchable displays. In the museum’s last room David described a keystone from a Roman arch of a Spanish building built on what had been the Aztec main plaza. David described the notches where the adjacent stones had interlocked with the keystone – notches not visible in the finished arch.

David’s museum experience was unique for him. “I’ve never seen this anywhere before. In the United States museums usually give me the $2 audio-guide for free. But you can’t see with your ears. You can see with your hands. And that makes a huge difference.”

He added, “I also noticed how frequently I was able to sit down in the Templo Mayor Museum. At every staircase leading from one gallery to the next I could sit on a bench with a backrest. Another positive aspect of this museum is the lighting. Exhibits are very well lit and were very easy for me to look at with my partial sight. I thought it was the most handicapped-friendly museum I’ve ever visited.”

Ramírez Vázquez would have been pleased his museum met David’s needs. I know I was. I didn’t ask the friendly guard if sighted people can close their eyes and touch the exhibits for the blind. I’d like to try. Could my un-tutored touch “see” some of what David described?

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