Samuel Gridley Howe, the first director of Perkins, was committed to teaching "scientifically," requiring his students to learn the theory of each field they studied instead of merely committing facts to memory. The scientific approach to learning taught children to think; to apply principles and theory to a given problem and to experience cause and effect directly. Howe understood that students who were blind did not have the benefit of learning about the natural world incidentally through observation, so tactile exploration of models supplemented theoretical science instruction.
In 1839, Perkins relocated to a spacious campus in South Boston, and Howe established a tactile museum featuring objects from the natural world and science disciplines. Students learned by exploring stuffed animals, minerals, shells and models of the solar system. Michael Anagnos, who became Perkins’ second director in 1879, was particularly enthusiastic about the "inestimable value" of the tactile mode of instruction: "It bridges over the chasm from the known to the unknown, from the concrete to the abstract, and lays a solid foundation for the mind to work upon. It raises the attention of the pupils and excites their interest. It appeals to experience and stimulates their powers of observation to intense activity."
Zoology classroom conducting a lesson on mammalia at the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind in South Boston, ca. 1893
Collecting objects to expand the museum’s collection was of special interest to Director Anagnos. The exhibited papier-mache model of a flower bud is one of 501 such items he bought in a single year. The "Auzoux’s botanical models were bought in France, by Mr. Anagnos, in 1880 at a great expense, but an expense justified by their value for those pupils who could not explore plants with a microscope." (Coon, 1948)
Alexander Mell, director of the Vienna school for the blind, purchased many of the museum’s science models in Europe. Mell and Anagnos were close colleagues and kindred spirits who had met while the Perkins director was visiting European schools. Captivated by the Vienna school’s large and sophisticated tactile museum, Anagnos was inspired to expand the Perkins collection. Mell was an avid collector who enjoyed hunting down tactile objects, and with his assistance the holdings of the Perkins museum grew impressively from 1880 through 1910.
When Dr. Allen became the third director of Perkins in 1907, he changed the school’s approach to science instruction, emphasizing practical applications more than theoretical work. However, during his directorship students did not have access to textbooks. Dr. Allen believed that the teacher alone should have access to the course information, imparting knowledge as he or she saw fit. His successor Dr. Farrell found this approach very "old fashioned." He preserved the school’s emphasis on practical science applications, but when he became director in 1931 he gave the students textbooks, putting a high value on students’ freedom to read and review the material at their own pace. Allen reported that they were very excited by the change.
Perkins began to host science fairs in the late 1940s. Young biology students displayed their models of skeletons crafted from plasticine and clay while young chemists showed off sometimes odorous chemical reactions. The admiring observers at these fairs were visiting parents, Watertown neighbors and members of the public from further afield.
Nelson Coon became the supervisor of the tactile museum in 1948, and he conducted a major renovation of the facility during the early 1950s. Cooperating with Perkins teachers, he integrated the exhibits into the curriculum, making the museum a dynamic element of classroom instruction. For many years the Museum Committee published a monthly newsletter and set up regular thematic changing exhibits, many of which focused on an area of science.
In recent years, technology has had a great impact upon science instruction at Perkins, beginning with the introduction of computers in 1968. Although technological innovations have opened new scientific horizons, models and other tactile materials continue to be essential and fundamental elements in the Perkins curriculum. The models’ materials are now plastic and thermoform instead of papier-mache and wood. However, the commitment of Perkins teachers to bringing students full knowledge of their world remains unchanged; they still "endeavor to place eyes in their fingers’ ends."
Suggested citation for scholars:
McGinnity, B.L., Seymour-Ford, J. and Andries, K.J. (2004) Science. Perkins History Museum, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, MA.