Please touch: Perkins' Tactile Museum embraces an unusual mandate

A stuffed owl displayed among other animals in the tactile museum.

Taxidermied animals inhabit table tops and walls inside the Tactile Museum.

Perspectives Issue:
Fall 2014

The exquisitely soft down on the base of a swan’s neck. The bristly thatched roof of an English cottage. The smooth aluminum skin of an airplane.

These are things that most people have probably never touched. Unless, of course, they’ve visited the Tactile Museum at Perkins School for the Blind.

Most museums have a hard and fast rule of “look, but don’t touch” – something that makes sense, given that many of the items are old, fragile or quite valuable. That rule is exactly the opposite at the Tactile Museum, where every item can be touched and held. In fact, visitors are encouraged to put their hands on the objects, from soft animal pelts to skeleton bones. For students at Perkins who have low or no vision and learn by using their other senses, the wide array of items here offers a more comprehensive grasp of the world.

“There are lots of things that are too big or too small for kids to touch,” said Betsey Sennott, director of the museum. “Buildings, for example, or a blood cell.” So she has smaller models built to scale, like the table-top rendition of the ancient Greek temple known as the Parthenon, and oversized models of microscopic cells that students can take apart and examine.

There are skeleton bones, fossils, toy trains, a replica of the Rosetta Stone. Nothing is off limits.

If the students are reading “Animal Farm” and need to know what a windmill is, they can find a hand-held one here. If they’re reading a story about a farm in Iceland, being able to touch the different parts of a farm – a barn, some fencing, a small bale of hay – provides context.

The museum, more than 150 years old, has existed almost as long as the school itself. Getting there means entering the old stone building set squarely in the heart of campus, and wending the way down to the lower level. There, in a tiled basement room with low ceilings, rows upon rows of glass-front cases house the plethora of diverse items. Taxidermied animals inhabit table tops and walls. All are available to be touched, picked up and handled.

While most of those doing the touching are Perkins students, this hands-on opportunity is also available to visitors who take a tour of the campus. There’s a large piece of tough rhinoceros hide, a three-foot model of an American space shuttle, a life-size shiny, gray hammerhead shark that feels almost plastic. “The skin doesn’t feel like shark skin. It’s much smoother,” says Kevin Hartigan, director of Volunteer Services and Tours, of the six-foot animal. “But we don’t want the students to know what a shark feels like; we want them to know what a shark looks like.” On the wall is the mounted head of an elk with antlers like large paddles, a long-ago gift from a hunter who took a tour and wanted to give back.

But the ability to touch, while valuable, only compensates for a portion of what students with blindness need to know.

“Taxidermied animals are static; they don’t move,” said Sennott. “We need to explain to the students and fill in the details, like what the animal does and how it moves. Plus, we need to point out the fact that the rod holding it upright isn’t part of the actual animal.”

That might seem obvious to someone looking at the animal, but imagine simply putting hands on it and “seeing” it for the first time. Without the explanation, how would it be clear that the rod wasn’t part of the whole picture?

Here’s another thing: the animals here are cleaned up and ready for their close-ups. Real animals smell musky and their fur may be oily or matted. “The kids don’t get environmental cues with these pieces,” said Sennott.

But they do have access to unusual objects, like the elephant tusk that nowadays would be verboten. Or the speckled duck egg with the date “1891” stamped on its fragile shell.

Many of the items have been here since the 1800s, meaning visitors could be touching the same thing that Helen Keller herself laid hands upon. Some have been purchased, many were donated. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife provided some of the animals as well as the elephant tusk. The zebra skin and unusual elephant foot stool were confiscated by U.S. Customs before finding their way to Perkins.

A number of items, including scale model buildings and mathematical models, were created as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the 1930s and ‘40s. This government program put people to work during the Great Depression, and gave Perkins a wealth of objects that enhanced students’ learning experience.

“Every item needs to be useful, sturdy and okay to touch,” said Sennott.

With vision, the details can be picked up in short order and processed instantly. But someone with no vision would find it difficult to wrap their arms around a building, literally and figuratively. Touching a column or running hands along the wall lets one feel the surface, Sennott said, but not how high the column goes or how many windows are in the walls. Scale models give that information.

“Kids can take the steeple off Independence Hall and find the bell,” said Sennott. “And the Parthenon comes apart.”

There’s also a dollhouse-size church, with pews and stained glass windows. For those students who attend church, this helps them understand the size and length of the seat they sit on. They can feel that the windows aren’t just smooth glass: they have pictures in them.

But the reach of the museum goes beyond the walls of Perkins. Sennott has lent items to the New Hampshire Association of the Blind, to the Boston Children’s Museum for its Art and Sight and Blindness exhibit, and to public school teachers of the visually impaired (TVIs) through Perkins’ educational partnership endeavors.

Janet Ulwick-Sacca, a TVI who works with public school students, particularly likes the mitosis/meiosis sets that illustrate cell reproduction – and come in handy when students face the subject matter on standardized tests like MCAS. She has relied upon the Tactile Museum’s resources for years. It saves her public school money and gives her access to a greater array of objects than she would have otherwise.

“The scientific equipment there is great, and very expensive,” said Ulwick-Sacca. “It’s too expensive for me to buy myself.”

Barbara Gillmeister, another public school TVI, concurred. “When you have just one student out there in space, you don’t have the resources to purchase or create things,” she said. “I’ve borrowed models of brains, body parts, internal organs. It’s a fabulous resource.” Some of her favorite pieces have been the brain that comes apart, and the cell models from animals and plants.

Both Gillmeister and Ulwick-Sacca laud Sennott for going above and beyond to give their students access to materials. When Ulwick-Sacca’s students were studying habitats, Sennott invited the TVI to bring them in for a scavenger hunt. “The kids had a fabulous time,” she said. So which item gets the most attention? Hands down, it’s that downy white swan. According to Sennott, everyone coming through just has to touch it.

“It’s really soft underneath,” she said. “I constantly have to brush the feathers back down after a group comes through.” 

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