Students at Perkins School for the Blind know a thing or two about Helen Keller. They know she attended Perkins herself and that she was deafblind. They know she advocated for civil rights, and that she is famous today for changing the world’s perception of people with disabilities.
Now they know what art she experienced in Boston.
Keller embarked upon the first “touch tour” of art 115 years ago at what was then the Boston Art Museum, today the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). To commemorate that visit, the MFA invited Perkins Lower School students to come “see” the same works that Keller experienced – by actually touching the art.
A lot has changed since Keller’s visit. For one, the museum is now located on Huntington Avenue; the building Keller visited was in Copley Square. And museum-goers back in 1899 dressed up more than most modern visitors do. Photos in the hallway off the Visitor’s Center show women in gloves and elaborate hats and men in elegant attire.
Plus, much of what Keller saw and touched was actually plaster casts of original art. The museum has since collected the originals, and the plasters are long gone.
But two of the statues Keller touched are part of the museum’s collection. The impressive figures of Venus and Minerva are prominently displayed in the second floor rotunda, nestled in alcoves flanking the opening to the Greco-Roman wing. They were too high to reach, but the Perkins students were given outlines of the statues, embossed on paper, to feel the shape of the ancient works of art.
They also were able to hear Keller’s description of the statues, from a letter about her visit she wrote in 1899, that museum guide Jake Fried read aloud to them:
“General Loring (superintendent of the museum) himself came in, and showed me some of the most beautiful statues, among which were the Venus of Medici, the Minerva of the Parthenon. Venus entranced me. She looked as if she had just risen from the foam of the sea, and her loveliness was like a strain of heavenly music.”
Fried then led the students into the Greco-Roman wing so they could touch some of the original pieces of sculpture. While Keller had not seen these particular pieces, Fried said, her visit had included artwork from this time period.
With that, each student pulled on thin latex gloves and took turns running their hands over items more than two millennia old – a stone exterior of a burial sarcophagus, a funerary relief and a bust of a bald man.
The bald man was unusual, Fried explained, because “most sculptures at the time were of young, beautiful people. This one is old and fat, and more about realism.”
Student Zack, 14, found the ornately carved surface of the sarcophagus the most interesting: “The grooves are in an S pattern,” he said, following the curves with his hand.
Zoey, 9, got a lift from her wheelchair to run her hands along the time-worn stone of the funerary relief, which was at shoulder height.The students ended their visit with an opportunity to create their own art. They visited the museum’s art room to make clay reliefs, molding eyes, ears and noses on faces.
Melissa, 14, said the group enjoyed walking in the cultural footsteps of Perkins’ most famous student: “I think it’s amazing we get to see the same art Helen Keller did!”