The author acknowledges that blind and visually impaired people constitute only about one percent of annual visitors to his museum, but has nevertheless implemented tactile exhibits to enhance the learning and enjoyment of everyone. He describes tactile workshops he has developed to train visitors to get the most out of handling and exploring objects through touch.

1. What does "being astonished by touching" mean?

In March, 2012, the area of "Touch the World: Widen Your Perspective" was set up in the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan. The area was not large, but visitors were allowed to take time to enjoy the touch of various ethnic materials there. The area was located in the Information Zone, which attracts a lot of visitors.

The guide to "Discovery Space" is on the leaflet of the Information Zone of the National Museum of Ethnology.

Under the title "Touch the World: Widen your Perspective" are shown three key phrases and three photos of the objects each relating the concept of "Discovery Space".

  • Stop and touch:
    Have a conversation with an artifact. Touch it, hold it, take your time, observe its form and texture. Handle it gently and think about the people who made it, their culture and society. This is where touching the world begins.
  • Look and touch
    As you read the explanations, fell free to use both hands and eyes to explore the overall form, structure of the details, the relationship of inside and outside. think about the materials used and how the object was made.
  • Don't look, just touch
    What can you learn about form and details by touch? Try it. Investigate the difference between the senses of touch, sight, and hearing.

Nearly 100,000 visitors have enjoyed the experience of touching the world since the opening of this space in March last year. Some of the comments of the visitors were as follows:

"I could clearly feel the difference of materials such as wood, stone and metal."

"I was interested in a musical instrument that makes sounds by moving hands. Activating it was more difficult than I had expected. I tried it again and again."

"I was able to savor elaborate handworks and various textures that I couldn't appreciate just by looking at."

This area will be the base of my activity hereafter. My long appeals for touchable exhibits led to this thematic exhibition, which lasted for a limited period. From now on, I will advocate of the extent and the depth of "touching" from this permanent exhibition area. I will explain "tactile learning", which is the fundamental concept of this exhibit together with my own experience.

I totally lost my eyesight when I was thirteen. After getting my Ph.D. from Kyoto University, I got a position in the National Museum of Ethnology in 2001 at the age of 33. Originally I was not so eager to work in a museum, and I intended to continue my study of religious history here in this museum. Ten years passed swiftly, and museology is now my special field of study. Since I assumed a new post, I have reconsidered the meaning of the museum as a cultural institute. As shown clearly in the word "observation tour" and "viewing", the museum has been thought to be a facility where people learn and enjoy themselves through looking at exhibits. Consciously or unconsciously, museums have left the visually impaired out in the cold. As a visually impaired stuff member of this museum, my earnest desire is to make our museum a facility where the visually impaired have a good time appreciating the exhibits. It has been the fundamental stance of our museum.

My first task along this line was to update our Braille pamphlet and to make transliteration versions of our information bulletins. Cassette tapes were used for several years, but now they are recorded on CDs and distributed to Braille and talking book libraries throughout the country.

In 2006, I organized a thematic exhibition, "Touch and Grow Rich". This exhibition became a big turning point in my career. Since I began to consider holding "Touch and Grow Rich", I had had an ardent wish to make the exhibit enjoyable for the visually impaired. In order to realize this wish, I decided to collect materials that visitors are allowed to touch freely.

While I selected materials for the exhibit, my initial wish gradually shifted toward a thematic exhibition to attract the sighted as well. Every spring and fall, groups of teachers and students visit our museum on school excursion. Judging simply from the number is not proper, but ninety-nine percent of them are the sighted. Although the number of visually impaired visitors has increased recently, it is less than one percent.

Admitting that respect for the minority is the mission of public facilities, isn't it reversed discrimination to hold an exhibition for the visually impaired in the national museum? Visually impaired people may touch the exhibit freely, but the sighted must not…. It may be useful for preservation of materials, but it cannot be called a "universal" exhibition, which should be enjoyable for everybody.

Needless to give successful examples of children's museums, it is basically possible for all visitors to appreciate exhibits by touching them. This will surely activate museums. Ultimately the objectives of the exhibition sifted to communicating the pleasure and richness of touching to the sighted. By devising a unique exhibit from the viewpoint of the visually impaired, we were able to break down one-sided stereotype that the sighted always give support to the visually impaired and not the opposite.Opposing the stale dichotomy of the sighted/the visually impaired, I propose new naming; kenjosha = people whose living depends on the eyesight, and shokujosha = people whose living depends on the sense of touch. Creating a ground of heterogeneous culture communication between kenjosha and shokujosha has been my big theme since the exhibition "Touch and Grow Rich".

Then, what is the difference between the tactile exhibit for which I aim and the traditional hands-on exhibit? In this world there exists tactile culture, facts we cannot understand without touching, charm of materials realized only through touching. Learning and enjoying tactile culture is the chief purpose of this "exhibition through practical experience". A hands-on exhibit will make it possible. Besides "learning" and "enjoying", I think, we will be able to experience "being astonished". Today we can get a great deal of information much faster than before through the internet and television. We are in an age when the sense of sight has an advantage over the sense of touch. While we depend on the convenience of the sense of sight, we tend to forget the importance of the other senses, especially of the sense of touch.

"Being astonished" is defined as "noticing and recognizing the potential of tactual sense in oneself"; just as I was astonished when I found myself reading Braille smoothly one day. I venture to write "astonished", not "surprised". "Being astonished" means change and discovery on the physical level. It will be my lifework to create a museum that can provide fresh excitement of "being astonished through touching" to many visitors, especially, to the sighted.

2. Arranging the three elements of "touch"

In 2009, we started the Society for the Study of Universal Museum with the intention of having a little more general discussion based on practical knowledge of touch of the totally blind. Our society has grown steadily, and we have had workshops and open lecture meetings involving all museum-related people and parties in the country. Here, in this paper, I will introduce the results and tasks integrating into two articles. One is "from enlightenment to application"; the other is "from experiences to theory".

First, the key concept of "from enlightenment to experience" is to make good use of experiences of the visually impaired that learn and take pleasure by touching in the museum…to prepare friendly and convenient environments for the visually impaired who have had much difficulty in visiting a museum. This is enlightenment to encourage upgrading service for the minority. Getting a step farther, I want to acknowledge the value of "touch" technique positively. Isn't it possible for a museum exhibit to adopt the teaching knowhow accumulated in schools for the blind, that is, methods of learning and "seeing" what cannot be seen without using eyesight?

The current "from enlightenment to application" has just begun, and it is an important viewpoint that constructs universal theory based on the lifestyle of the visually impaired which has been regarded as special. Since I read Braille each day, learning and checking by touch is my everyday occurrence. But my own personal view and sensitivity cannot be applied without adaptation to exhibitions curated by others. A sort of manual explaining the significance of touching will be necessary. The workshops of Society for the Study of Universal Museum gave me chances of asking again objectively how to make good use of tactile sense, which I have unconsciously utilized through touching various things. I classify the three elements of tactile sense as follows.

Three elements in visual sense and in tactual sense respectively

  1. "Look at" is equivalent to "touch widely, conscious of the direction your hands reach out."
  2. "Watch" is equivalent to "'touch closely with your fingertips concentrating at one point."
  3. "See" is equivalent to "keep your skin sensation sharp and feel with your whole body."

It is commonly said that our life depends on eyesight. The Japanese language has an abundant vocabulary for "see" as does the English language. On the other hand, Japanese expressions for "touch" are rather few. I suppose this is evidence that human beings have emphasized visual experiences more than tactual ones. In modern times, people do not like contact with objects as much as contact with human beings. Touch has been avoided in museums, too. Although human beings have not generalized touch, tactual sense is as full of variety as the sense of sight.

By applying the three elements of the sense of sight to the sense of touch, we can establish a method of approach to tactile culture. For example, let's try to imagine "touching" a life-size sculpture. Grasping its whole image by moving both of our hands boldly is "touching widely" (which is equivalent to looking at). Checking the precise technique with our fingertips concentrating all our attention is "touching closely", (which is equivalent to watching). Using not only your hands but the sense of your whole body, feeling the energy of the sculpture, wrapping yourself around the artwork occasionally, is "touching with your whole body" (which is equivalent to seeing). An ideal museum will be one where visitors can appreciate the charm of tactile culture with hands, fingertips and whole body, not simply learn through looking at exhibits. I believe that the visually impaired can contribute to the development of the universal museum as a guide to draw out the possibility of the museum where people can 'see' with the tactual sense.

3. Developing essential manners of touch

Secondly, the key concept of "from experience to theory" is "to share excitement of astonishment by touch and to develop a new view of human beings". The Society for the Study of Universal Museum has achieved greater development than I, representative of the society, expected. It had no small effect on a lot of quarters. Needless to say, its merit is not to be attributed to the representative alone. To begin with, "touch" is an active and physical conduct, which holds dimensions and depth everybody can enjoy. Introduction of tactile exhibitions is undoubtedly indispensable in drawing up a blueprint for the future universal museum.

I think, however, simply getting lively, saying "touching exhibits is enjoyable" within museum circles, is no longer good enough. "Educational effect of touching" may sound rather exaggerated, museums should send out messages to the public. I will introduce "manner of touch" for the museum to change the public so that they will behave appropriately in new tactile museums.

To handle objects gently
To appreciate objects unhurriedly
To have a dialogue with objects exerting your boundless imagination and creativity

These phrases may sound a little abstract. Let me explain them one by one.

First, to handle objects "gently": In promoting hands-on exhibition, preservation of materials is inevitable responsibility. Being touched by a large number of the general public naturally destroys materials. Danger of getting broken or stolen cannot be denied. Of course people are not allowed to touch every exhibit, because museums are responsible for preserving their valuable materials and handing them down to future generation.

Paradoxically speaking, museum visitors can learn the significance of handling objects carefully through tactile exhibitions. It takes a considerable amount of time to spread the manner of "touching gently". I expect museum staff will need to make a steady effort to break down the fixed idea of touching = being destroyed. What I propose is a museum where people are gentle.

"People are gentle" is not merely that museum staff is physically kind. Each exhibit in a museum has its own historical and cultural background. In touching exhibits, you imagine what sort of people made them and what their life is like. It can be said that gentleness is respectful affection not only for the people who made, used and handed down the materials, but also the culture and history that brought up the people. "Handling gently" in not just consideration for preservation, but it means to develop manners of dealing with things and people, and of respect and affection. It will lead to the realization of a society in which people are gentle.

Secondly, to appreciate exhibits "unhurriedly": Recently pupils and students visiting our museum for study often spend only one or two hours to go round the whole exhibition area. No matter the result, they see as many things as possible, assuming as if they understood them. They hurried through the exhibition area and see more objects more quickly. To be sure, it is important for them to develop ability for inputting a lot of information and sorting out what is useful for them. However, some of them seem to forget almost everything they saw there.

I organized "tactile exhibition" twice, in 2006 and 2009. On each occasion, I was so strict in selecting objects to display that the number of the exhibit was not large. Putting it bluntly, "fewer and slower" is the fundamental rule of tactile exhibition. People take time to touch each object carefully one by one in a spacious area. My stance on the museum is that the quality of information is more important than its quantity.

Time flows differently between the "visual exhibition" and the "tactile exhibition". Today museums give much weight to the "visual exhibition". Considering the high regard for the variety of sense, more "tactile exhibitions" should be adopted. A trend to an exaggerated belief in efficiency and the cult of speed is rampant in modern society. It may safely be said that "touching unhurriedly", not only repeats the question of what the museum exhibit ought to be, but also contains invisible power to urge us to reexamine our lifestyle and modern civilization.

Lastly, "boundless imagination and creativity"': When you wind your arms about a large sculpture, touching it with your whole body, you have a dialogue with its sculptor or the sculpture itself, exerting your full imagination and creativity.

The late Tadao Umesao, the founder of the National Museum of Ethnology, emphasized "dialogue with materials". Confronting an object steadily, you imagine and create a story in its background. That is a dialogue with an object. A great scholar like Dr.Umesao will have been able to have an exciting dialogue simply by observing objects, but we, ordinary people will not. In order to enrich dialogue with objects, abundant imagination and creativity is essential. Just seeing is not enough. We can improve imagination and creativity through touching with our whole body.

Though it is a hackneyed phrase, belief in rote learning at school these days spoils the imagination and creativity of pupils and students. The museum takes an active role in imagination and creativity, as a social education and lifelong learning facility. "Touching vastly" will surely become a trigger for regaining peace of mind. These are the three elements that I put together in order that "tactile exhibition" will make an impact on museums. We can say that sending out the manner as a theory to culture a new view of human beings is the target of universal museums from now on.

4. What we should do to diffuse "tactile learning"

The three elements of "touch" and manners of "touch" is the principle composing "tactile learning". In various places I have held "tactile" workshops through practical experience. "Why not try the astonishing experience of 'tactile learning'?" is the title I have often used since 2010. For now nothing is superior in getting lots of people to appreciate the sensation of the principal of tactile learning to "tactile workshop". Having had visitors touch various objects at the workshop, I have gradually learned what sorts of objects are appropriate for universal "tactile exhibit". My present theme is to apply the responses at the workshops to "tactile exhibit".

Our newly established "Touch the World" area is just the jumping-off point. We have to expand it step by step. From the beginning I attached importance to the following:

(1) Objects for "tactile exhibit", in principal, shall be expendable, but a few valuable specimens shall be utilized, too.
(2) In order to concentrate on the sense of touch, we will partially adopt the method of touch without using the sense of sight.

As to (1), despite the danger of sustaining damage, I thought it insufficient to display expendable objects only, because it assumes that being touched equals to sustaining damage. A tactile exhibit based on such preconception will not help to spread the manners for touch.

As to (2), some visitors may complain about being blocked from visual information. I will take time to enable visitors to have a comprehensive understanding of each object (its texture, function and shape) to sympathize with the sense of value, fewer and less hurried. At the workshop, putting on a blindfold and keeping the room dark easily enable participants to awaken the potential of tactual sense, but I am a little afraid how far the participants accept the point of black box experience.

However, if we think negatively, in fear of the danger of damage of objects caused by touch, or the difficulty of communicating the intention of the organizer of the exhibit, an innovative universal museum will not come into being. First of all, I am ready to do my best to manage "Touch the World" trusting our visitors. Tactile learning will change the museum, and the museum will change society!

Kojiro Hirose is an associate professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan. He was born in 1967, and lost his eyesight at the age of 13. He has studied Japanese history and received his Ph.D. from Kyoto University in 2000. He has been working at the National Museum of Ethnology since 2001. Now, he is in charge of the tactile exhibition there. He has many publications in Japanese and some in English. One of his articles in English is: "The Richness of Touch: The Paradoxical Meanings of Disability in Japanese Culture" (THE EAST ASIAN LIBRARY JOURNAL Vol.13 No.2, Princeton University, pp.59-85, May 2010).

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Copyright (c) 2013 Kojiro Hirose

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