Up close and personal

Nicola Sullivan, 24.08.2016
Touch tours at the British Museum put visitors in the presence of Egyptian kings
Walking into the British Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery and placing my hands on the faces of the pharaohs that reside there is a rare privilege, and not one that I’m likely to enjoy again.

Objects that are thousands of years old can only withstand a certain amount of touching so quite rightly this magical experience is reserved for partially-sighted or blind visitors.

Last week an exception was made for me and other members of the press during a briefing held to showcase improvements made to the British Museum's touch tour, which features nine objects in the gallery.

Blind or partially-sighted visitors can pre-book a guided tour with volunteer guides who have been given specialist training to support their interaction with the objects.

Although it is impossible for me to understand what it is like to explore objects with limited or no sight, closing my eyes and feeling the broken nose of King Senwosret III (circa 1874-1855 BC) was incredibly powerful.

All the while, my guide was pointing out interesting features and details that I wouldn’t have noticed had I simply been looking at the statue. The king's ears are incredibly large, as is common for sculptures from this period, and his baggy eyes are deep set under a slightly furrowed brow. I also noticed that his mouth turns downwards at the corners.

When I consulted the large-print guide I discovered that this was not a true portrait of the king and that the seriousness of his face was possibly intended to express “the burden of his duties and his care for his people”.

Tour participant Shannon Stapp vividly summed up her experience: “The touch tour exceeded any expectation I had. Because the guides took time to describe each item in great detail, I still felt like I could see each statue. The story that accompanied each item put them into context."

“One of the most accessible exhibits I’ve been to in a museum. I've never experienced such open-minded attitudes to tactility and disability access in general," Henry Partridge, another participant.   

As well as taking the guided tours, blind or partially-sighted visitors can explore the gallery independently, using the new highly descriptive audio guide that can be accessed on a smartphone, a Braille guide with tactile drawings or a large-print guide. The Braille and large-print guides are available on site or can be downloaded from the museum’s website in advance.

My favourite object in the gallery was the red granite lion statue of Amenhotep III (circa 1390-1352 BC). I’ve looked at it many times but never fully appreciated its solid jawbones, the raised ridges of ribs on its flanks or the rounded pads on its paws. 

Although I am not the target audience for the British Museum’s touch tours this sneak preview will make me look at museum objects much more carefully.

I hadn’t, until this point, realised just how much I was missing.