- 1933 - 1968
Two unnamed women are carefully running their fingers around the rim of a lion’s mouth. It’s a ceramic Wedgwood ornament from the nineteenth century. They are in a study room, presumably a behind-the-scenes curatorial space at the museum. A volunteer instructor stands behind them, watching intently. They are touching an original object. Not a reproduction.
The photograph is entitled “Special Groups” and the women are referred to as “blind students.” According to Norma Heakes, who was then Supervisor of the ROM’s Education Department, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind ran a study group in partnership with the museum during the early 1960s. Although it’s unclear how long these classes existed, the educational programming consisted of a general survey of the workings of the museum’s departments and was highly in demand. The program expanded to include study classes on Ancient China, Ancient Egypt, textiles, as well as European glass and porcelain. Participants were invited to examine the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals, pluck at medieval musical instruments, and trace out the Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs written on original tablets. This type of hands-on access was a totally different experience from the felted mimeographs that were commonly used in museums at that time: reproductions that did not convey accurate tactile information like hardness, texture, weight and temperature. In this revealing snapshot of the ROM’s history, museum experiences in the past may have actually provided more access to “the real thing” than they do today.