PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Angel Ayala has never been a big fan of museums. Blind since birth, the high school student says the exhibits are so sight-dependent that he can't enjoy them.
But he's making an exception for the Penn Museum, an archaeology and anthropology center that offers touch tours for the blind and visually impaired. Ayala can now feel the eroded limestone of an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus and the intricate hieroglyphs on the statue of a pharaoh.
"When I touch things, it's my version of a sighted person's eyes. It tells me way more than a person describing it would ever," Ayala said.
The institution, which is part of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, began offering the tours last year in an effort to make their extensive collections more accessible. Museums should serve the community at large, and that includes the unsighted as well as the sighted, said program coordinator Trish Maunder.
"Just because a person has low vision or can't see, doesn't mean that they're not completely interested in culture or learning about ancient artifacts," Maunder said.
Most major U.S. metro areas have at least one museum that offers some type of hands-on experience, from touching objects with bare hands or gloves to feeling replicas, according to Art Beyond Sight, a group that makes visual culture accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
Such accommodations began well before the Americans with Disabilities Act and have increased as museums "have transformed from institutions that house objects to institutions that work with audiences," said Nina Levent, executive director of the New York-based art organization.
Museums that don't offer tactile tours often have personal or audio guides for the blind. But Levent contends that developing touch components can benefit a wide range of visitors, including children's groups and students with learning disabilities.