Museum of touch ready for Paralympics

Dimitris Dovas runs his fingers over the face and body of Venus de Milo. «What incredible art!» he exclaims. Dovas might be breaking the cardinal rule of museums, where visitors can look at but not touch prized exhibits guarded behind cordons or in glass cases, but in an unassuming building on a quiet side street in central Athens, something is different. The original Venus de Milo – one of the most celebrated examples of Hellenistic art – is still in Paris’s Louvre museum. But an exact replica at the Tactual Museum is the only chance for Dovas, who is blind, to understand what the statue looks like. «This museum is very important for us. If you stand in front of a glass case and someone just describes what’s inside, you don’t really get a very good idea,» he said. «Here, I understand much more.» All are here: sculptures from Ancient Olympia; a Corinthian jewelry box housed in a Boston museum; fourth-century BC vases exhibited in Munich; the famed bronze statue of a charioteer from Delphi. And with the Paralympics just around the corner, the museum is hoping to attract athletes and other visitors who would otherwise have little contact with Greek antiquity. Athens was never a very friendly city for the disabled. Its narrow streets were difficult to negotiate, with no ramps for wheelchairs, sidewalks frequently taken over as parking spots, chaotic traffic, and little or no access to many buildings. But with the city hosting the Olympics, and Paralympics due to start September 17, something had to be done. Laws were passed to make public areas and buildings more accessible; sidewalks obtained ramps. Even the Acropolis, one of the world’s great archaeological sites, was fitted with a specially constructed open-air elevator to carry wheelchair visitors over the monument’s 25-meter (82-foot) wall. The Tactual Museum, part of a foundation known as Lighthouse for the Blind of Greece, hopes to do its part too, helping the blind gain a greater understanding of the birthplace of the ancient Olympics. Reopened in March after being shut down since 1999 because of earthquake damage, it is now in Paralympics mode. The facility will extend its opening hours and provide audio guided tours in English, French and German to supplement the current label explanations in braille and in Greek, said Zoe Geroulanos of the museum’s board of directors. A stack of braille books include calendars and guides to the Paralympics. «We’re ready for the Games,» Geroulanos said. «During the Paralympics… we hope the athletes and their families will come here to discover the exhibits from Ancient Olympia, from Delphi, from Crete, from the Cycladic museum.» Apart from the replicas of antiquities – faithful gypsum reproductions of the originals, chipped noses and all – several new exhibits are Olympic-oriented. A relief map of Athens indicating the locations of sports venues hangs inside the entrance, beside relief depictions of the Paralympics and Olympics mascots and logos. «In general, this is the best (museum) that there is,» said Maria Makiataki, touring the first floor with a guide. «Here, I can understand whatever you can see – the size of the statue, what it represents, everything. I can see whatever you see.» The museum also hopes to obtain a genuine ancient artifact to give the blind a better idea of what the exhibits are made of. «We want one genuine piece, so they can understand the feel of marble. Making a replica in marble wouldn’t work, because the feel of ancient, weathered marble is completely different,» Geroulanos said. «These are small things that are very easy for us to see and understand, but for a blind person, it’s very hard.»

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