“You’ll enter a pitch black corridor and meet your guide. Introduce yourselves coherently and speak up during the tour. Tell your guide if you don’t feel well and you’ll be accompanied to the exit,” instructed an elderly gentleman.
This is all I knew before I entered the “Dialogue in the Dark,” a unique interactive museum in Hamburg, Germany.
Museums might be widely considered passive experiences of culture or art, but the concept of interaction changes everything. Enabling their guests to live the experience, interactive museums achieve incredible goals. “Dialogue in the Dark” is an extraordinary example.
In this reservations-only museum, the visitors were split into groups of 6 and we waited for our turn to “see” what was inside. A couple of sofas and a wardrobe occupied the otherwise empty entrance of the museum. The white walls inside made the place seem even larger. An employee notified the visitors to leave all their belongings, except for a couple of coins, at the wardrobe and reminded us that any object shedding light was strictly prohibited.
No light could reach our eyes inside. For a brief second I couldn’t be sure whether my eyes were closed or not. An incredibly gentle voice welcomed the group and asked our names. I never actually saw my tour guide. After all, it wouldn’t be fair, since he would never be able to see what I look like. His voice, though, made it crystal clear that he was one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. He repeated the six foreign names that he heard for the very first time in his life several times during the tour with perfect recollection.
We entered the pitch black corridor. As far as I experienced with all my senses but vision, the museum was made of a long series of corridors. We walked along it, entering different rooms: We smelled that we were in a spice store, trying to distinguish familiar flavors. We touched the chilly grass in a park. We listened carefully to traffic as we tried to cross the road waiting for the moment in which the engines of the vehicles rest. We exercised our German vocabulary in the grocery store, trying to identify the fruits in our hands.
Getting closer and closer to the end, we entered an empty room with a carpeted floor. The tour guide asked us to sit, lay down, make ourselves comfortable. The purpose of the room was just to listen to vibration: paying utmost attention to what we heard without linking it to an image in our minds. Concentrating on the sound, feeling it with all of our bodies through its vibration. No distractions. The pure sound of daily life.
At the end of the tour, we were told to buy snacks or drinks from the bar. I took all the coins that I had brought inside out of my pocket and came across a huge problem that has never occurred to me before: How could I differentiate which coin was 1 or 2 Euros, which one was 50 Euro Cents? I left them all on the bar. The bartender knew his way with the coins; he sorted them easily. While I was struggling with the coins, some electronic voice coming from the bartender’s direction announced what time it was. I asked him if that was automatic, he said he clicked on a button on his watch to find out the time.
The most impressive part of the tour was its end. We got the chance to chat with our guide in the dark. We were allowed to ask anything, and he was eager to tell us about his life, his experiences, his perspective. He explained how he could slightly differentiate light but could not see. He told us that he used to see a bit more but that his ability became weaker over the course of time. He sincerely shared his life with us, telling about his kids, previous marriage, new girlfriend… No disability but only his kindness and sense of humor could distinguish him from other people. The museum indubitably succeeded in preventing any prejudice from surviving that corridor.
After saying goodbye to our guide, we ended up in a small half-lit room designed for the adaptation of the eyes to normal light outside. The museum had questionnaires available for the visitors’ input about the experience, seeking for ideas to enhance it. One particular question still lingers in my mind: What did you most miss during the ninety-minute tour of blindness?
I missed courage, courage to take a random step without hesitating or fearing what challenge might be faced in that step. I felt a lack of courage, a feeling which perhaps many people cannot escape at all in their daily lives.
“Dialogue in the Dark” made me speechless. On one hand I was extremely grateful for this opportunity of “seeing” and understanding. It illuminated me by creating awareness; I learned of the biases toward the sighted inherent in our society. On the other hand, I felt sorrow and disappointment because of society’s indifference, the obstacle of prejudice hampering every seeing eye. I started to notice the absence of ramps on our sidewalks, the paucity of traffic lamps with sound and our remaining ignorance.
Erasing all my prejudices in the oblivion of that dark corridor, the museum allowed me to see clearly by showing me what it’s like to be blind.