All in hindsight

Graeme Turner
Living in a Sensory World is an exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. It uses objects to tell the story of how things have changed over time for people with a vision impairment. It has the first ball with bells in it that was bowled in a game of blind cricket in Melbourne. There are old machines that make raised dots which helped people who were blind to read. There is also a talking computer. The exhibition tells how the lives of people with a vision impairment have got better. It is on until 28 October.
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Graeme Turner on 01/10/2012
Tilly Aston teaching braille to four young students in a garden.
Tilly_Aston teaching braille

Tilly Aston teaching her students braille .

At a game of blind cricket in Melbourne 1922, players could locate a woven cane ball because it was filled with jingling bottle-tops. This is now one of many objects displayed at the exhibition Living in a Sensory World, Stories from people with blindness and low vision. The exhibition is on at the Melbourne Museum.

The idea for this exhibition started five years ago as a partnership between Sydney's Powerhouse Museum and the blindness agency Vision Australia. The aim was not just to cater for those who are blind but to give an understanding of what the blindness community has gone through over the last 100 years, says Anni Turnbull, curator of the Powerhouse Museum.


Before heading to the display, you can gain detailed directions to the Melbourne Museum through Vision Australia's website. Audio files can also be downloaded to a digital player to provide a guide as you walk about the exhibit. Museum staff can also assist on the day.

Having a vision impairment myself I set out to visit the museum to find out how the objects on display told a story.

Getting out

The challenges of getting around with a vision impairment in the early 20th century are illustrated with bamboo white canes from that time which do not fold like those used today.

Eye glasses from the 1960s feature a sonic transmitter that bounces sound from objects. The pitch through the headphones rises as the wearer nears an object.


The achievements of Louis Braille who gave his name to the tactile dot reading system for people with blindness are on display. Appearing like a squat typewriter, there is an example of the Perkins Braille machine from the 1970s which uses six keys to produce raised dots.

Also on display is a Taylor's frame from the early 20th century. Eight metal pieces placed in different positions were used to teach maths to people with a vision impairment.

I am struck by the bulkiness of early talking book gramophones. By the 1970s there is a Clarke and Smith talking book cartridge. We are able to see an early Epsom computer, believed to be the first talking computer.

Seeing better

A pair of glasses from the early 20th century carries little telescopes that jut from the frames. Pebble quartz spectacles from the 19th century raise the question of how anyone ever saw through them.

At the other extreme of technology, an interactive display provides an image of what may be seen by the new bionic eye. An array of white dots gives a crude idea of shape.

Changing conditions

A display tells of an earlier era when people with a vision impairment were assumed to be capable of only making mats and brooms. A woven mat and a mallet to smooth it down evokes this time.

The struggle for improved conditions and respect for those with blindness is also celebrated. A beaded purse shows the craft ability of early Australian activist Tilly Aston who was blind. She campaigned for the right of those who are blind to gain the vote. She was also the first Australian female teacher who was blind.

The exhibition even features a Braille version of Playboy, perhaps the only issue of the magazine read purely for the articles.

There is a video installation of people with a vision impairment telling their own stories of how they participate in sport and everyday life.


All text for the displays is in large high-contrast font with Braille labels below the exhibits.

I hope visitors to the exhibition are left with a sense of the enormous contribution made by those early Australians who advocated for and inspired the blindness and low vision communities, says acting CEO of Vision Australia David Speyer.

As a person with blindness I would have preferred more objects that could be felt. Nonetheless the display provides a comprehensive and valuable insight into how people have lived and achieved. And of how social attitudes towards people with a vision impairment have changed through the years.

The exhibition runs until October 28.

Vision Australia, Living in a Sensory World

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