Once at Mia: Touching the past

The Minneapolis Society for the Blind was touring Mia in October 1951 when they stopped in front of the museum’s ancient Assyrian relief and laid hands on it.

The relief, being a relief, is perfectly suited to tactile appreciation. It was carved from stone more than eight centuries BCE, one of many such panels found in the ruins of a palace in Nimrud, now part of Iraq and recently destroyed by ISIS. The panel was taken to the British Museum when the palace was excavated in the mid-1800s, along with so many other panels that the Brits soon parted with some, sending this one and two others to Williams College in Massachusetts. They were in storage when an art dealer discovered them.

The dealer was on the prowl for Mia—”Minneapolis desperately wanted an Assyrian relief,” the college’s museum director later said—and persuaded the college that it could part with one. It did in 1941, selling it to Mia for $9,000. Minneapolis got its “winged genius,” or demigod, and the small museum at Williams bought 25 other objects with the money—a Dürer engraving, Rembrandt etchings, Winslow Homer watercolors—that put it on the map.

Around the same time, the Minneapolis Society for the Blind moved to the corner of Franklin and Lyndale avenues, just a few blocks from Mia (in 1993, it merged with the Saint Paul Society for the Blind and became Vision Loss Resources). This attracted similar services to the area, such as Blind Incorporated, which moved into the Charles S. Pillsbury mansion across the park from the museum. Now, the Whittier neighborhood surrounding Mia is a haven for people with vision loss.

It’s not surprising, then, that the museum has long been open to so-called touch tours by request. There aren’t many other museums that allow this. As recently as last October—Blindness Awareness Month—Mia has even held them for the general public. These days, however, white gloves are required.