Monthly Archives: May 2016

Things Stirring

I went to the chocolate exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with the Brainport. I learned a few things. Apparently froth in chocolate drinks has been “the thing” since the Mayans, through the Aztecs, and into the Europeans; it turns out you don’t need a cappuccino machine to make a frothy drink. About 8% of the world’s chocolate now comes from the far south of Mexico, but it’s a higher grade of cacao bean than the majority, which comes largely from the western part of equatorial Africa. I thought Mexican chocolate just referred to other spices in with the cocoa. But I still don’t know why it goes from being a cacao pod to cocoa in your cup.

All of that aside, back to the Brainport. The beginning of the exhibit was a cacao tree that you walk through, and it was great to be able to see/feel the texture of the intertwining parts of the trunk and how the branches stretched out overhead. I think I was able to discern the difference between the leaves and the pods, but I can’t be entirely certain about that. I was excited to be able to see one pod very clearly, but I was then informed that was a sign in the shape of a pod. Oh well. But that was how a lot of the rest of the exhibit went, I could see the signs and the display cases, but I couldn’t necessarily see anything meaningful. In a couple places, I could more or less see the bowls and jars behind the glass, but that was about it. After the chocolate, we took a quick trip over to the dinosaurs. Once we got past the boring part of the dinosaur exhibit… the part without any dinosaurs… I was actually able to make out the forms and sizes of the skeletons. The overall texture of the bones was a bit like licking piano keys, if the keys made a skeleton. That was a little more engaging from the Brainport perspective, even if I didn’t care about the story as much. The Brainport does a better job giving you information about objects that occupy more space.

As we were going through the chocolate exhibit though, we ran into one docent who was really friendly and knowledgeable. I think he was my favorite part of the exhibit. I was, in between learning about one more group that made a frothy chocolate drink and another, contemplating the overall purpose of a museum exhibit. Museum curators, aren’t just presenting “facts,” they are trying to tell you a story. Talking to this docent was fun, partially because he was so knowledgeable, and partially because he made the story dynamic and interactive. We could ask questions and then make connections with something else we saw and then ask more questions. Having an exhibit be largely two dimensional—even if artifacts are technically not two dimensional- leaves out a significant component. We perceive the world through more than our eyes, even if sight is a dominant sense that we often defer to. I would argue that a solely visible world is flat. I wish I could detect more than the signs and exhibit cases. I wish there were more for me to touch and hear and smell and taste, or see as more than a picture on a sign or behind glass. I know that would require a lot more investment from a museum and it would be messier… But maybe I’m just complaining, because even though I can “see” or sense more than I could without the Brainport, I’m a little frustrated, because I still can’t detect quite enough.

Even if I’m a little disappointed, one thing I appreciate about the Brainport is how it has pushed me to try some things that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Without it, I wouldn’t have bothered going to the chocolate exhibit, assuming it would be too inaccessible to be interesting. But the story was a good one to learn, even if I couldn’t see it. In other parts of my life, I’ve tried new and different things. I have wandered around the neighborhood, looking for things I might otherwise miss because I can’t see them. Largely, I still haven’t been able to perceive them, but that might change now that I have the new device parts installed. I find myself reaching out to experience the world in a more active way than I would have in the past.

I love Albert, my guide dog, and I move around so much faster and more confidently with him. However, I’m aware that there are things I miss like sidewalks or benches that we just walk right past and I have no idea, because my dog chooses to just go around it, without mentioning it to me. There’s a picnic table in the park less 100m from my back door, and I only learned about it after living in my home for about 7 years. It’s hard for me to learn about some of those parts of my world when my dog is so good at staying focused on finding a path and keeping me from running into anything. Albert doesn’t do the exploration of small areas, like a room, as well either. His mindset is to either get around everything or to get out of the door, but sometimes I just want to poke around and get a sense of the space; I only start to put together a space as I touch and interact with its components. I can train Albert to target, to walk towards, certain objects, but I need to train him first, and I need to know about them before I can teach him. For many years, I’ve just decided the trade off, getting the speed and freedom that comes with a dog outweighs what I lose from not exploring with a cane. But the exploration I’ve done with the Brainport has reminded me how much I value some of the slower reaching out and touching. I’m now working to figure out a way to get the benefits of both ways of interacting with the world.

In the exhibit, there were a couple things you could touch… or at least no one had put them behind glass and they were within reach, so I considered them fair game. I noticed that my first instinct was to reach out and touch them, to see what I could detect with the Brainport afterwards, so the hands-on way of perceiving the world is still more natural to me. But I’m getting closer to being okay with that. Coming back to how this all relates to the Brainport though, the Brainport is basically giving me a way to touch things that are out of my reach or where it isn’t practical to touch them. Even though I was a little disappointed I couldn’t see more in the exhibit, I appreciate the spirit of questioning and wanting to reach out for more that the device is waking up in me.

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