School of Arts | Our research | The Peltz Gallery: Exhibition space in Birkbeck’s School of Arts | Past events and exhibitions at the Peltz Gallery | 19 July - 30 October 2013: Touching the book: embossed literature for blind people in the nineteenth century
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19 July - 30 October 2013: Touching the book: embossed literature for blind people in the nineteenth century

This exhibition explored the history of literacy for blind and visually impaired people in nineteenth-century Britain and Europe through the development of embossed literature. It introduced visitors to the variety of embossed writing systems that blind people were taught prior to the widespread adoption of braille at the end of the nineteenth century. There was fierce debate in this period between educators who favoured a system based on the Roman alphabet that could be read still by sight and those who advocated for an arbitrary system – such as braille – more suited to finger reading.

Touching the book: embossed literature for blind people in the nineteenth century

Touching the book: Embossed literature for Blind People brought together a rich array of material, including important examples of early classbooks, spiritual guides, the first specially-commissioned embossed Bibles, writing devices, pamphlets and visual images. It detailed how early embossing attempts were motivated by religious desire to enable blind people to read the word of God directly through touch. This fuelled investment in embossing processes which in turn improved the quality and durability of embossed books.

Most significantly however, the development of finger-reading practices helped to create new communities of literate blind and visually-impaired people who began advocating for reading and writing systems best suited to the needs of blind people. The exhibition highlighted figures in the nineteenth-century blind community who both raised the profile of and were instrumental in improving literacy for blind and visually-impaired people, including Laura Bridgman, William Moon, G.A. Hughes, Louis Braille and Thomas Rhodes Armitage.

A series of descriptive tours were held throughout the exhibition run by the exhibition curator Heather Tilley.