We descend the stairs with trepidation, unsure of what to expect. As the door closes silently behind us, we are greeted by our guide, Esther. Her calm, relaxed tones soothe the nervous Child #2 as she ushers us into a cosy living room. In here, there’s a candle by the television, a mirror hanging on the wall and a scattering of remnant Christmas decorations. All very normal, all very everyday… but something is missing. Something vital. Something that nearly all of us take for granted.
It is totally, perfectly, staggeringly dark. Black on black. Stripped of our sense of sight, we have discovered the living room in the way that a blind person would, through sound and touch. We’re at the muZIEum (“muSEEum”) in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, and we’re on an unfamiliar journey through an otherwise very familiar world.
We have no idea what Esther looks like, but we quickly discover that she is astoundingly adept at navigating this pitch-dark environment. She knows exactly where we are at all times, never more than a metre or two away from us, yet never touching us. With her verbal assistance, we are expertly guided towards a door leading “outside”, to the park. The effect is extraordinary: to our left, birds are singing from the trees and animals are braying from a nearby petting zoo; under the wooden bridge (clip-clop clip-clop) flows a tinkling stream, whilst to our right we hear the drone of distant traffic. It takes a minute or two to absorb it all, but once we do everything seems so clear, so precise. Yet obsidian black. This is a real awakening of the senses.
Onwards we fumble, through a city square (Child #1 finds an abandoned shopping trolley; they get everywhere, don’t they?) and into a shop, where the distinct smells of the fresh fruit and vegetables have never seemed so vivid. Our ultimate objective is to get to a café on the other side of a busy street. We negotiate the dangerous kerbs using our walking canes and listen closely for the fast ticks which indicate when it is safe to cross. Once seated, we order some drinks and Child #2 drops the coin she intended to pay with; there is no hope of recovering it.
As we drain our glasses, we are informed that the tour is almost over. After having spent almost an hour in total darkness, we finally emerge into a half-light and get to see Esther for the first time. She still can’t see us though – like most of the guides at the muZIEum, she is visually impaired; what we have experienced over the past hour is akin to how she experiences the world every day. We feel humbled, thankful, full of respect.
Our visit to the muZIEum was like nothing I have ever experienced before. My instinctive reaction throughout (which I never fully shifted during the tour) was to constantly bend over and protect my head (perhaps because my only previous experience of perfect darkness was in caves?). On occasions I felt oddly dizzy, and my concept of time was completely distorted (the hour felt more like 20 minutes). Most of all, I was incredibly aware of a vastly heightened sense of hearing; at times my brain couldn’t take it all in, and the distorted, confused noises in my head were almost overpowering.
Upstairs in the main foyer we lingered for an hour or more amidst the fascinating hands-on exhibits. The kids played games blindfolded, wrote their names using braille typewriters, and drew pictures without being able to see their hands (which is much easier said than done…).
Eventually it’s time to venture back out into the (real) streets of Nijmegen, where we cross a busy junction and make a beeline for a café to buy some lunch. Out here in the real world and reunited with all of our senses, it all seems so easy, so effortless. But now we are able to see these seemingly mundane actions from a different perspective.
Our eyes have been well and truly opened.
Practical tips for visiting the muZIEum
- You’ll find it at Keizer Karelplein 32 H, 6511, NH, Nijmegen just a short walk away from Nijmegen’s main railway and bus station. The “Keizer Karel” car park is also handily adjacent.
- Different tours and experiences are available, in Dutch, English or German. We took a shorter, indoor tour in English (for ages 8 and up), but outdoor experiences are possible (ages 11 and up). Our tour cost €15 for adults and €10 for children.
- No light-emitting objects (camera, phone etc.) are permitted on the tour. Secure lockers available.
- In addition to your tour, count on spending at least one additional hour at the museum to experience the excellent hands-on exhibits in the foyer.
- The foyer café serves hot and cold drinks.
Daisy the bus visited Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in January 2017
(c) 2017 Jonathan Orr