The Blind School: Pioneering People and Places

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The Blind School: Pioneering People and Places focuses on the Royal School of the Blind, the UK’s first school for blind people, and delves into its history using a range of personal stories and objects. The exhibition is being held at the Museum of Liverpool 26 January – 15 April and has been curated in partnership with Accentuate’s History of Place project, which explores 800 years in the lives of deaf and disabled people. Review by Steph Nicui.

Woman with a red coat and a dog

The Blind School: Pioneering people and places promotional image

Founded in 1791, the Royal School of the Blind was set up by blind abolitionist and human rights campaigner Edward Rushton and a number of his blind and sighted associates, who included Robert Lowe, John Christie and Henry Arnold. Rushton came up with the project as he wanted to give young blind people the opportunity to learn an art or trade, so that they could make their mark on the world, provide for themselves and their families.

The exhibition examines the school’s rich history from its beginnings to what life was like for the students there.  When the school was being set up there were disputes as to who founded it, which even led to a priest by the name of Henry Darnett attempt to take all of the credit for the project. Rushton quickly rubbished his claims branding them as ‘shameless’ and said that it was him and John Christie who had the initial idea.

Floor plan of Royal School of the Blind

Plan of the principal story of the London Road building of the Royal School of the Blind

It was an asylum first, referred to as ‘a place of sanctuary’ by Rushton. The asylum was not as developed, it was small and could not offer a lot in terms of trades for students to learn. In the 1800s it was recognised as a school, there is a ground floor plan of the London Road Building (1812), as well as others.  It shows how the school came to have more of a defined purpose with rooms including music, basket weaving and rope making. This was a school that wanted to provide its pupils with a rounded but diverse educational experience, as well as teaching core skills such as how to read Braille and how to use a long cane.

There are many objects that feature in the exhibition. There are chairs for a doll’s house which are made from wicker and these give a snapshot of the high level of skill and creativity that these students were able develop during their time at the school, which is impressive, especially when they are examined closely.

Wicker doll's sofa

Doll’s sofa made by a pupil of the Royal School of the Blind

Of course, while there are objects to look at, the exhibition offers you an insight into the experiences of former students Steve Binns MBE and Frank MacFarlane MBE. Frank also taught at the school later on, too. These short oral interviews can be viewed on a screen with BSL and subtitles, or listened to. They show that while school was a positive experience in some respects (learning Braille etc) it was not in others. The school and its site based in Wavertree for junior students meant being away from home, missing Mum and being mistreated by some teachers. Evidently, it shows how school life is different for everyone, these students had their own stories to tell and it is important that they are not overlooked.

A film entitled ‘Visions’ made by the students of St Vincent’s School for Sensory Impairment in West Derby is significant.  Students from this school were asked to look at historical experiences from the Royal School of the Blind, and how they feel about them being students in the present day. As well as this, there is input from Joe Lambton and Frank MacFarlane on what it was like to teach at the school. Again, the film shows a mixture of opinion but it is good to understand what the school was like from a different angle.

The Blind School: Pioneering People and Places is an exhibition that gives people an opportunity to discover an important part of history in the city of Liverpool, that has not been given enough recognition up until now. The Royal School of the Blind revolutionised education for blind people when it began and is still teaching students to this day. The exhibition is fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking. It is not to be missed.

The Blind School: Pioneering People and Places is at the Museum of Liverpool until April 15 2018.