3-D-printed artifacts — and George Washington’s signature — give the blind and visually impaired a chance to feel history at Richmond museum

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At the Virginia Historical Society, Kimmy Drudge, a 14-year-old from Chesterfield County who is visually impaired and a massive Star Wars fan, is about to “see” — but with her hands — George Washington’s signature from a letter written in 1775.

“This is it! This is it!” she says, bouncing with excitement.

Andrew Talkov (M.A.’13/H&S), vice president for programs at the Richmond museum, hands Drudge a 3-D-printed version of Washington’s signature, produced a week earlier in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virtual Curation Laboratory.

“Here, I’ll show you where the ‘G’ is,” Talkov says, guiding her hands. “What does it feel like?”

“Like stuff that I can’t even read,” she says. “I can’t read cursive. I wish George would have wrote it in print for Jedi who are blind and don’t read cursive!” 

A few weeks back, Talkov contacted Bernard Means, Ph.D., director of the Virtual Curation Laboratory — which 3-D scans and prints historic artifacts — with a question: Could 3-D printing help the Virginia Historical Society make its collections more accessible to people with visual impairment?

“I’m trying to figure out how we can use 3-D printing to make the experience better for everybody — because who doesn’t want to be able to handle the [artifact] that’s behind the glass, even if it’s just a reproduction — but specifically for the visually impaired,” Talkov said.

Means said he was excited for the opportunity, and invited Talkov to his lab in the Franklin Street Gym.

“We’re interested in making history and the past as accessible as possible to people at all levels,” Means said. “Right now, if you’re visually impaired and you go to a museum exhibit, there’s usually very limited things there for you. You can’t touch the original [artifact] because the act of handling it will damage it and make it not available for other people in the future. But you could handle a 3-D-printed object.”

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