Blind Coin Collector

It's another kind of fun to collect coins if you can't see them.

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

| Filed under Blindness Museum Travel

The next trip including numismatic interests led to Cambridge, UK. I’m spending a couple of days here and traveling on to Ireland this week. This time, I wanted to check out the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Currently they have a display of Indian coinage extending through the last two millennia. However, this time, I was not able to contact anybody at the museum. I tried through email and Twitter, but I didn’t even get a response. Fortunately, things turned out much better than it looked when I arrived, but more about that later. First, let me start with a few thoughts on travel which maybe interesting, not necessarily numismatic related, but part of the journey of a blind collector.

Let start with the sad part. I’m here without Baldwin. Those of you who haven’t read this blog previously, Baldwin is my guide dog. Now that he got his European passport, I was going to put it to the test. Things went well, I got the necessary tapeworm medication for him, the stamp into the passport, the way it is supposed to be, the way it is recommended by USDA. On the day of the trip, about a couple of hours before I had to leave the house, I got a call from the airline that the London airport needed some kind of paperwork they didn’t have. This is the first time I heard about it, the first country that requires it. I know, it is all about preparedness, and next time I’ll know better. But it is getting frustrating that each country has its own rules, and they also vary based on who you talk with. So, I sent what they requested, but the two hours wasn’t enough to figure out everything, and I didn’t want to risk getting Baldwin into quarantine, or potentially losing him. So, it would be nice to say that we said our goodbyes, but we really didn’t, because I thought it would be easier for him if I just disappeared. So, I did. I’ll be back. But he doesn’t know. He is only hoping. We will be coming back in a few weeks again, if all goes well with Baldwin, using the passport he has, but that is another country and another story, with big plans coming up. But more on the blog later.

I thought it would be interesting to talk about air travel and hotels a little bit. If you only care about the numismatic portion, skip a few paragraphs. Air travel has changed a lot for me, but not because of the regulations. More because of the technology I can use. Flying used to be terribly boring about ten years ago. There was a time when we had 10 channels on the radio, a pair of earphones, and you could switch through the channels with buttons. We can argue whether they were any good, but there was something to pass time with, if I was lucky, some cultural overview of the destination, which was both interesting and helpful, or a half decent classical channel with an hour of programming I could listen to 8 times across the pond. But something changed, we got more channels, and menu based controls sometimes using touch screens I could not use. This is getting better now, but I don’t need it anymore. Ideally, I would read a book. If you can see, you can grab a couple of books, drop it into your laptop bag and have some entertainment both ways. In my case, the same books could possibly be 10-20 volumes, the length of a whole shelf, weighing more than the airline would let me take as a checked bag, let alone on board. So that’s not an option. But with longer lasting laptop batteries, later using phones and tablets, I can bring my own music or books, so what probably didn’t occur to you over the last couple of decades, is now equally enjoyable to me. I particularly like to use the free time to read about my destination, I usually download a few books about the place I’m going to, the coins of the country, or just some related inspirational books on history or literature to get into the mindset. So, no more excuse of arriving unprepared. Sometimes it is enough to get things together for work, and the rest remains for the trip. Oh, and I missed the obvious. One could sleep on the plane, as a sure way of not being too bored, but I can’t recall falling asleep in a moving vehicle. So that’s not an option.

After a not too boring flight, I arrived to London, tired and hungry, and I was ready to get to Cambridge. I decided to take Uber where I got a pretty decent price, and instead of switching trains for three hours, I got there in less than one hour. Not a bad deal after a missed night of sleep. I found something very interesting in the hotel. The hotel key has a small half circular shape indent on it. Now, why is this important? Stop and guess.

You are right. So I know how to insert it into the door. These days it is easier when I just have to touch the door with the door key, but not all hotels have those locks yet. So, I used to put stickers on my hotel key, or scratch it with something so I know how to hold it. Well, or just try all directions, the fourth will surely work. So, I was happy to find this little help on the door key. But here came the funny part, the doors are not marked in any way I could recognize them. It is quite usual at many places, in the US and Canada it is actually a legal requirement that doors should be marked for visually impaired people with braille numbers. I think it is also required in the UK. Here, there isn’t any braille or raised print I could use. Wish I had Baldwin, he could easily find our room. The secret is to feed him when we get to our new place, and give him a treat at the door to further strengthen his memory. Yes, he is food oriented. Nothing wrong with that, I just need to use it to my advantage, works for both of us. So, once he was fed in a room, and we leave the rest of his food there, he will surely find the door next time, so I don’t have to touch dusty braille signs and walls. Fortunately just recently I got a few trackers which I can connect to my phone using wireless technology. When I activate the tracker, it beeps. It is not designed for the blind in general, but we can make good use of it. This is how I can identify my suitcase on the belt if I check it in, well, or beside the belt if they are collected somewhere else, this is how I can find my keys, and this time, if I leave a tracker inside the hotel room, I can find the hotel door. Better than trying my keys into the neighbor’s door.

One more word about hotels. For a long time, I used to make a coffee in the room the first thing I woke up. In an ideal world, a coffee maker would sense that I’ll wake up in two minutes and start making the coffee on the night stand, and fill a cup the moment I’m awake. In the meantime, I need to do the manual process. Or, at least, I did until one day I reached into the coffee maker, and it had a disgusting sticky spot in it, like it has never been cleaned before. So, I checked a few more places, and sure enough, I can’t just assume that if a coffee maker is there, it is clean. So, unless a room has a dish washer, I don’t make a coffee anymore. At least I’m motivated to get up and find some breakfast.

If you were hoping we will get to the numismatic part. Here we go. I just needed to grab breakfast and take a short nap before I was ready to explore the city.

My first trip led into the Fitzwilliam Museum, I had no idea how I would explore the exhibit, but I figured something will happen. The current exhibit is in remembrance of the 70 years of India’s independence, this section through the coinage of India from the beginnings. When I got to the museum, I tried to explain at the front desk that I would like some assistance, but when I contacted the museum I didn’t get a response. The gentleman assured me that the coin section has a curator who loves to talk with people but he wasn’t there that day. I assured him that I was delighted. I know I didn’t give them much time, as I couldn’t make trip arrangements much in advance, but I think I would have appreciated a “not this time” response. So, with my trusty new cane, which I got recently when I couldn’t take Baldwin to Mexico, I went to explore the building. Somebody brought me a braille floor plan, which is definitely very helpful when you want to understand the layout of the entire museum, but I was there with a plan and a purpose. I was determined to learn about the Indian coin exhibit. In particular I was very excited about it, because I’m currently organizing a trip to India for later this year, so this exhibit would be the right way to prepare me numismatically. Of course, it will be a work trip primarily. But as I always say, more about that on the blog later.

So, the first plan of action was, I called a service where volunteers describe what they can see through the camera. This is not the service I use to recognize my coins. I tried to talk with a couple of people, with the first one we didn’t seem to find a common language, the second didn’t understand what I was looking for, and I didn’t want to spend the afternoon trying to make calls while annoying the rest of the museum visitors. So, I tried another method. Microsoft recently released a nice app which can recognize chunks of text. There are many character recognition apps out there, I myself have a few, but those are more to recognize pages or documents, here I didn’t have an idea what to look for and where to find it. So, I went with an instant recognition of text that’s right in front of the camera. To help you understand the challenge, imagine it this way. Face the glass in front of the exhibited objects and descriptions, hold your phone 1-2 feet away from the glass, and take a picture. On approximately such a size of area, I am able to instantly read any text the phone is able to see. So, I have to divide the glass into small, approximately equal sized squares and go through them one by one. But the problem is, the descriptions don’t necessarily fall into my imaginary squares. So, I’m only getting most of the content from one, and maybe a little bit from another, or nothing where coins are exhibited because this system cannot read coins, and also won’t tell me what is there other than text. I can try some object recognition, but it won’t read the text descriptions, and at best it will tell me that there are coins. But I know that much, this is why I’m there in the first place.

I wanted to show you on a picture what it really means, but photography was not allowed in the museum because some of the objects weren’t the museum’s property. They allowed me to use my phone to do character recognition, so I promised I will not take photos in its regular sense, so I would like to honor that promise.

After about a few minutes of struggle, I noticed that there was a lady who was there all the time, and she gave me directions on where to find the next section in the room. I learned that she worked there, so I asked her if she could help me explain the exhibit. She wasn’t able to, but she was very helpful and found me a person to help. It was Julie Dawson, who is the head of conservation at the Egiptian collection. Though she said she didn’t know much about coins, she was just educated in general, and had a deep understanding of the exhibit. She even had some personal stories to share about Indian currency. She took me around, read all the descriptions, and explained the exhibited coins as much as it was possible and answered my questions. So, it all turned out great at the end. I found out that she is an expert of Egyptian coffins amongst other things, and she explained why it wouldn’t be possible to touch any of the coffins in general, even she works with those objects in gloves.

So, thank you Julie for saving the day, and helping me enjoy my free time in Cambridge.

And of course, for the rest of the night, I certainly didn’t want to miss a pint or two to wash down the biggest portion of fish and chips I have ever gotten on a plate. Then I just spent the time aimlessly wondering around the city center, which could have been much easier with Baldwin.

Now I will do what I came here for in the first place, then off to Dublin tomorrow, and I’ll be back with another post.

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