Kaunas Catacombs: How I Made it Through Them Blind

  • 2015-11-28
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

It’s a museum, but it’s invisible.
Deep within the catacombs of St. Michael the Archangel Church, in the heart of Kaunas, the Museum for the Blinds is explored by… groping.
Beneath the earth, in the pitch-black darkness, my fingers and palms are so new to survival by touching, grabbing and tapping that I soon end up fumbling and feeling the droplets of sweat trickling down my forehead.
For a second, I hear the words of the administrator of the museum, Jurate Matonyte, echo in my ears: “Although rarely, some thrill seekers discover their claustrophobia in the catacombs and hurry to leave.”
Am I one of them?

In the throng of visitors who braved up for the journey, I am the last one. And as I try to carefully step forward, I hear my fellow tour participants snicker, even shriek, up ahead, but most are talking in hushed tones, trying to figure out where to place their feet next.
As eyes are of no use here, I try as advised to rely on the sensory apparatus, which gets me slowly forward through sounds, smell of mildew and a lot of touching.

Among the dangling installations I “feel (touch) out” smooth stripes, shaggy ropes, furry materials and sack-like sponges, but the entire experience makes me a little bit wobbly, I can confess.
Put together in 2005 as a creative installation for the blind, the social project aiming to raise the public’s awareness of the needs of the sightless has taken an unexpected twist, becoming a revelation for the sighted, not the blind.

“In the Church’s catacombs and outside them, blind people did not feel any difference,” the museum administrator notes.
The idea of the museum belongs to Lithuanian sculptor and National prize winner Robertas Antinis. Co-participating in the international exchange project “Catacombs of 21st Century,” he implementedthe crazy idea by bringing together students of Kaunas University of Technology, who cleaned up the basement, erected partitions and hung or glued the items for the invisible exposition.

“Now it encompasses eight different parts: passing, manhole, garden, first step, border, second step, fragments and memory,” Matonyte explains.
Outside the catacombs, one sinks into the sea of smells, tastes and hardly discernible noises. Out on the street, one can employ eyes to assess the distance of the rattling oncoming car or any other hurdle.
But here, underground, with the limbs bumping into the hurdles, the variety of senses is of no use.
Here perhaps the another sense of survival kicks in — panic — but this will not take anywhere, I realize. Especially if the danger was real.

Just a few more steps, Linas…
“Seeing is obviously an important sense which provides us with up to 85% of information about the surroundings,” Jurate reminds us.
As I keep treading blind in the darkness, I feel I start feeling for for all the vision-impaired, let alone the blind.
How much discomfort and anxiety must they be feeling every day in a single step?
Not in the catacombs, where one can stumble, but get up quickly and continue the journey unfearful of being hit by an oncoming car. On the street, I mean.

As I finally manage to get out to the light of day in the otherwise dimly lit vault of the St. Michael the Archangel Church, I sigh with relief.
Woo-hoo, I did it, as well as my dozen fellow tour participants, who now are sharing their experiences emotionally.
“It was great…Did you feel it?...Did you see anything?.. Hell, no, it was pitch-dark. It made me kind of dizzy…I perhaps would not like to go all over, but, gee, those people have to deal with it every day…What a horrible life the blind must have.  Oh, don’t say it… They are fine as they are, but it is incredible how trained they are to get around on their own, even on a busy street…” I hear excitement streaming from all over.

A middle-aged woman, who introduces herself as Janina from the Siauliai region, tells me the experience she had was “unbelievable.”
“As a pious woman, who has dealt with many troubled people in life, I find the excursion very useful. With so many insensitive people today out there, I wish all were able to get through the catacombs and feel it with (their) own skin what it means to be blind,” she says emotionally.

Upon hearing the on-site interview, Matonyte smiles.
“Good. Getting an emotion is part of the conception,” she says.
With nearly three years as the museum administrator under her belt, she confesses she has seen all kinds of emotions.
“What is so thrilling about the museum personally for me is perhaps the mottled variety of visitors who want to go through all this. It is very interesting for me to observe all the different experiences the visitors undergo,” she says. “For many, the experience is an eye-opener: people get kinder and more tolerant to one another, and the blind, too.”
The museum’s key goal, it means, has been achieved.

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