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  • More Than Meets the Eye: A Behind-The-Scenes Look at a Museum Display

    Author: Aubrey Minshew, Museum Specialist, Truhlsen - Marmor Museum of the Eye® 

    If you visited the museum this summer, you may have seen a display case of historic eye charts and vision tests, a part of our year-long display series of eyeglasses, vision aids, and vision tests complimenting Spectacular Spectacles. In this display, the modern eyechart was almost instantly recognizable, but it also featured some lesser-known eye charts that might not look so familiar. One set of vision tests in this display tells us a great deal about the history of immigration to the United States and gives us an interesting behind-the-scenes peek at how museum collections and exhibits operate.

    Four rectangular paper cards sit on clear plastic shelves. Each card is an aged, ivory color with a black border and has nine black letters or characters printed in in a horizontal line. Characters get smaller and smaller as the line goes on. The closest card has letters printed in a German gothic lettering. The second card has a block letter E printed multiple times, but oriented in different directions. The third card has black symbols including a circle, a six-pointed star, a square, an X, a circle with lines through it, a circle between two lines, a triangle, a filled circle, and a plus sign. The fourth card has black from the Hebrew alphabet.

    Eye charts on display in the museum

    The objects I’m referring to are a set of four small vision charts printed in different alphabets, including two sets of symbols, one in an older German-style script, and one in the Hebrew alphabet. These charts all featured carefully designed “optotypes” or letters specifically sized and placed for determining visual acuity. These eyecharts, like the ones we use today, were descended from the work of Herman Snellen (1834-1908), a Dutch ophthalmologist, who developed the modern seeing eye chart in 1862. Of the many innovations that Snellen made in visual acuity testing, a major change was basing his optotypes on a specific external standard (a 5-inch arc) that others could adopt to create accurate standard eye charts.

    A book page with 23 letters and numbers in a black block font. They are arranged in four rows, with the font getting progressively smaller each row down. There are small graphed squares around each letter. Letters read: P R T 5 V Z B D 4 F H K O S 3 U Y A C E G L 2.

    Early Snellen optotype designs

    Snellen’s visual acuity tests became widespread just before a period of unprecedented immigration to the United States. In 1891, less than thirty years after Snellen published his work on optotypes, the best-known immigration station in America, Ellis Island, opened. In 1897 the United States government categorized trachoma, an eye infection, as a “loathsome or contagious disease” that required screening. At the same time, the U.S. Public Health Service wanted to filter out immigrants who were blind or had low vision because they were perceived as being likely to become wards of the state. To do their work, eyecharts were printed in the common languages of immigrants to the U.S. Charts were also printed using symbols or “tumbling Es” to test immigrants who either didn’t speak English or couldn’t read at all. Between 1891 and 1930, nearly 80,000 immigrants, or 1% of those seeking entry, were barred from the U.S. for medical reasons including trachoma and low vision.An illustration of a young man with his eyes swollen shut. He has brown hair and wears a high, stiff-collared jacket. His eyelids are purple, red, and extremely swollen.

    Practical Treatise on Diseases of the Eye, 1820

    If you visit the National Museum of Immigration at Ellis Island in New York Harbor, you will see eye charts on exhibit and you might think that they look very similar to the ones on display at the Museum of the Eye. You’d be right to think that, because actually they’re on loan from us! Our collection contains a set of thirteen separate eye charts, three of which are on loan to Ellis Island. Our relationship with the Immigration Museum began in 1988. The only significant time our eye charts weren't on display was for seven months after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy which created a destructive tidal surge in New York Harbor. When the museum was ready, the Museum of the Eye was more than happy to lend the charts back to Ellis Island.A black and white photograph of a brick building is taped to a black sheet of paper. The building is made of brick and has four turrets, and there is an American flag on a flagpole in front. A black steamship with a funnel is pulled up next to the building. The building appears to be surrounded by water. Text across the bottom of the photograph reads: New York. Ellis Island. Neg. No.

    Ellis Island in New York Harbor

    Behind the scenes, it is very common for museums to loan objects to one another for specific exhibits, but loans are a complicated legal and logistical process. Agreements need to be drawn up for all sorts of details, like the term of the loan, or who is going to provide insurance or care for the object while it’s away from its home institution. Stipulations must also be made for physically moving the object from its home museum to the borrowing museum. With an object like the museum’s eyecharts, this process is relatively simple, but imagine how complicated it must be to loan large objects, like large sculptures in art museums, or even retired military planes for an air and space museum. During my career, I have witnessed the latter in person. When a non-functional airplane was requested on loan, both institutions worked together to carefully move the plane through a complicated system of container ships, trucks, and finally installation in a building whose walls rolled up like a classroom map. Quite an experience!

    A red and white brick building with tour turrets sits on an island surrounded by blue water. There are brown trees surrounding the building with an American flag on a flag pole out front. It appears to be sunset, and the sky behind the building is pink and blue.

    Modern Ellis Island and the National Museum of Immigration

    So, the next time you visit the Museum of the Eye, remember that small historical artifacts like eyecharts often unlock a much larger story that you might not expect. Also, when visiting any museum, consider how many exhibits are a mixture of objects from different museums and owners and what a complicated logistical system had to be developed behind the scenes to create the show that you’re enjoying.