The Invisible Exhibition
Wailana Kalama takes us through a one-of-a-kind experience in Stockholm – The Invisible Exhibition.
“Give us your blind trust,” read the wall as I walked into the Invisible Exhibition. Outside, nearby construction was deafening. But inside the building, it was calm and tranquil. I caught my breath and slowed down my pace. The front part of the exhibit was an open space, with long black tables and posters with the Braille alphabet on the walls. On each table, a Rubik’s Cube with embossed shapes, a voice-recording pen, and a Braille typewriter.
I met Lilla, the exhibit’s representative, to learn the story behind the exhibition. “The most important thing here is to get people closer,” she told me. “To make some kind of relationship between the blind and the sighted.”
The Invisible Exhibition began in Budapest in 2007, and spread to Prague and Warsaw four years later. Opening in Stockholm last September, it’s an experiential project designed to share with the public what it’s like to be blind or visually impaired. The exhibit promises a guided tour through several pitch-black rooms, deprived of sight.
To “see” the world the way blind eyes perceive it—though taste, touch, and sound.
When I first heard about the exhibit, I was curious: how would it feel, walking an hour in total darkness?
The exhibit is divided into two sections: a “visible” part, where you start and learn about the tools blind people use, and an “invisible” part that follows. I played with the talking pen and stared dumbly at the Rubik’s Cube. I typed my name slowly out on the typewriter, using the Braille poster as a guide.
“We’re trying to contact schools right now, because it’s a really good experience for the kids,” Lilla told me. “In Sweden, blind students go to the same school as those who see. But it’s one thing to talk about it, and a different thing to see the reality.”
Reality is the “invisible” part that I had come to see. Lilla left me in a dark corridor, pitch-black so my eyes were useless. A clear voice came out, introduced herself as Annika.
I couldn’t see her at all, but an image slowly materialized in my mind: thin, my height and blonde. Annika was partially sighted, but moved about the darkness like a bat in its element.
Her instructions were simple: keep one hand on the wall and one in front of my body, as we explored six rooms together in the darkness.
Annika became my guide, an omnipresent voice that I slowly followed. She always stayed a bit ahead from of, so I had the freedom to explore on my own, and I never felt crowded or claustrophobic.
The first room was a mock apartment. I made my way through the kitchen, sniffing black pepper and other spices. My fingers told the story my eyes couldn’t—a refrigerator, a computer desk, a kitchen sink, a copier machine, a radio. The bas-relief on the wall.
Each object was unfamiliar at first, but touch slowly revealed its nature. Though it was disorienting, to say the least, I felt comfortable, safe and curious as I moved. Each step revealed something new and unexpected. It was like exploring a cozy cavern, one with soft fabric walls.
The second room was an art gallery with Baroque music and Neoclassical statues. I was put to the test of identifying them. Moving my fingers over their smooth, frozen faces, I “saw” them: Atlas, Michelangelo’s David, a Dalarna horse. The feathered helmet of a Roman soldier.
The next rooms were a guessing game. A bustling street, a jungle, a ship warehouse. Everything was a potential obstacle; everything had to be encountered, acknowledged, and moved past. There was no scanning here. The darkness made me mindful of everything—I walked slower, more deliberately.
Finally, we came to the bar: a wide space with stools and hot tea. Annika assumed the role of the bartender and we chatted for a time on the therapeutic nature of darkness.
“With our eyes we’re different,” she said. “We judge. In the darkness, we’re more free to express ourselves without expectation. Without watching each other’s body language. We’re free.”
Afterwards, Annika said goodbye. She took me to dimly lit halls where I could finally see her: thin, my height, black hair. She wore huge, black sunglasses to protect her sensitive eyes.
I told Lilla how relaxing it had been, to move, to walk and talk in the dark, and she smiled.
“People are generally more open in the dark. Usually we have school groups here, and the kids start asking questions only in the dark, asking and asking. It’s quite amazing how more open they are in there. They’re not afraid to ask questions. Usually they aren’t sure, but in the dark it’s different.”
Stockholm has a lot of benefits for the blind and visually impaired. Accessible pedestrian signals give clues when crossing the street. Blind children aren’t separated from their sighted counterparts in school. The Swedish Association of the Visually Impaired (Synskadades Riksförbund), established in 1889, houses historical archives and a braille library.
But when asked whether or not Stockholm was more equipped than other cities to accommodate the blind community, Lilla shook her head. “I think many things are easier here, but a few things are harder. To have a guide dog in Sweden is hard, because there aren’t too many. There are pluses and negatives.”
Even less common worldwide is the opportunity for the sighted community to learn from the blind. The Invisible Exhibition is unique in that it opens the floor for empathy. Give them your blind trust for an afternoon, and they just might open your eyes.
Unfortunately, the Invisible Exhibition is permanently closed in Stockholm but is still active in other cities.
Visit the Exhibition’s official site for the latest information.
Special thanks to the Invisible Exhibition for the complimentary invitation. All thoughts and opinions expressed are wholly those of the author’s.