Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Please Do Not Touch the Walrus

I'm just back from the Upstate History Alliance/Museum Association of New York conference in Albany, where there were several great thought-provoking sessions. Curator Erin Crissman led a discussion about museum objects--not about cataloging, or caring for, or even perhaps completely interpreting, but she posed the question, "what is keeping us from using the objects in our collection?" Among other things, she had found some great images of objects, many of them outdoor sculpture, that had been touched by viewers, resulting in shiny bronze feet, noses, or other appendages. It sent me off on a little random googling myself to see what kinds of Do Not Touch signs are out there. Of course, you won't find a picture of a do not touch sign on a museum's website, but you do on flickr and picasa. Here's a random example:

Erin talked about wanting to develop an alternative to the no touching rule--one that gives visitors that emotional connection while still preserving the object. Not surprisingly, the session was a lively discussion. One participant pointed out, that if you want to touch authentic objects, plenty of the same types of things can be found at any antique store. Another noted that, even with the most valuable objects, at an auction, they can be touched, sat in, and poked at--but then, when they're bought by a museum they become untouchable. One participant wondered if we would lose our reliability, our trustworthiness, if we allowed people to touch, our credibility as a place of preservation. (For a great post on museums and reliability, see Nina Simon's blog, Museum 2.0). Another reminded us of the importance of developing ways to engage all our senses, and of course several people touched on, from Erin at the the very start of her talk and others, that at historic sites, we allow visitors to touch perhaps our most precious objects--the building itself. During the discussion I also thought about the ways that historic but sacred objects continue to be in use by many groups, perhaps only being used on a once a year basis, but used none-the-less.

But why do people want to touch? Is it just because we can't--that visitors love the lure of the illicit? Or is it that touch is really a way to make an emotional connection? or a tool for learning? Do we want to be like those people whose objects we want to touch? or do we want to remind ourselves that our lives are different.

Without question, touching can provide an experience that lasts for a lifetime. One participant in the session, a well-seasoned professional, had a childhood filled with family vacations to presidential homes. The one he remembers best? When a docent let him go pick up and bring to share the bedwarmer at Woodrow Wilson's home. For me, when I was in elementary school, we took a family trip to New York and visited the Museum of Modern Art. There, in front of me was perhaps the first real work of art I really knew--Van Gogh's Starry Night. But it was so different in person than in the reproductions I'd seen--it not only had color, but it had dimension and texture. So what did I do--I snuck quickly snuck out a finger and touched the surface. Sorry MOMA, for those oils on my fingers and any potential damage, but thanks for the memory.

(and a thanks to all those of you at the conference who mentioned you read my blog!)


Deanna said...

Linda - this session was one of my favorites from the conference. I am so glad you blogged about it!

James Chung said...

I'm glad your blog post about the UHA/MANY mall tour brought The Uncataloged Museum blog to my attention. I got a particular chuckle after reading your memory of Van Gogh's Starry Night.

As I took my kids back to MOMA this weekend, I was reminded of a trip a few years back when I was trying to demonstrate the concept of pointillism to my then-four-year-old son. I held him up and walked towards the Seurat piece, then back, then forward again...when he then stuck out his finger to experience the art in his own way. The security guard came running.

I fully understand why MOMA can't provide a tactile understanding of their works by Seurat and Van Gogh. But unlike my childhood impressions of museums as hushed and formal places, I hope that my kids always view museums as places that encourage and feed their sense of exploration and wonder.

Thanks for blogging to prompt deeper thinking on how to make exploration and wonder come to life at all types of museums!

Beth Crawford said...

Linda: Loved your comment on touching. At Historic Jamestowne they have taken the bronze Pocahontas down from her early 19th pedestal and have her on a rock where children of all ages can go take her hand and have their picture taken with her. It creates moment where children in particular connect with the site, and the historical figure, plus make a lasting memory in the form of a photo. Pocahontas' hands are shiny bronze and the rest of her is a patina of green.

Anne Dealy said...

Though I missed the conference, I was reading your post about touch and your questions about this sense as a way of knowing and I immediately thought of my son. As an 8-month old he has no real concept of "don't touch." This is a primary way he experiences the world. We might want to remember that the visual sense is the last to mature in humans, though we rely on it so heavily in later years. If it's so important in our development as infants and children, why do we expect people in museums to learn without utilizing it?

Linda Norris said...

It's so interesting to me that this post drew several comments--and all of them related to our own desires to touch something in a museum. Anne gave us a great reminder about connecting to touch as a critical part of our development as humans--and both James and Beth's stories demonstrate that human nature!