We recently ran into one of the sacred cows of the curatorial world: touching and using artifacts.
In our recent survey of Connecticut Cultural Consumers (funded by the Connecticut Humanities Council), we asked, “If you could do whatever you wanted at a historic house museum, with no restrictions, what would you do?” A significant number of respondents wrote in that they wished to step behind those velvet ropes, get up close and personal, and touch or use artifacts. As one respondent wrote (in all caps), “TOUCH, PICK UP, LOOK AT THE MARKINGS, SIT ON THE CHAIRS, FEEL THE FABRIC, LOOK AT THE BOOKS - TOUCH HISTORY.” Another observed, “Isn’t it everyone’s fantasy to try out the furniture?”
Starting to feel queasy yet? Our "inner curators" sure did as we were analyzing the results of this survey question. Traditional prohibitions against handling and using collections items exist for a good reason: to prevent or slow deterioration . . . or worse. Thankfully, at least some of our survey participants recognize this. One wrote, “Too much handling by too many people, some of whom may not be very careful, would be ruinous to many pieces.”
Yet we also know all too well that those prohibitions can also be barriers, as physical access is important to a well-rounded learning experience. As one survey participant noted, “By touching, I get a better sense of the history and craftsmanship.”
Of course, many museums have been inviting visitors to “please touch” for years via interactives, teaching collections, hands-on activities, and reproductions. But if the results of this survey question taught us anything, it’s that museums may not be doing enough to satisfy visitor demand in this area, especially in historic house museums.
Can we do more of what we are already doing? For instance, lots of museums have teaching collections or reproductions available for school groups and families to explore. But fewer institutions have similar interpretation for adult visitors.
we find some middle ground? Can we offer special access opportunities, limited to a few
people at a time, that allow visitors to get a little closer to some artifacts,
so they can experience them at closer range?
How about rotating a few artifacts out of their settings and displaying them where visitors can get closer to them? What if we carefully selected some artifacts that can be
handled by the public?
What are your thoughts? Are there additional methods we could be using to safely satisfy tactile visitors? Do you have any stories from your museum? Or do you think we are crazy to even bring this up? Click on “comments” below to share. (If you are reading this from your e-mail subscription to the blog, please go to our blog's website to add a comment.) Please include the name of your museum as well!