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February 27, 2009



Beginning about a year and a half ago my insitution, the Rosenbach Museum & Library started offering weekly hands-on tours on a variety of topics (Fine Arts, Wild West, Colonial Life, Sleuths & Spies), using actual collections items. For example I do a decorative arts tour in our historic house space in which we pull out drawers from furniture and pass around silver. We're up to twice a week now and hope to expand futher. We limit our tour size to 8 people, no young kids (minimum age is 8), and the tours have to be led by a staff remember with collections handling training. Also when putting the tours together we try to pick items that are in good physical shape and whenever possible pieces that don't have a lot of other demands on them, for exhibitions etc. Visitor response been mixed--everyone who goes on the tours loves them and we've gotten good press, but it seems to be hard to get the word out that the tours exist,so sometimes we don't have anyone show up.

Nicole Belolan

I certainly commiserate with visitors who want to touch collections. I am one of them! The curator-in-training in me got nervous at the thought of having objects handled by the public more than is customary at the present time.

First, as many readers of this blog would probably know, many types of objects (textiles, works on paper) should be handled sparingly - even by curators. Many museums host scholarly or collector-driven workshops (at a cost, of course, but I have seen such costs at reasonable levels [such as the cost of admission, or slightly more])that involve a limited amount of handling, sometimes some great opportunities to look at things using microscopes. In addition, museums often offer some reproductions that give visitors the literal "feel" for what surfaces are like. For example, the Winterthur Museum's galleries include reproduction ball-and-claw feet from three different urban areas and swatches of various types of woven textiles.

Even if a museum carefully selects objects that can be handled on a regular basis by visitors (even if they are on a rotation), one would guess that these objects would wear faster than if they weren't being handled. It follows that these objects would become more vulnerable and would not "last" as long as they would have normally in their current state. If more than the usual suspects (art handlers, curators, registrars, etc.) are handling objects on a regular basis, does that reality affect insurance?

Many important facts about objects can be learned by simply having the ability to *look* at them up-close. Perhaps workshops or tours that emphasize artifact study would serve these tactile-inclined visitors better by developing even more effective ways to help people make good observations by simply taking a closer look. Certain museums (such as the Frick and parts of Winterthur) facilitate this well since their floor plans are more open. In addition, when visiting the Wallace Collection in London, I learned that, once a year or every other year (I can't recall), the staff opens all the furniture (the Wallace has a lot of French furniture featuring mechanical functions that are that are typically camouflaged when closed -- any many case pieces have great interior details) so visitors can see inside. Voila! When the museum does not allow one to walk up to things or handle them in a library setting, when possible, museums should try to use visitor-friendly cases that allow for one to walk around an entire object to see the front, back, sides, etc.

I realize that these compromises are not necessarily what the visitors quoted in this blog entry are seeking, but perhaps the goal should be to think more critically about how to educate the public about museum collections without subjecting the collections to too much potentially harmful situations.

Linda Norris

I think your comment about not a Rembrandt is critical here. At many local historic museums and historic houses, the same level of no touching exists as at places with significant one-of-a-kind collections. If your museum has a dozen butter churns, all of them with little or no provenance, there seems little reason that at least one of them couldn't be touched, sparingly, under supervision, as at the Rosenbach (yet another reason to put the Rosenbach on my visit list) and become part of an educational collection.

Here in Ukraine, touching of any kind is absolutely forbidden--you can barely sit in an exhibition-- and it certainly makes for a stern museum visit. And visiting museums in another language is a great reminder for a linguistic learner like me that we need to offer many types of experiences in museums. Here, my linguistic skills are pretty useless so I need to rely on other ways to learn.

Susie Wilkening, Reach Advisors

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Kathy - I totally want to revisit the Rosenbach now! I will try to slip in while I am down for the ACM and AAM meetings!

Linda is right in that many, many museums there are objects in the collection that are duplicates, not-particularly rare/unique,and/or fairly tough and can handle, well, handling. Museums who offer touching experiences would have to assume there would be damage to the objects, no question. Accidents happen. Yet weighing the pros and cons for a particular object may well find that an object is best utilized as part of a handling collection, while other, similar objects, remain "behind the ropes." Perhaps not any of the Paul Revere tankards at Winterthur, though!

I love the idea of "handling" through microscopes, Nicole! And "open" days. What else can we do for those objects that should not be handled?

Karen Osburn

This is a very thought provoking discussion. I worked in a museum that once put up an exhibit with metal, paper, cloth and wood that people could touch. One half of each piece of material was covered up by mylar, and people touched the exposed half allowing them to see what touching does through time. I think the idea of a limited number of adults being able to touch duplicate collection items has a place in museums. We need to carefully choose the items, carefully structure the tour, and prepare the people in how objects should be handled for the tour to be successful. I think it would be helpful to have an educational goal, rather than just the simple idea of how things feel to touch or sit in.

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