MartineE Rouleau

“Do not touch” must be one the first thing anyone learns inside a museum. So much so that the museum is where one is likely to first get acquainted with the fact that there are some things in this world that are meant to be looked at but that can not be engaged with in any other way. It's a favorite pastime of mine to see how long it takes for someone to run up to me or yelp as soon as I extend a hand towards anything that hangs on a wall or sits on a plinth. I never aim to damage anything of course and I rarely actually do touch a piece, but I just want to determine how aggressively touch is evacuated out of the experience of the museum as I believe it is indicative of the degree of seriousness with which a culture defends its boundaries. In certain Italian and Greek museums, I've been known to lay a furtive yet respectful hand on a marble foot or a copper head for long uninterrupted minutes. In Britain and America, I have yet to touch as much as a velvet rope without dire consequences. Regardless of my location in the world, the objects in glass vitrines are always the ones I wish I could handle the most. There is something about the vitrine that almost taunts me. For some reason, the encased objects appear more precious and more interesting specifically because they can be seen but they can only be handled by the precious few who hold the appropriate authority and set of keys.

Although it is now taken for granted that museum collections are not meant to be touched, this has not always been the case. There was a time when a visit to the museum was not ruled by vision but involved a lot of touching and handling. Indeed, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nascent European institutions didn’t have the set of rules that we are now so familiar with. At the time, touching was considered to be an integral part of the museum visit and the whole experience had more in common with visiting an acquaintance kind enough to give a detailed tour of their home. Writes Constance Classen in her essay “Touch In The Museum” in “The Book Of Touch”;

“The curator, as gracious host, was expected to provide information about the collection and to offer it up to be touched. The museum visitors, as polite guests, were expected to show their interest and goodwill by asking questions and by touching the proffered objects.”

By allowing visitors to touch the collection, the curators were merely following rules of hospitality. It is perhaps pertinent to observe that the museum audience of that time was by no means comparable to, say, the visitors that one would now find on a rainy Sunday afternoon at the National Gallery or at Tate Modern. This experience was made possible mostly because fewer people frequented such institutions and because conservation had not yet evolved into the paranoid science of degradation that we know today.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century in Britain, museums became involved in a national effort to educate and civilize the masses migrating to urban centres in order to take advantage of the plentiful work opportunities brought about by industrialisation. It was believed that museums would be a great alternative to less reputable establishments for workers to while away their newly found leisure time. This consecutively led to a greater number of visitors but also an audience that was not educated in ways of the museum. Museums responded with the imposition of order and rules. No longer were the objects displayed there available for touch but quite the opposite. They were now regarded as sacred and removed from ordinary human interaction. In turn, this increased reverence brought about heightened concern about potential damage to the collection accompanied by intensified programmes of conservation.
By increasing visibility with better lighting and modes of display, modern museums aimed to promote visual access while discouraging any perceived need for touch. Gradually, the picking up and handling of objects gave way to a public space meant to structure an historical and distancing space between the audience and the objects. Barriers or cords were introduced in the first decade of the nineteenth century as a response to the increased interest in exhibitions and they became a familiar feature of picture galleries in the course of the nineteenth century. Writes Robert D.Altick in “The Shows of London”;

“In the 1820s in Britain barriers were introduced to keep the expanding middle class audiences at a safe distance. In particular large paintings depicting contemporary events had to be railed off, such as David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the Gazette Announcing the Battle of Waterloo (1822), which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1822.”

These obstructions were meant to increase the distance between the spectator and the work of art as a way to make the works of art more accessible to a greater number of people. They also meant that the engagement with artefacts and works of art was becoming more visual and less kinaesthetic. Glass vitrines acted in a similar way to railings but pushed the distancing process a little further by blocking access in every way but visually. They also allowed for groupings of small objects from a similar historical period or of a similar school or form, especially the ones made of the most fragile organic materials such as ivory, bone, fabric and wood. Handling of such objects has been known to cause infinitesimal damage such as traces of moisture or grease which can culminate over time in the object’s destruction. Certain restored works composed of separate parts, veneering or inlaid elements will most often also go behind glass.

Today, museums find themselves in the specific predicament of having to protect things that may be damaged by touch while granting the widest possible access. Although for many people, significant engagement with an object is most likely to happen via touch or some form of manipulation, the museum with its tantalising arrays of glass vitrines and velvet cords will always provide temptation.