Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Touching Art

Picture: The Onion
'Struggling Museum Now Allowing Patrons to Touch Paintings', reported The Onion back in 2009. The Met's director is quoted, "Please, bring the whole family and smudge up our paintings as much as you like". Not everyone was happy; " 'I touched a crapload of Jasper Johns' paintings,' said Mark Bennett, 67. 'I just don't get why they're supposed to be so special. They just feel like any regular old painting'." Best quote: "Sometimes you have to go the extra mile to grab people's attention ... it takes more than curating exhibits that bring meaning and context to our cultural heritage, more than preserving works of art that capture the spirit of transcendence unique to humankind".

It's scarily credible. The rhetoric captures exactly the tone of museums' own publicity - all about the visitor experience. The crass immediacy of museum publicity obliterates any sense of the transcendent. And visitors must be allowed to do pretty much as they please. First photography, then flash photography (increasingly permitted), and many museums do in practice let patrons touch the art as they please. People line up to take pictures holding hands with statues and guards rarely even bother to intervene when visitors poke and stroke the pictures. 

A more recent story was that kids are to be allowed to touch art at the National Gallery of Canada, CBC Radio tells us. Another spoof, cleverly presented as the recommendation of a consultant to science museums. Kids should also be allowed to paint over stuff from the stores, because no one sees it anyway, they said. 

Final example is a really elaborate spoof. Kids in Museums is an entire campaign with a manifesto demand that museums say "please touch". Loads of museums have fallen for this one, and have actually signed up to the manifesto! Come on Kids in Museums, you've had a good run but it's time to 'fess up. It is all a big joke, isn't it?

Requiring people to refrain from touching is the most minimal demand that museums make of their patrons. Repeated handling causes real damage. Some museums have 'touch' displays where half of a reproduction object is protected and people are encouraged to touch the other half, sometimes with a senor to record how often it's been touched. It's astonishing how quickly gilding is lost and textiles are shredded. It's not asking much that people look rather than handle. But the Kids in Museums spoof would prefer museums to compromise their collections rather than expect people to learn that museum visiting is about looking. It's as if they can't believe that looking alone could be sufficiently rewarding. 

I'm looking forward to a debate in London about kids in museums later this month. This piece by Tiffany Jenkins gives a taster.


  1. Based on a reply in askcurator (twitter) seems the Prado also has lost his head. Prepare an exhibition that encourages touch works (copies in 3d I guess). I think it is aimed at kids. We'll see how you explain to a 5 year old child the difference between copy and original, and when you take their to a museum did not try to touch everything.
    Ok. perhaps is too soon to criticize, and I should expect to see how they implements the activity (though I do not see the point of touching a painting, which provides). But I have fear;-).

  2. " I do not see the point of touching a painting"-and listening or tasting and sniffing are activities that will not augment the experiencing art.What is however needed is to learn how to be quiet and focused in contemplating a painting. That approach seems not to be especially popular.What I see here is that museum curators gave up on expectation that art presented for viewing could possibly satisfy the new kind of visitor.Instead of holding steadfastly to certainty that following the way of traditional respectful viewing,they are trying to dress museums in romper-room clothes in hope of being more welcoming. It would be the right approach if all there was to see were Oldenburg and Lichtenstein and ol' Jasper.