Developing touch tours

Andrew Mashigo, 15.02.2013
Andrew Mashigo explains how touch tours can balance access with conservation
Touch tours give visually-impaired people access to museums and galleries, and provide an opportunity for them to enjoy a variety of artworks. To do this they need to be objective, engaging and reflective – and combine tactile and descriptive elements.

Touch tours involve exploration and participation of artworks but every time an artwork is touched there is a risk of damage.

Conservation is crucial to preservation of artworks and a few health and safety guidelines have been set up by museums to help protect the guide, participants and artworks during tactile tours.

  • Participants and guides should remove chains, bangles, watches, rings and any other jewellery that may cause damage through abrasion.
  • They should also avoid wearing coats and scarfs, or carrying handbags that may cause snagging.
  • Advise participants against wearing high heels or unstable footwear during the tour.
  • Tactile tours are conducted wearing gloves. Two options are currently the most popular: fabric cotton gloves, which are comfortable to wear but reduce the sensation of touch and detail experienced during the handling process; or plastic polyethylene gloves, which are lighter and allow more detailed touch but cause sweating over long periods of use and cannot be re-used.
  • Fragile works should not be touched to avoid damage.
  • Visitors should be aware of sculptures on high plinths. They should not lean or put weight on sculptures.
  • Guides must be mindful of where sculptures are positioned, especially those around or near entrances, doorways, exits and windows, to avoid trip hazards.

The number of people per tour depends on the number of guides or educators available, and also depends on the length or theme of the tour. I usually suggest no more than six to eight per tour, as that allows the guide enough time to explore the artworks with each participant.

Touch tours are often run and supported by a museum’s education or interpretation department, but some organisations have a small charge or donation for online booking (usually no more than £3).

Andrew Mashigo is an educator and inclusion advocate. More information about touch tours can be found on his website MaMoMi Initiative.