Rebecca Atkinson

Please do not touch...

Rebecca Atkinson, 02.10.2012
Should we let visitors handle objects?
Should museums let visitors touch objects from their collections? It’s a question that provokes passionate responses from many museum professionals, no matter what side of the fence they sit.

Gloves, replicas and even virtual objects are all alternatives to letting members of the public touch “real” museum objects deemed too valuable or delicate to be handled directly.

The pros and cons of these approaches formed part of discussions at the Power of the Real symposium held by Museums Sheffield last week. There were many interesting points raised and exercises undertaken during the day, and some of these will feature in a future issue of Museum Practice on handling objects.  

One of the most powerful parts of the day was the opportunity to handle some of Museums Sheffield’s designated Metalworks collections. As well as touching objects with and without gloves, we also tried pouring water from several of Museums Sheffield’s teapots (which is a lot more fun and insightful than it probably sounds).

My personal highlight was when Lucy Cooper, curator of Metalwork at Museums Sheffield, brought out Hope by the Japanese artist Kyoko Kumai, three woven stainless steel “balls” recently acquired through Art Fund Collect.

The artwork will be used to help mark next year's centenary of the invention of stainless steel in Sheffield. But, as Cooper explained, the objects offer value beyond their potential for display; the durable nature of stainless steel means they are ideal for handling.

As well as illustrating an artistic response to stainless steel, they are really wonderful to touch and are perfectly sized for adult and children's hands. Each one provoked an incredibly tactile response in me and many other people attending the symposium.

Being able to hold the object meant I was able to admire the way the light from the windows was reflected in the metal surface and filtered through each strand – something that wouldn’t be possible if I was simply viewing it in a display case.

The experience sparked discussion about the value of display and raised an important question: is display the most effective way to use objects or are some objects (such as Kumai’s artworks) more powerful when they can be touched and used – in short, “experienced”.  

At the start of the symposium, Museums Sheffield posed several questions about touch, a few of which I've reproduced below:
  • Should we wear gloves when handling objects?
  • How might our response to an object change if we can touch it?
  • Does it matter if we use replica objects for handling?
  • Is it more important that a few people can touch an object or that many people can view it in a case? 
  • Is it better to handle objects ourselves or be “shown” them by staff?
  • Are there any objects that shouldn’t be touched?

I’d be really interested to hear other people’s opinions and experiences on this issue so please use the comment boxes below. 



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07.11.2012, 11:14
A number of years ago I wrote a dissertation for my diploma on "Tactual Perception, with particular reference to archaeological display". This explored the nature and importance of touch, and the way in which information is relayed to the brain. We also live in a touch deficient world - people are becoming very poor at judging and interpreting information through touch, and yet this used to be viewed as one of the primary senses. Museums could (should) play a greater part is enabling the understanding of the use of touch as it is rarely part of the wider curriculum. If anyone is interested I would be very happy to send a copy of the dissertation - although much of the information could be dated!
18.10.2016, 21:31
Dear Elizabeth,
I would love to have a copy please!
19.10.2016, 10:24
Hi Nia. Email me with your contact details and I will pass them on to Elizabeth. Best, Patrick
08.04.2014, 16:54
Dear Elizabeth!

I`d love to get a copy as well.

Thank you, Nicole Schimkus
19.10.2016, 10:24
Hi Nicole. Email me with your contact details and I will pass them on to Elizabeth. Best, Patrick
Fatima Alves
Access Manager, Pavillon of Knowledge - Ciência Viva
05.02.2013, 10:19
Dear Elizabeth Herr,pease send me a copy of your dissertation.many thanks,Fatima Alves
19.10.2016, 10:25
Hi Fatima. Email me with your contact details and I will pass them on to Elizabeth. Best, Patrick
Sarah Fellows
MA Member
Regal Heritage Access Officer, Tenbury Town Council
31.10.2012, 16:51
We've encountered an interesting aspect of this with one of our objects; it's an old chair, from the 1930s, which has been in the projection room of the cinema and used by the projectionists until very recently. It's fairly fragile because of the heavy use its had over the years. We've currently got the chair on open display in our museum space at the cinema, and encourage people to touch it, but ask them not to sit in it.Although we encourage an interaction with the object, are we really allowing the visitor to experience it properly, since they can't use it as it was intended to be used? I'd love to hear people's thoughts.
Fatima Alves
Access Manager, Pavillon of Knowledge - Ciência Viva
05.02.2013, 10:33
Hi Sara Fellows,in many ways we need "to teach" blind or not people to interact/touch. it´snot simply to touch like we do at home in many things. and because now we have more museums let to touch some art´a good thing and open an important way to learn and feel many things to say.Fátima Alves
Colin Mulberg
MA Member
Museum Consultant, Colin Mulberg Consulting
22.10.2012, 11:29
There is a middle road between cased displays and object handling sessions with visitors.

When I worked on project teams developing new galleries at the V&A, we incorporated ‘touch objects’ as part of the interpretation of any new gallery.

These were objects permanently built into the gallery that visitors were invited to touch.

Touch objects work best when visitors are directed to explore something specific about the object through touch, to focus on key points about design, materials, construction, etc. and also about history, culture and context.

For example, exploring the tactile quality of a 16th-century imported Chinese porcelain fragment helps visitors to understand the nature of the material. Yet comparing it to the chunkier feel of European ceramic from the period that was trying to imitate porcelain, helps explain why Chinese wares were thought be superior.

Feeling the slight unevenness of a whole Chinese vase gives a sense of high quality crafting by hand. This kind of experience can help visitors to not only study related objects in more detail but also to understand why the imported pieces were so coveted.

There is a surprising relationship between touching and looking; tactile exploration can really bring home elements about shape, form and decorative style. Feeling a spiral twist chair leg or baluster actually helps visitors to understand that element of the style – the act of feeling the curves helps to reinforce what the eye sees.

Similarly feeling carved stone or raised decoration helps visitors to explore its form and meaning. In some situations, it is possible to mount objects on a fixed tether, so that visitors can pick them up for closer study and to feel their weight and then return them to a cradle.

Though replicas can deliver some of this, there is something magical and attractive to visitors in touching original pieces. My experience over a range of galleries is that allowing visitors to touch original objects is particularly powerful as an experience and is something unique that museums can offer.

Though touch objects obviously benefit visitors with visual impairments, all visitors gain from this interpretation. Providing extra resources for visually impaired visitors in the form of Braille or raised drawings supports the idea of integrated provision. It is also fascinating to observe how many sighted visitors also want to feel the raised drawings and Braille.

In curatorial terms, selecting objects to be touched is a rebalancing of the issue of care vs access, weighing down more in favour of access for these pieces. Careful selection is needed, as touch objects need to be relatively robust and carefully mounted. Touch objects are obviously put at risk, but this can be tolerated if there are many better objects on display or the item is not vital as part of a collection. It is a great way to bring things out of store and put them to good use, especially parts of objects, fragments, etc.

In some cases even if the risk of damage is high, it may still be worth putting items out as touch objects and identifying replacements.

As touch objects are designed as part of a gallery, they draw on expertise from across the museum. They involve input from curators, conservation, technical services, security, learning/interpretation, access officer, etc.

Mounting needs particular thought, as touch objects become an obvious target for theft and damage; much effort will be wasted if the object only survives for a few weeks.

Touch objects can be found in a range of V&A galleries, including British Galleries, Architecture, Ceramics, China and Medieval and Renaissance.
Fatima Alves
Access Manager, Pavillon of Knowledge - Ciência Viva
05.02.2013, 10:50
Dear Colin Mulberg,can you tell me if the V&A have done any research about the incorporation of art objects in the galleries (with braille) with all the public (children, adults blind or not, old people etc...)?thanks
10.10.2012, 14:59
My research is about engaging with the materiality of objects. Objects in museums are not only distanced from the viewer by physical barriers of glass and cases, but they are also distanced from the viewer by being placed in a context far removed from that for which they were created. Cutlery is no longer used to eat a meal, clothes are no longer worn, musical instruments no longer played. This is one of the many paradoxes of museums: they are about objects - but they are about objects which are no longer the objects they once were. My research (supervised by Dr Sandra Dudley in the School of Museum Studies at Leicester) explores this issue and the dichotomies between access and conservation. I have been fortunate to work in places where the attitude has very much been about managing risk rather than being risk averse as is the norm in so many places today: as a result, much of my work has involved total material engagement with objects; getting hands-on; rummaging about in the stores with museum staff and visitors alike (and interestingly, more often than not it is only curators who have this privileged access within the museum, so opening this up to learning, marketing, front of house staff is vital). Projects I have worked on and am exploring include using accessioned material (such as the Mary Greg collection at Manchester Art Gallery), using artist-made intepretive material (such as hedsor's Object Dialogue Boxes), and also using the 'no man's land' material found in handling collections often managed by learning teams - the stuff that exists in limbo - as material objects to be reflected upon in a bodily way. I absolutely think that material in museums should be handled if we are to escape from the hierarchy of the senses which priorities sight above all others: our senses work together, and our engagement with objects is material. So I am all for thinking of ways in which this can be done safely and thoughtfully.
04.10.2012, 10:17
I have recently researched about making museums and collections accessible for blind and visually impaired people and I can say that at the moment accessibility through toucing and preservation, as one of the main roles of museums, are concepts that clash. Not because touching means the deterioration of the work of art, but because we have still the idea that only a curator can handle and exploring an object through touching without harming it. In my opinion, and after knowing first hand the opinions of blind visitors to museums, when we are in front of a work of art not only viewing is vital for understanding it, but also other senses are involved. If we allow people to touch an sculpture they can feel textures, temperatures and details that they are not able to perceive only by looking at it. Therefore, visitors to museums should be trained to handle properly the objects on display. Maybe, making a selection of the most representative, offering mock-ups of those that are too big or are particularly delicate. I have even seen blind people touching raised replicas of pictures, not only sculptures. Wearing gloves don't allow people to feel objects, textures and temperatures properly. There are some special gels that visitors can spread through their hands in order to touch without wearing gloves and without harming objects. I think that the clue is training, museums are taking a step forward in accessibility, for that reason both staff and visitors have to change their minds and be opened to new ways of approaching collections, way that were absolutely prohibited in the past. However, the museum´s main mission is to preserve our history, therefore, if touching would mean destroying our pieces of heritage, an accurate selection of them would have to be done. We cannot allow everybody to access every object. But why not open the museum´s boundaries?

Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
04.10.2012, 11:14
Thanks for your comment - I think that taking the experience of touch from the perspective of a person who is visually-impaired is a good place to start, as the sensory hierarchy that most museums employ (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) is instantly untenable.

I wrote some articles on providing access to people who are visually-impaired, looking at touch, audio descriptions etc that you may find interesting -

MA Mo Mi is also a really interesting organisation that runs touch tours - if you don't already know them I recommend a look at their website -

One point that a delegate at the Museums Sheffield symposium raised was that providing touching opportunities require resources, staff training etc. And she was from a national!

At the Natural History Museum they use volunteers, but again this does require a certain degree of staff time in terms of management and training.

I suppose it's a question of how important we think touch is - if it is something that museums do feel enhances the experience, then perhaps this is an area worth investing in (along with areas such as websites etc).
10.10.2012, 15:02
Another delegate at this conference who is blind, stated that she would much rather be able to handle a replica object without gloves, than the real thing with gloves. Which raises interesting points around authenticity of objects compared with authenticity of experience.