Getting touchy-feely with art

A sensual guest blog from Cathy Lewis MAHI, interpretive writer extraordinaire: 

A recent visit to a sculpture gallery had me bursting into song. Sadly, the lyrics were from Grease, ‘Keep your filthy paws off my silky drawers…

Such tempting curves ...

Such tempting curves …

Why? Because this gallery, the former home of a sculptor, gave out its message loud and clear –‘Look, but don’t touch!’ or ‘Keep your filthy paws off!

It made me uncomfortable, and slightly dissatisfied. But most of all, it got me thinking about our sense of touch. How important it is, often without us realising it.

So let’s think about it for a moment…

What do us dog-lovers do we see an adorable puppy? Admire it from afar? Theorise about what makes this puppy so special? No, we get down and dirty. We fondle its warm ears, tickle its round tummy, bury our faces in its fluffy-soft fur.

Primal urges

Let’s admit it. The urge to touch is primal. Uncontrollable. Irrepressible. We want – we need – to feel things.

Shiny bronze swirls - so sensuous ...

Shiny bronze swirls – so sensuous …

And in the art world, therein lies a problem. I personally don’t feel the urge to touch paintings. I’m happy to look. But sculptures, well, they’re made to be touched. Why else do they have those textures, shapes and contours? Touch is the sense they most tempt and tantalise. (You can’t taste, smell or hear sculptures.)

As soon as I go into a sculpture gallery, my fingers start twitching…and it seems I’m not the only one.

Don’t you dare!

So back to my visit to the sculpture gallery. As soon as I entered, I was bombarded with ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ signs. They were everywhere. On all those lovely creations that had been made to be touched. And I was also aware that the room stewards were watching me. One false move and I’d be out…

Those knobbly bits and finger-sized are surely not designed just to be looked at

Those knobbly bits and finger-sized are surely not designed just to be looked at

So I looked at the warm wood, the cool bronze, the knobbly things with spikes and holes, and the smooth things with undulations and ripples – and they left me cold. Not just because my urges had been denied. But because no-one bothered to tell me WHY.

Tell us the story

To me, as a heritage interpreter for many years, it seemed so obvious that there was an important story to be told. The story of why we must keep our hands firmly in our pockets. Of the grime and acids and destructive things that lurk on our innocent fingers. The things that over time might maim or destroy these wonderful pieces.

These are stories that would engage interest, provoke conversations, and maybe also change our behaviour. And they’re great fodder for children’s interpretation too.

(There were also ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHY’ signs scattered all around. Why shouldn’t we take a photo? What harm could it do? But I’ll stop there because photography isn’t the subject of this blog… (But it is of this one – Susan))

‘A spate of touching incidents’

So after my visit, I emailed the gallery, giving what I thought were helpful suggestions. I encouraged them to include interpretive messages with the ‘Do not’ commands. To brief the room stewards to tell these stories. To provide and promote sacrificial sculptures that can be touched.

Sadly, their reply left me as cold as an ice sculpture.

The on-site signage had been increased because: ‘We’ve recently suffered a spate of touching incidents…’.Unless I misunderstood, the word ‘touching’ here didn’t mean ‘evoking tender feelings’.

Regarding my suggestion about providing interpretive labels to explain why we shouldn’t touch, they said:

Label text at this venue is kept to a minimum…we wish to retain the feeling of an ‘inhabited space’’.

Presumably they mean that they want the place to feel like it did when the sculptor lived there. So did she really welcome her guests with a barrage of ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ and ‘NO PHOTOGRAPHY’ signs?

The gentle touch

I’m not being totally flippant. I do understand the issue. I’ve lived with it for a long time – having worked with the National Trust from way back in their ‘Do not touch’ days, through to their much more sense-indulgent, family-friendly, homely houses. I know it’s a balance between visitor enjoyment and conservation of important or fragile objects.

I’m sure that many sculpture galleries do embrace and encourage our need to touch. I’d love to hear from you. How do you do it? How do you differentiate between the things that people can touch, and those that really are too fragile? And do visitors respect the difference? Have your visitor satisfaction levels increased in the light of permitted touching?

Many thanks to Cathy for this great post and the questions it raioses.  If you have comments  or responses please post them here and Cathy will respond.

About susancrosstelltale

Great visits to heritage and natural sites do not happen by accident. This blog is about the work that make special sites great places to visit. I hope it will be useful to visitors and host alike. Find out more at me and my blog.
This entry was posted in Interpretation, Tips and advice, Visit experience, Visitors, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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