My ears pricked up during the latest episode of Front Row Late on BBC2. During the panel debate on the role of museums in the 21st century, Mary Beard, who was chairing, made a plea for more objects to be available to be touched.
This had been sparked by Tom Shakespeare’s recounting of having an ancient tool placed in his hands by a museum worker, and how this touch gave him a profound feeling of connection to the past and the people who would have used it. Incidentally, Tom, who is an academic and broadcaster, had already mentioned that he finds crowded museums problematic, as he’s a wheelchair user and it’s difficult to move around and to see things in crowds.
This prompted Mary Beard to say:
There are still hidden, or not so hidden, rules. And that idea of touching the past, that’s not only been taken away from us, we’ve actually bought in to the white glove phenomenon – you’re not allowed to touch the past! (Front Row Late, 2018).
Dr. Tristram Hunt, the Director of the V&A was also on the panel and responded:
Lots of museums have, quite rightly, touching areas, so that you do have this sense of physicality and a sort of haptic power. But also people who are visually impaired can also sense what it’s about. (Front Row Late, 2018).
While that was good to hear, some writers (Candlin, 2010) and blind and partially sighted people themselves (Partington, 2017), have questioned whether, in many museums, the objects that are available to touch give visually impaired visitors equality of experience. During a panel discussion at Shape Arts’ event at Tate Exchange last year, Zoe Partington said:
If you are a blind or partially sighted person you don’t want to arrive somewhere and there are ten items you can touch and there are 44,000 pieces in the collection and every year there are the same ten pieces to touch (Partington, 2017).
In the programme, this was backed up by Mary Beard, who pointed out that the objects available to touch in museums are often what people would actually like to touch. In the British Museum, for example, she talked about the replica of the Rosetta Stone that you can touch, while the real thing is off-limits: ‘We all know this great big block of basalt will not be harmed by millions of people giving it a pat!’
Hunt, however, came back ‘on the side of the conservators’, worrying about ‘jammy fingers touching the Rosetta Stone!’ He reminded us of museums’ obligation to preserve objects for future generations.
Interestingly, Candlin (2004) quotes a story told at a seminar, from the British Museum. When they cleaned the Rosetta Stone, they discovered that an earlier curator had painted the inscriptions on the stone in white ink. While there was also dirt present from the stone being handled, both ink and dirt were removed by cleaning, leaving no damage. However, the dirt was seen as more problematic than using white ink on the stone, an example of how a line is drawn between appropriate (curators’) and inappropriate (the public’s) touch. Hunt’s horror at the idea of ‘jammy fingers’ reveals what he thinks about the public being allowed to touch museum objects, and reflects 19th century ideas about the dangers of allowing the working classes into museums (Bennett, 1995). How refreshing that renowned historian Mary Beard challenges this idea and understands the value that people would gain from ‘giving it a pat’.
Bennett, T. (1995) The Birth of the Museum. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Candlin, F. (2010) Art, Museums and Touch (Rethinking Art’s Histories) Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Candlin, F. (2004) ‘Don’t Touch! Hands off! Art, blindness and the conservation of expertise’. London: Birkbeck ePrints. Available at: http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/775
Front Row Late (2018) BBC2, 4 May. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b1zsv9 (Accessed: 11 May 2018).
Partington, Z. (2017) [Panel discussion] at Ways of Seeing Art, Tate Modern, London, 23-26 February. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/tate-exchange/workshop/ways-seeing-art (Accessed: 27 April 2018).