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Do Not Touch!

Stephine explains the reasons for the no touching rules in the museums.
SUBJECT: One very big aspect– and colleagues of mine probably would describe me and my conservation colleagues as the object police– is conservation is always about don’t touch the object. Now, touching is one of the five senses we humans really use to perceive our environment. But also it’s in order to make meaning, to make sense of what we see and what’s around us. So I’m not a monster. I completely understand the urge of people wanting to touch, especially if something is interesting, or they have a question about it, or they’re really intrigued. Sculpture and three-dimensional objects just like this, like in a city– they are best perceived through touching.
Now, why do museums always have the signs up, please do not touch, and why do we conservators don’t want other people to touch the objects? Well, there are lots of reasons. One, the main reason really is, it’s about the longevity of protecting the object. So, for example, the more people will touch an object, the more the risk or the higher the risk is for things to break off, for abrasion of a painted surface. But also when our hands, our fingers– we have some grease and maybe some sweat. So this all leaves a residue on an object. Again, metal objects, for example, can corrode just from repeated touching.
If the metal object is a high-polished brass sculpture, where the high-polished sheen is really important to actually understand that sculpture, that’s a really big problem. Yes, it can be cleaned off but it’s really not– the more you clean, if you have to repeatedly clean, you always remove something from the surface. So, if that happens once, it’s not a problem. But, obviously, again, conservation wants to prevent these things from happening because it means it increases the lifespan of the object. And at the end of the day, what museums really want, Is we want to keep these to be accessible for not only the present generations, but also future generations.
Another thing why we don’t want people to sometimes touch objects is also that this could be actually quite detrimental for their health. Some objects might have materials on them– in them– that are invisible but that can be highly toxic. So, if we have objects like this, they’re generally inside a case, because we really don’t want to risk anyone ignoring our plea to not touch an object. But it’s also– other objects, there might be materials on there that can cause, for example, or trigger certain allergies. And for conservators– when I work on an object, I, for example, always wear gloves. I very often wear a face mask, depending on if there are dust particles or even for solvents.
We have very specific rules for objects that might have asbestos or have any toxic substances, potentially. So, a lot of the not touching the object is also to protect the visitors, in many ways. And we do try, here in Glasgow Museums, especially in the Gallery of Modern Art– our Learning and Access department is actually very proactive, together with our visitor assistance, where, generally, we have an area with an exhibition, where, for example, visitors have the opportunity to read a bit more about the work, but also where we sometimes have the materials. So visitors can touch that. Our visitor systems are great. They very often know a bit more about the artworks.
And so it’s all about trying to prevent for visitors to have the urge to touch an object.
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