U Can’t Touch That

Visitors want to feel welcome and comfortable in museum spaces. Museums want to keep visitors happy while maintaining collections. These aren’t opposing states, but sometimes it feels like it.

I often wonder why this whole touching thing is hard? First, humans touch things to make meaning. Don’t think touch is important. Try checking to see if that avocado is ripe while wearing winter gloves. Actually try doing anything with bulky gloves. Museums often, therefore, require visitors to suppress one of their senses. Now all museums have collections that can’t be touched, but art museums are the least tactile collections on display. Art museum collections are very often unique and irreplaceable. Touch not only degrades the object but could rob the future of that object. Add that art collections are commodities in their own right, and you get a touchy situation.

Basically, we find ourselves trying to keep things safe for posterity, a job delegated to some of our most part-time staff. The guards are then being asked to be ‘real nice’ about this so visitors still feel welcome, often with little training. Our visitors are often already on edge because they’re worried about being yelled at. The whole thing is a recipe for unhappiness.

So, what’s the solution? I don’t know exactly. When people understand the rules, they do better. “Being yelled at” feels worst when you didn’t even know why. Most people are trying to have a good time, and it’s easier to do that when you know how not to be bad. Signage helps probably in the same way speed limit signs do. The people who read signs will follow those rules if they choose. But, I think there must be better forms of communication. What are they? I’d love to hear from you.

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