Thursday, August 14, 2014

To Touch or Not to Touch?

     This week, I hope you don’t mind if I step up on my soapbox for a minute!  The following article was brought to my attention recently, and I think the topic of letting the public handle museum artifacts is worthy of a bit of discussion.  It’s a short article, so go ahead and read it here.  

     Now I certainly understand about incorporating some hands-on exhibits for the visitors.  In fact, I wrote a blog post about these exhibits at my museum, here.
     I also understand about the need to bring visitors into the museum.  Though it is true that there wouldn’t be a museum if we didn’t have an artifact collection, it is also true that we couldn’t care for or display the collection to the public if the museum didn’t exist!  So, what is the best way to care for the artifacts, while still attracting visitors to your museum?  Considering that my job as a museum curator is to protect the artifacts for future generations to appreciate and learn from them, I have a hard time accepting that the best answer is to allow everyone to handle the artifacts.  Will that help to bring in more visitors?  The information in the article suggests that it can.  Will it allow these artifacts to be available to future museum visitors though?  I doubt it.

    They stated that, “Nothing’s been broken yet….,” but you have to consider that ‘yet.’  Chances are good that something will eventually be broken.  Even if nothing technically “breaks” though, what about the wear and tear on the artifacts?  

When I handle the artifacts in my museum’s collection, I wear gloves for a good reason! 
     The dirt and oil on hands can damage many materials, even if you can’t see the damage at first.  For instance, metal artifacts which visitors are allowed to handle will tarnish or corrode more quickly.  Leather or cloth artifacts will become discolored and deteriorate more quickly.  And when that happens, what will be used then to lure more visitors in to see (and handle) the museum’s collection?  The museum probably won’t have enough funds to keep replacing artifacts.  Having artifacts donated will also become more difficult when potential artifact donors see how their family heirlooms will be handled. 
     It seems to me that there has to be some middle ground here.  Yes, people like to see AND touch items, but do they have to be the original artifacts?  There are other options.  It is possible to make reproductions of many kinds of artifacts.  Visitors can then have the experience of handling or using the item, without damaging the original artifact.  Some museums even have collections of original artifacts which are not museum quality, which can be handled by the public.  Bringing some well-selected artifacts out of the exhibit cases and having trained museum staff members give the visitors a closer look at them (without letting them touch) is also a better option than having the artifacts handled by everyone who walks through the door! 
     I simply don’t see the logic or forethought in sacrificing a museum’s collection to bring in more visitors.  These museums may well get an increase in ticket sales today, but what are the long-term consequences and effects?

     What do you think?  The comment section is open (though moderated) for your thoughts!       

Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.


  1. Great post! I agree about letting the public use reproduction items. I'm a fan of relaxed tours with hands-on aspects. I find the problem is more with the refusal to allow photos. In a social media world with a "photo or it didn't happen" mindset, many people don't feel that their visit is complete without photos to remember it by.

  2. Yes, I agree about the photos. I was pleased when my museum changed its "No photography" rule to "No flash photography." Our visitors are happier about this, and we get the added bonus of seeing the museum tagged when they share their photos online!