BBC reports that a tourist broke the finger off a statue in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence. They quote Monsignor Timothy Verdun saying "do not touch" is a "fundamental" rule of museum going that has been forgotten. How true. Touching art is not only commonplace, it's become accepted. Some museums are so keen to be accessible and 'customer-friendly' that their guards freely permit the handling of delicate and precious works of art. It's possibly the single greatest threat to cultural treasures today, far ahead of looting or war in its effect. Sometimes the damage is spectacular, but the real concern is the cumulative and irreversible wear and tear that's taking place on a colossal scale.
Some examples from my experience: The British Museum and Louvre freely permit touching; no guard would dream of challenging patrons who touch, stroke or sit on exhibits. I've seen visitors tapping pictures to find out whether they're painted on wood, and poking a canvas so hard that they hit the wall it was mounted on. The latter was at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art, where the guard was utterly unperturbed, saying that it happens all the time and they try not to make a fuss. A guard at the National Gallery told me that he sees people stroking the figure of Jesus in religious paintings, although the Head of Security vigorously assures me that this sort of thing happens extremely rarely. On the other hand, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington I once spoke to an auditor who was taking photographs of damage to works of art. He showed me a picture of the streak across the varnished surface of a Bellotto where someone had stroked it, and several other examples identified that morning. The handful of glazed pictures at the NGA reveal dozens of fingerprints.
Museums need to remember that before anything else they are responsible for protecting the objects entrusted to their care. Sometimes that means they have to stop visitors behaving exactly as they please, and sometimes it means robustly challenging people who are putting objects at risk. Personally I'd take the approach illustrated by Jacques Callot, and have an 'installation' outside the Louvre and the BM along these lines, called 'art touchers':
|Picture: British Museum|