Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Do not touch - how hard is that?

Damaged statue at the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Picture: BBC
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': 
Plate 11: hanging scene, with condemned men hanged on a large tree.  c.1633
Picture: British Museum


  1. I couldn´t agree more with what you´re saying. My experience is that people generally touch whatever is possible to touch. Alas, it is as if the child in a person never really leaves the body of the grown up. (I have a soon-to-be 4 year old daughter. Telling her NOT to touch something has been the same as an imperative to actually touch the item in question...)

    Yesterday in Stockholm outside the Nordiska Museet, children were chasing geese fledglings (i.e. young birds not yet able to fly) as if there was no tomorrow. When I went up to the parents of the geese hunters and very politely told them to tell their children NOT to chase the fledglings, I just received a laconic smile as an only reaction. And the kids kept stressing the poor birds.
    Today at Millesgarden, also in Stockholm, a young boy kept taking gravel from one part of the famous Karl Milles garden and throwing it into one of the sculpture ponds. Eventually the father (who was on the phone) in question stopped him, but he moved loads of gravel, before being stopped. It was my angry glances that awoke the father, I dare say. Rules as No photos or Do not touch, are broken all the time. I believe a general lack of respect in society is to be blamed? Keep up the great blogging! My warmest regards, Nicklas Cederqvist, Stockholm, Sweden (

  2. Thank you for your comment. You're quite right - many places, especially museums, are so scared of offending visitors that they fail to enforce basic standards that would be to everyone's benefit. Children who grow up to develop an interest in art will be resentful of the museums that allowed kids to handle and damage irreplaceable works of art.