Why People Try to Touch the Paintings at Museums

Atlas Obscura

You’re walking through a museum when a piece of art seems to call out to you. Maybe it’s a bowl, smooth and detailed with shiny gold leaf. Maybe it’s a statue of Venus, her hand outstretched. You walk over to this enticing object. You lean in as close as you can.

Why is it so tempting to just reach out and touch it?

Fiona Candlin, a professor of museology at Birkbeck College in London, has been asking this question for over 20 years. Candlin was working at the Tate Liverpool in the early 2000s when the U.K.’s Disability Discrimination Act first passed. Thanks to the new law, museums in the country were starting to think harder about how to make exhibits more accessible to the visually impaired, and Candlin found herself dissatisfied with the results.

“I thought a lot of the stuff they put on was just so token,” she says. “It didn’t begin to think about how we might encounter things through touching them.” So Candlin embarked on her own course of observational research. In short, she says, “I spent a lot of time sitting in galleries, watching people touch things.”

Across 2004 and 2005, Candlin wandered the British Museum, keeping an eye out for what she calls “low-key unauthorized touch.” The results of this study—recently published in The Senses and Society—read like a catalog of small, secret intimacies. (Candlin has also written a book on the subject, called Art, Museums and Touch.) Visitors tap on bowls, lean on plinths, and trace hieroglyphics with their fingers. They pat the head of the Halikarnassos horse, stroke the belly of Septimius Severus, and try to feed sweets to the Dog of Alcibiades. A young boy in the Egyptian sculpture gallery spends some time shadowboxing the disembodied forearm of Amenhotep III, ending the bout with a gentle fist-bump.

Meanwhile, sympathetic but harried attendants bemoan the impossibility of enforcing the gallery rules, which, they say, many visitors aren’t even aware of. “You stop a hundred people touching and there are two hundred more,” one told Candlin. “It’s like trying to turn back the sea.”

Most museum-going is still a primarily visual experience. Exhibits are generally “on view” or “on display,” and visitors learn more about historic and artistic objects from reading programs, plaques, and captions. But over the past few decades, more and more museums have been working to include additional senses: many offer tours for visually impaired people, and some have gotten more experimental, concocting chocolates themed around particular exhibits or creating scratch-and-sniff versions of paintings. But touch, especially, is usually relegated to particular areas, like the Louvre’s Touch Gallery, or the British Museum’s Hands On desks.

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