For some people, seeing an object in a glass case is enough. For others, reading every single word of interpretation in an exhibition is a necessity. Many of us, though, enjoy the chance to hold something in our hands. Muriel Bailly introduces this new series about museum handling collections by looking at the sense of touch.
Touch is one of the five traditional senses which allow us to interact with our environment. It’s perhaps better described as a multitude of senses which encompasses all physical sensations felt though the skin. Through the stimulation of neural receptors on our skin, hair, tongue and throat we are able to interpret the world around us, gathering millions of bits of information from our surrounding environment, without us necessarily noticing.
For instance, as you read this you might be touching the mouse of your computer or swiping the screen of your device, feeling the smoothness of the surface with one hand and reaching for your cup of tea with the other, without looking away from the screen. This simple, every day action is filling your brain with sensory information. Yet, you probably didn’t realise how much your sense of touch was being activated before reading those words.
Within a fraction of a second the touch receptors on your skin are able to send electrical pulses to your neurons which subsequently send the stimulus to your spinal cord which finally sends it to your brain, giving you the accompanying image and information of the objects you are touching: size, shape, texture and so on. When talking about touch, most people might picture themselves touching objects with their hands. Although hands are the most common and straightforward way to experience touch, and gain sensory information, we are able to gather touch related sensory information with the whole of our body, including our mouth.
In fact, we mostly investigate our environment with our hands and mouth, which means that most neurons responsible for sending touch sensory information to our brain are located in these two areas. As a result, our brain perceives our body as being mostly a huge head, an even bigger mouth and two gigantic hands and each side. This representation of the body within the brain is called a sensory homunculus.
By using our hands and mouth we can learn a lot from our environment. Is this object big, small, cold, warm, smooth, rough? Does this food or drink irritate my tongue? From a very young age we start exploring the world through touch. Babies naturally chew on everything they find as a way to interact with their environment. While growing up, shape and colour recognition games help us to develop and stimulate our learning abilities. By touching the shapes ‘triangle’, ‘square’, etc. we learn to understand and recognise them.
Touch undeniably pays an important part in the way we acquire knowledge. But acknowledging the importance of touch in individual’s learning presents museums with a challenging reality. As institutions, museums aim to provide access to their collections while at the same time preserving those collections. How can we ensure a long lasting future for our collections while enabling visitors to experience and interact with them?
You could argue that museums are nonsensical places by nature. Most objects in museums were never meant to last forever, kept behind closed doors in glass cabinets and cut off from their original context. Why do we make such efforts to keep objects often meant by their owner or maker to only last for a set period of time and to serve a very specific purpose? Maybe it would seem strange to the objects’ contemporaries. After all, I would be surprised to see a selfie stick ending up in a museum one day, but it might tell future generations a lot about us. Museums have made incredible efforts to preserve their collections so we can all learn from and react to them.
Edouard Manet would have never painted his controversial and incredibly famous Olympia if he had not seen Titian’s Venus of Urbino first. Marcel Duchamps would not have produced L.H.O.O.Q if Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa had been lost. And the list goes on. But as museums of the 21st century, how can we optimise the relationship between museum collections and visitors? How can we offer our audiences the possibility to fully engage with our collections while preserving those very objects?
That’s where handling collections come in. Nowadays, most museums have handling collections which they use for different purposes, e.g. school workshops, gallery activities, etc. Although the use of handling objects is becoming more and more common there is still, sometimes, the persisting idea that ‘touch objects’ are less valuable and a lesser version of what’s behind the glass. This seems harsh to me.
Handling collections are often a mixture of replicas, original objects sourced online, accessioned objects from the museum collections and commissioned objects. Having used all of the above for public engagement, I can assure you that all types of objects can provide amazing experiences and spark great conversation.
What is actually important is the story behind the objects and how you bring it to life for the public. Yes, it feels incredibly special to touch genuine, old museum objects but the opportunity to touch an exact replica would still give you a better idea and understanding of the object than just looking at it behind a glass window. Depending on the object, sometimes a copy is the only way to interact with it.
Museums take very different approaches to their handling collections. Some build their collection almost exclusively with genuine objects such as the British Museum; some have more robust replicas made like the Geffrye Museum. The use of the handling collection varies as well from one institution to another. It can be mainly used for school groups like at the Museum of London while still forming a part of the permanent collection such as at the Horniman Museum.
During our recently completed development project, Wellcome Collection revised and updated its handling collection having explored all these options. There’s a multitude of ways to build and use a handling collection, offering incredible opportunities to create more significant experiences for visitors. In this series I will explore the ins and outs, and DOs and DON’Ts, of handling collections, revealing their full potential.
Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.