One of the more surprising things that I have had to deal with while working in museums is people asking if they can touch the art work. For future reference, 90% of the time you can NOT touch the work in a museum. (I say 90% of the time because sometime art can be interactive, but that is a different post).
Growing up, I was always taught by my mother to keep my hands to myself and to look at the art. Getting to close or even accidentally touching art in a museum or gallery is a literal fear of mine. On a very memorable visit to the Kimbell Museum of Art my younger cousin tried to touch a Michelangelo painting. Security, my mom and I almost died from shock and her because of her actions. Museum culture is not something that everyone is raised in. I went to museums almost every weekend when I was younger because it was free and my mom needed someplace to take me. I grew up in museums and therefore grew up with the culture. Working in museums has made me realize that not everyone grew up that way.
The amount of visitors that I have met that think they are allowed to touch the art in the museum is staggering, but I’m not that surprised by it. Here’s why, museums are making actual efforts now a days to be more welcoming and inclusive to all people. They aren’t just for the upperclass and more exhibits have connections to many different people’s own experiences. Therefore, a lot of the new visitors, including the adults, might be visiting an art museum for the first time in their lives. It is also important to factor in the mindset of science and kids museums. In those spheres, visitors are encouraged to interact directly with the exhibit. Going from, “Touch everything!’ to “Touch nothing!” can be tricky.
But museums are finding ways to kind of counter this and embrace the touch phenomenon themselves by using touch carts. Like the names says, a touch cart has object that are related to the pieces in the galleries, whether by being copies fo the paintings or materials that might have been used to make the work, or even smaller works from the artist that they didn’t like. There’s also more programs that cater the museum for people with low vision or who are blind. Some institutions, like the Met, give visitors protective gloves and allow them to touch the sculptures in the collection or they have copies of painting that are raised with different textures and patters for people to feel.
As I said before, 90% of the time, you can not touch the art in a museum. But there are some exceptions. The museum culture I grew up with where touching in the museum was not allowed is still there, but its also evolving so that more people can enjoy the museum as much as I do.